Stopping the 'trespassers' The Narengi Army Cantonment in Guwahati late last year decided to set up spikes around the boundaries of its campus. The objective of the spikes was to deter the elephants from the nearby Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary from 'trespassing' into the boundaries. But as news of elephants dying of septicemia came into the fore, concerns were quickly raised.
Since December last year, two elephants have died while some others have been injured. The first casualty was reported on the day of Christmas last year while the second one was reported in February this year. According to the Divisional Forest Officer in charge of the region, the bloodstains on the spikes prove to the fact that the cruel 'deterrent' had in fact proven to be a murder weapon. Ultimately under pressure from activists as well as the State Forest Department, the spikes were removed, just yesterday.
Man vs. the rest Human-animal conflicts in general and human-elephant conflicts, in particular, have become increasingly severe over the last couple of decades. This problem is extremely complex with several dimensions to it. Uncontrolled increase in human population is obviously the prime reason for this phenomenon. As humans clear forests to set up settlements and other structures, the habitat of animals is bound to come under pressure. This problem is further compounded in case of large mammals like elephants, which require massive amounts of land and food base to sustain their herds. What makes the problem further complex is the fact that elephants regularly migrate in search of food. This is understandable, given the amount of food they consume; forests would be quickly degraded if they were to stay in one place.
But along the 'elephant corridor' are houses, roads, rail lines, villages, and even towns. When elephants encounter paddy fields or villages along their way, the result is easily predictable. Either poor villagers lose their standing crops or even their houses in the face of approaching herds or elephants lose their lives in the face of attacking villagers. Such encounters have been rising with every passing year. Perhaps at no point in history was there so much mutual hatred between man and animal.
Roads, rail lines etc. It is not as if villages or settlements are the only threat. Linear infrastructure, which basically consists of rail lines, roadways, electricity transmission lines etc. have proven to be another major reason for the deaths of elephants. In response to a question asked in the Rajya Sabha, the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change replied that 49 elephants were killed in rail accidents between 2016 and 2018. West Bengal and Assam together accounted for 37 out of the 49 deaths. What is even more dismal is that the number of deaths in Assam had been rising with every passing year. This has happened despite the fact that several study groups and commissions have been constituted over the years to suggest solutions for mitigation for such problems.
Elephant censuses and all that The prevention of man-elephant conflict had been a major component of the Project Elephant. The Project initially achieved some notable success. From 2005 to 2012, the population of elephants increased by nearly 8,000. However, there was a decrease in the next census in 2017. Elephant population which was estimated to be between 29,391 and 30,711 in 2012 slipped down to 27,312 in 2017. This decrease is clearly a result of the encroachment of humans into lands which had hitherto belonged to wild animals. According to the journal 'Diversity and Distributions', 41.8% of elephant habitat will be lost by the end of the century. Perhaps even one world is not big enough for two great giants. In this tug-of-war, humans might eventually emerge as the survivors, but at what cost?