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18 Dec 2016

HOME AND AWAY- Man Animal conflict

HT, 18 Dec 2016, Kolkata: One out of every four people killed by elephants across India in the past one year was from Bengal, making it the state witnessing the highest number of manelephant conflicts in the entire country.
The conflict between man and elephants in south Bengal, which started in the late 1980’s, has been steadily rising almost every year. But over the past few years the numbers have shot up drastically to assume alarming proportions.
While 67 people were killed by elephants in 2011 – ’12, the number of casualties rose to 89 in 2014-15 in West Bengal. The death toll increased further to 108 in 2015-16 in the state, according to data tabled in the Lok Sabha earlier this week by Anil Madhav Dave, Union minister of state (independent charge) for environment forest and climate change.
The numbers recorded are the highest in the country. In 2015, as many as 413 people were killed only by elephants. Elephants kill more people in India than all the other wild animals. The ministry’s data reveals that only eight people were killed by tigers in the whole country during 2015-16.
HT takes a closer look at the problem that had even left chief minister Mamata Banerjee unnerved a few months ago. Banerjee had not just pulled up the state forest department but a divisional forest officer was also transferred as jumbos continued to wreck havoc in the state.
Forest officers say that even though the man-elephant conflict in north Bengal has been there for long and is now more of a chronic problem since the region is a known elephant habitat, the menace in south Bengal is more recent and acute. It was not observed even in the early 1980’s.
“Unlike the north, south Bengal had never been an elephant habitat. Elephants started coming here from Bihar since 1987. Initially they used to return home after staying here for a few days. But over the years they started migrating deeper into West Bengal and even started staying over for longer periods. And finally, a splinter group made south Bengal its permanent habitat,” said Subhankar Sengupta conservator of forests (wildlife, headquarters).
The remaining herd migrated from Jharkahnd to Odisha through West Bengal and then took the same route back every year. Things were going fine till situations started changing in both Odisha and Jharkhand.
While forests in Jharkhand started thinning because of mining activities, more recently, Odisha blocked the passage of elephants by digging canals and putting up electric fences. With their migratory routes blocked, the herds started staying into the state for extended periods resulting in more man-animal conflicts.
“The herds which used to spend around two to four months in Bengal are now staying back for more than 10 months in the state. This has resulted in increased man-animal conflicts,” said Pradeep Vyas, chief wildlife warden of the state.
On an average, the maximum number of people killed by elephants in south Bengal even a decade ago was around 40 a year. The number has shot up to 71 in 2015-16. Even though West Bengal is home to just two percent of India’s elephant population, the state accounts for nearly 20% of the human death toll. According to wildlife experts, this is an alarming phenomenon.
While the herds were changing migratory behaviour, the joint-forest-management in West Bengal had started yielding results. The health of forests in Bankura, Purulia and West Midnapore districts had slowly improved, thus providing ample shelter to the herds. Agriculture also improved in the region due to sustained irrigation. Since the elephants found enough shelter and fodder they simply refused to go back.
“What aggravated the situation was the presence of solitary males. Elephants live in a matriarchal society. Females stay in a group with the babies while the males are driven out once they grow up. These solitary males do most of the damage. They go on the rampage on agricultural land, damages property and kill humans,” said Sengupta.
Even last Thursday, at least 12 such solitary males were reported to be roaming in the forests in the Bankura-North division.
“North Bengal faces a different kind of a problem. Bengal has some identified elephant corridors and most of these are in north Bengal. These corridors pass mostly through tea gardens and are dissected by railway tracks at several places. Most of the animal casualties take place in north Bengal because the animals are hit by trains while crossing the tracks,” said a senior official.
The problem was further compounded after Nepal put up fences to stop the elephants from entering the country. Earlier, elephants were even tortured in Nepal.
The state forest department has already taken up the problem created by the ditches and fences in Odisha with the Union ministry claiming that the elephant is a National Heritage Animal and states should ensure its free movement. Till date, however, nothing has changed.
“We have also taken a series of steps to address man-elephant conflict in Bengal. While on one hand an SMS-based early warning system has been developed to alert villagers about elephant herds, on the other, we have started preparing dossiers to track the daily movement of elephants. This will help us identify rogues and elephants having problems,” said Vyas.
An Elephant Movement Coordination Committee (EMCC) was set up two months ago especially for south Bengal. The committee is monitoring the daily movement of the herds and even solitary ones. This is being done to ensure that unnecessary obstructions are not caused and elephants can move freely. Elephants when obstructed repeatedly become irritated which results in increased conflicts.
“In order to ensure free movement of elephants we have started ‘Barrier Mapping’ through which all kinds of barriers, including trenches and fences, would be removed. We would be engaging experts for this,” said Vyas.
Forest department people are being trained on how to identify rogue elephants and immobilise an elephant when it starts causing damage. These staff will act as the first line of defence before experts reach a spot. The state is procuring at least 10 tranquilizer guns. Two rescue and rehabilitation centres are also coming up in north and south Bengal.

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