Jowab Mili stands amid the ruins of his house. Photo: Rohin Kumar
- Elephants enter villages because their traditional corridors have been blocked or lost to habitat degradation or because there is no food left in their natural range.
- To reduce human-elephant conflict in the area, officials must restore elephants’ food sources and habitats and ensure they’re well-connected.
- For rural communities in the area, restored habitats are also required to absorb the shock of natural disasters and help maintain healthy soil and water tables.
A downhearted Jowab Mili arranges the sticks and boards of his shattered bamboo house. Until a few hours ago, the place sheltered a family of four. Last night, an elephant destroyed Mili’s crops, demolished the house and ate around a quintal of harvested paddy from a granary nearby. “Everything is gone,” Mili said, even as other villagers offered to support him and rebuild his bamboo hutment.
“The animal did eat the grains that could have fed the family for at least six to eight months,” according to Mili. “I could have also sold some grains … but all that is gone.”
This isn’t the first time an elephant has come into Purani Bordikorai and destroyed crops and grains. For more than a decade now, elephants have been regular visitors to the villages in Balipara tehsil of Assam’s Sonitpur district, to the detriment of their poor residents. But the forest department hasn’t taken cognisance of the problem.
Around a year ago, 18-year-old Bilu Sona lost his life in an attack by a group of elephants in Tarabari village of Chariduar tehsil, Sonitpur. “Bilu’s family didn’t get compensation nor did any official visit the site,” Paksang Payeng, Bilu’s acquaintance, said. “His father is now 60 and his son’s loss has left him helpless as well as hopeless.”
In July this year, Assam’s environment minister Parimal Suklabaidya informed the state assembly that in the last decade, 812 people had died in human-elephant conflicts. The most deaths, 115, were reported from Udalguri, followed by 103 in Sonitpur.
According to experts, severe habitat destruction in a very short period, followed by organised encroachment, has intensified human-animal conflicts in the area. Earlier, elephants mainly damaged the crops during the paddy season, but now it’s throughout the year.
Villagers of Tarabari have also spotted leopards, but they say no lives have been lost in conflicts with them. “Leopards usually attack grazing animals, such as goats and cows,” Jermia Muchahary, a gardener of the local nursery in Tarabari, said. “Until today, leopards haven’t attacked any villagers, but if the forest degradation continues, deaths due to leopards should not surprise us.”
The locals have typically brandished fires, beat tin cans and burst firecrackers to ward off elephants. Most houses and paddy fields in the region are also fenced with wire, in haphazard fashion, and electrified. Neither strategy has proved useful, however, and are also hurtful to the elephants, which the villagers are not happy with. The number of casualties have gone down but their losses remain irreparable.
“Now, elephants too have innovated some brilliant skills, as in they break the live-wire fencing posts by holding the top of the wooden posts by their trunk,” Bhupen Payeng, a local who has had two violent encounters with elephants, explained. “They gently break the wooden posts in the middle with their feet, avoiding the live-wire, and easily get to the paddy fields.”
Loss of biodiversity
According to data by Global Forests Watch, in 2010, Sonitpur had 68,800 ha of natural forests, over 16% of its land area. In 2020 alone, it lost 119 ha. A 2010 study by Guwahati University professor Prashanta Kumar Saikia also revealed Sonitpur to be the most affected district of human-elephant conflict, followed closely by Golaghat and, less closely, Goalpara.
“We shifted to Tarabari from Kokrajhar in the 1980s. It used to have dense forests. All our needs were fulfilled by these forests,” Seropina Basumatary, from Tarabari, recalled. “Over the years, we have seen massive tree-felling and deforestation. Now there is scarcely any jungle and animals [get up to] the villages in search of food.”
Tarabari and its nearby forest areas were once dominated by the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), a prominent insurgent group. So during the 1990s and until the early 2000s, forest areas were encroached in organised fashion in the name of ‘strategic’ reasons, villagers said. However, they also appreciated the NDFB for making tree-cutting and timber-smuggling impossible.
In one article entitled ‘Human Wildlife Conflict in Assam’, noted naturalist Anwaruddin Choudhury highlighted the large-scale habitat destruction in Assam and in Sonitpur district in particular. He wrote:
“By 2006, at least 60% of the prime elephant habitat in the area was lost. The result was an unbelievable magnitude of human-elephant conflict. Human deaths increased to exceed even 30 per year while more than 30 elephants were poisoned in 2001 and 2002 in Sonitpur and adjacent areas in retaliation.”
Seropina Basumatary’s husband Baron Basumatary was killed by an elephant in 2008. “Elephants had been coming to our mustard field regularly. We used to [head out at] night, sometimes with lanterns, sticks and firecrackers, to scare them off, but all that was of little help,” she said. “Elephants had already caused massive damage to our crops and it was an unfortunate day when my husband became a victim.”
“We don’t know about any compensation, we haven’t got any.”
According to experts, elephants enter villages because their traditional corridors have been blocked or lost to habitat degradation or because there is no food left in their natural range. So to reduce human-elephant conflict in the area, they add, officials must restore elephants’ food sources and habitats, make sure they’re well-connected, and install buffers between people and animals.
Saurav Malhotra, of the Balipara Foundation, a non-profit working in the region, stressed on habitat restoration. “Restoring habitats also helps to fight climate change on two levels. On a broader, systemic level, restored habitats are better at drawing down carbon than fragmented landscapes, which are carbon emitters,” he explained.
“But for rural communities, restoring habitats is vitally important for immediate resilience: healthy ecosystems are shock absorbers for natural disasters, especially floods, and are critical for maintaining healthy soils and water tables when both changing rainfall patterns and warming temperatures are actively depleting them.”
The divisional forest officer of Sonitpur declined to comment on the issues raised saying he wasn’t the “right person” to comment on them.
Rohin Kumar is a roving reporter and author attempting to chronicle humanitarian crises. His areas of interest are environmental justice and human rights.