Chednga Oraon lived in Raikera village in the Gumla district of Jharkhand. He had just turned 55 years old in 2021. On November 9 the same year, he stepped out, telling his family that he was going to cut crops on his farm. But he never returned. Following a frantic search, his body parts and his cycle were found the next day, in the nearby Raikera forest. His 22-year-old son Sankar Oraon told Mongabay-India, that his father had stepped into the forest to pick material to tie the cut crop when he had a fatal encounter with an elephant.
This is not a stray incident in Jharkhand where several villages lie in close proximity to the forest areas. The human-elephant conflict has been rising here, leading to the loss of both human and elephant lives.
Parts of elephant corridors pass through the three neighbouring states of Jharkhand, Odisha and Chattisgarh. Wildlife Trust of India’s 2017 report titled “Right to Passage highlights the issue of rising conflict around elephant corridors.
According to the report, a total land area of 21,000 sq km covering these three adjacent states along with southern West Bengal, is where elephants primarily move about. There were 3,128 elephants recorded in this area, as per the 2017 Elephant Census. That is only 10% of the country’s elephant population. Yet, 45% of human deaths caused during the conflict with elephants were recorded from this region.
Chednga Oraon’s cousin, 55-year-old Karma Oraon told Mongabay-India, “About 15 years ago, elephants did not cause much damage and we did not fear them. But now, we always remain in fear.” He added that elephants visit human settlement areas more frequently in the season when crops are fully grown.
The data also hints at why fear runs high among the communities living close to the identified elephant corridors and forest areas. Over the last decade, the cases of elephant-human conflict have escalated in Jharkhand. According to a report, in Jharkhand, over the last 11 years, there were 800 human deaths due to conflict with elephants. Similarly, over the last eight years, there were around 60 elephant deaths in such conflicts in the state.
Family members of Oraon, whom they lost to human-elephant conflict, attribute deaths such as his, sometimes to the elephants, sometimes to the declining forests and sometimes, to their own fate. But recent information indicates that an increase in unregulated mining activities in the area could be contributing to the conflict and resultant deaths.
Jharkhand has been a hotspot for elephants in north India. But, in the last decade, the surge of unregulated and illegal mining and a spree of infrastructure development, have posed new challenges to the free movement of elephants.
Due to coal mining, the habitat of elephants has been impacted, a state forest department official, requesting anonymity, told Mongabay-India. There are seven coal mining projects operating in the central Jharkhand region where the government, as well as privately-owned companies, are undertaking mining activities. These mining setups create gaps in forest areas. When elephants, moving through forests, reach these areas, they either move further towards human settlements or fall in mining pits and hurt themselves, the official said.
This information came to light during the preparation of a mining map in the area, said the official. When coal blocks are allocated for mining, mining maps are created. These maps are then submitted to the Wasteland Development Board which further submits them to the state government and then the central government.
The official further said the non-scientific operations of coal mines, lack of assessment of the impact of mining and the creation of “gap areas” in forests are the prime reasons for an increase in elephant-human conflict.
Consequently, if such activities are allowed to continue, the elephant corridors will be destroyed completely.
Mongabay-India also spoke in depth to Nitish Priyadarshi, Environmentalist and Associate Professor of Geology at Ranchi University. He said, “Districts such as Hazaribag, Dhanbad and Bokaro come under the central Jharkhand region where coal mining is rampant and this has harmed elephants.” According to him, elephants have a good memory and the memory of their movement route remains from generation to generation. The drying up of ponds also adds to the distress of the elephants.
Raghav Raghunandan, General Secretary of Coalfields Labour Union is an expert on coal issues and supports the argument. “In the mining contracts, the miners agree to reclaim the mined areas after the mining there is over,” Raghunandan said. “But most companies do not do this. If the mining companies need to continue mining in the area, they fill the mined plot before moving on to the next. But when there is no further plan for mining, the excavated area is not usually filled.”
Dayashankar Srivastava who was a member of the State Wildlife Board in undivided Bihar also validated this. Srivastava who is based in Palamu told Mongabay-India, “It is only due to unregulated mining activities that our elephants have reached Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.”
“Elephants are the original inhabitants of these areas before us,” Srivastava said. “If you are mining out such areas please provide compensation to them, give them adequate trees and do not obstruct their movement paths.”
According to Srivastava, there are four types of elephants in India based on the region where they are found. The first is the Terai elephant that resides close to Nepal or Himachal. Second is the Assamese and the third is the southern elephant.
The fourth is the Mayurbhanj elephants found in central India, primarily in Jharkhand’s Singhbhum areas and Odisha’s Mayurbhanj areas. The Saranda forest of Jharkhand’s Singhbhum area that spreads to Odisha has been an elephant area for elephants for years. But due to iron ore mining, the movement of the elephants in this area is impacted.
According to Srivastava, there is a need to make long term and short term plans for elephant movement. An immediate plan would be for the government to plant bamboo trees in the forests of Saranda, Kolhan, Podahaat, Saraikela-Kharsawan. Bamboo is a popular food for elephants. The plant’s density has dwindled in these areas. In the long term, the relevant officials and other wildlife experts should be given specific responsibilities.
Corridors not notified
To protect the elephants plans to create elephant corridors were mooted but there has been no progress so far. In the 2017 Right to Passage report of Wildlife Trust of India, elephant corridors are traditional, narrow and natural passages of the elephants. This ensures that the elephants move in such paths without disturbing the human settlements.
There are 108 identified elephant corridors, as per the report, out of which 14 are in Jharkhand. But none of them has been officially notified by the government.
Raman Sukumar has written several books and articles on elephants and is a professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. He told Mongabay-India, “There are specific routes that elephants use to move from one place to the other. Wildlife Trust of India has mapped 101 such elephant corridors in India.
In states like Odisha and Jharkhand in east-central India, the situation is volatile and confusing because many elephants are breaking their traditional routes and moving towards other states such as West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.
When approached for comments, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) Rajiv Ranjan told Mongabay-India, “India has been working on the issue and there had been several committees to take up the work but till now no concrete action has been done.” He also accepted that mining and development works affected the movement of elephants.
When asked about the migration of Jharkhand elephants into other states like Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, he said, “You can say that.” Srivastava said that elephant corridors have not been notified because it could pose threats to the rampant mining and unscientific mining.
In the November 22, 2018 report of the 15th Steering Committee of Project Elephant, elephant rich states were asked to notify corridors and give them the status of eco-sensitive zones as per the Environment (Protection) Act of 1986 or as a community reserve as per the Wild Life (Protection) Act of 1972.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.