About three years ago, the silence of a quiet evening was broken for Dinesh Das as an adult male wild elephant entered the courtyard of his tin-roofed house in Rani, a village in the Kamrup (rural) district of Assam. The village is surrounded by the Rani Reserve Forest, an elephant habitat. “I panicked. Imagine being confronted by a jumbo,” Das told Mongabay-India as he narrated the incident.

The elephant smashed the trunk of Das’s hatchback, a grey-blue Maruti Suzuki 800. “I think it either used its trunk or foot to thrash it,” Das recalled, adding that he was hiding inside his house throughout the time the tusker was around. Dents are still visible in the now-repaired car.

The elephant also went on to feast on some freshly harvested and chopped sugarcane that used to grow in Das’s farm back then. It also devoured paddy grains stored inside a large round basket made of bamboo. It then slowly made its way out, through the rice fields, into the forest.

Instances of human-elephant encounters resulting in conflicts are not rare in and around villages in the Rani Reserve Forest of Assam. In the recent past, casualties on both sides have been reported by the local media in the area.

About 17 km east of Das’s house lies Deepor beel – a freshwater lake and wetland in Guwahati city in the Kamrup (metropolitan) district of Assam – and the only Ramsar site in the state.

An ongoing conservation effort launched by forest officials and local volunteers in 2013 has saved elephants. The situation is different from the conflicts that residents of other villages near Rani Reserve Forest face.

For years, elephants from the Rani Reserve Forest have made Deepor beel their final pit stop. The elephants use the lake for bathing and consume its nutrition-packed aquatic vegetation, such as water hyacinths and makhana (foxnut). After resting at Deepor beel, the elephants usually make their way back into the Rani Reserve Forest.

Over the past few years, Deepor beel, and its surrounding area, also called the Deepor beel wildlife sanctuary, has undergone massive urbanisation. Local community members say that the development they have witnessed is “unimaginable”.

Dinesh Das at his home in Rani in Kamrup (rural) district of Assam where he had an encounter with a wild elephant about three years ago. Photo credit: Sanskrita Bharadwaj

While the wildlife sanctuary is part of a larger elephant habitat, a railway line and a busy road leading to the Guwahati airport have fragmented the habitat affecting elephant movement in the area.

According to Guwahati forest department officials, until 2013, 14 elephants died in train accidents at the Deepor beel wildlife sanctuary. But since then, there has been just one such incident in 2019. According to Pramod Kalita, a local conservationist from the area, they managed to save the elephant in 2019, got it treated and released it back into the wild. “But the elephant died in the forest due to his injuries.”

‘Friends of elephants’

Forest guards stationed near Deepor beel coordinate with a few local volunteers, colloquially known as hati bondhu (friends of elephants). When these hati bondhus hear elephant movement in the forest, they inform the forest guards, who then inform the station master to either stop the train or slow its speed.

“These elephants come to rest, bathe and eat at the wetland,” said Lakhindra Teron, one of the local volunteers, who has been working on saving elephants since 2013, adding that the station master announces caution to the driver that elephants are passing by and the train has to stop.

In 2013, when elephants were dying due to train hits in the area, a forest range officer urged village residents to coordinate with the forest department to save elephants from dying. When it began, around 74 village residents joined in. Slowly, many of them left, and now there are only four, including Teron, who continues to work as a hati bondhu.

During the coordination process, the biggest challenge for local volunteers and forest officials is informing the railway. “There are some train drivers who don’t abide by the signal to slow down,” said Kalita.

Mainul Haque, a forest guard, said there is no respite when elephants are at the beel, especially during late evenings. “We have to be alert the entire night,” Haque said.

Jayashree Naiding Tonk, divisional forest officer of Guwahati Wildlife Division, said, “The local volunteers help us monitor and surveil the passage of animals. We have been able to prevent elephant deaths in the last few years.”

Last stage

Guwahati city’s draining system is linked to Deepor beel and three rivers – Basistha, Bahini, Bharalu – confluence at the wetland. Apart from this, a 24-hectare garbage dumping ground lies to the east of the lake in Boragaon. The city generates around 550 tonnes of waste every day, and improper disposal measures have been taking a toll on the beel.

This has affected the beel’s aquatic plants, and the water has become toxic, which has led to elephants spending less time in the beel. Earlier, elephants would arrive and stay for two-three nights, but lately, they do not stay beyond a few hours. “Deepor beel is in its last stages if the government does not take appropriate steps to conserve it,” said conservationist Pramod Kalita.

Dinesh Das of Rani, whose farm was raided by elephants, said that the jumbos are neither getting their food in Deepor beel nor have enough forest land. Therefore, they are now raiding human settlements for food.

Scarcity of land

Das also added that the forest close to his home, Rani Reserve Forest, is going through rampant illegal felling of trees. “The government should be actively working towards restoring our forests. Where else will the elephants go?” Das asked.

Conservationist Kaushik Barua, an honorary wildlife warden under the Assam Forest Department, explained that the issue of human-elephant conflict is centred on the scarcity of land. The human population is increasing fast, which has pushed them to move closer to forests and elephant habitats for settlement. “If the habitat shrinks over time, you will have elephants spilling into human settlements,” Barua said.

To deal with this perpetual problem, land issues have to be figured out, noted Nitin Sekar, the national lead for elephant conservation for World Wide Fund for Nature-India. “The Forest Rights Act needs to be properly implemented and the states need to negotiate directly and properly with private owners and communities to ensure that elephants can safely use corridors connecting forests and protected areas.”

Deepor beel wildlife sanctuary. Photo credit: Sanskrita Bharadwaj

Human-elephant conflict

On March 11, a wild elephant died of electrocution at Kaliabor in Nagaon district of Assam. Carcasses of two elephants, one pregnant and the other a male calf, were found in December 2021, at Borbhetagaon in the Karbi Anglong district of Assam, bordering the Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve.

In 2021, 70 elephant deaths were recorded in Assam. According to official figures, 24 of these deaths were due to natural causes; three were because of electrocution, another three were due to poisoning, four were through train accidents, one was due to injury, 18 were due to lightning, and 17 was due to “unknown” causes.

The hati bondhu volunteers who have been working with the forest guards to save elephants at Deepor beel wildlife sanctuary barely receive any compensation barring a small honorarium fee, said Teron, embarrassed to mention the amount.

But, it Is not the money. Often, the respect that local community members like Teron bear for the elephant, motivates them to protect it. Many years ago, when an elephant died due to a train accident in the area, a mass funeral ceremony was organised in its honour.

Sometime in 2013-’14, Kalia Boro, a middle-aged man from Deepor beel wildlife sanctuary, got knocked down by a train while rescuing an elephant from being hit by it.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.