The months of March and April are busy for the people of Masiyari, a village in Madhya Pradesh, adjacent to a forest. It is the season for the mahua flower collection. Everyone races to collect as many flowers as possible in these two months which they then sell and make money.

This year, the fragrance of mahua flowers spreads through the village, just as it does every year, but the atmosphere is completely different. Instead of the hustle-bustle and rush, there is an aura of mourning and fear. Two people from the village, who went to pick mahua flowers early in the morning on April 5, were killed in an elephant attack.

As per the forest department’s assessments, two herds of elephants, one with seven tuskers and another with nine, have been recorded in and around two villages of the Shahdol district.

“We hardly make a living from farming, but we can fulfil our hobbies by picking mahua,” said Babi Baiga, a resident of Masiyari. “With the earnings we get by selling mahua, we buy clothes among other things, every year. But this year, we are afraid to go to the forest.”

Baiga’s family collects three to four quintals of mahua every year, but it is difficult to collect even one quintal this time. “Because of the movement of the elephants, forest officials have been stationed in the village in large numbers,” he said. “Even if someone dares to go to the forest, we are stopped by them as a precaution.”

Lives lost

Masiyari village of Shahdol district had never seen wild elephants before.

“I am 47 years old, but I had never seen a wild elephant in the village before this,” said Baiga during a conversation with Mongabay-India. “Once a saint (mahatma) came to the village with a pet elephant in my childhood. That was the first time I ever saw an elephant.”

There is also an atmosphere of mourning in Bansa village, located next to Masiyari village. Three people lost their lives because of an attack by an elephant, said Prabhuram Baiga, a village resident. This incident took place on April 6, a day after the fatal incident in Masiyari.

Mohani, another neighbouring village, is also witnessing elephant movement in the nearby forest, posing threat to the safety of the villagers. “No one has died here, but the elephants destroyed two huts in the village,” said Kusum Singh Kavar (54) in a conversation with Mongabay-India. “People are afraid to go to collect mahua. If this continues, we will incur huge financial losses. There is a risk to our lives too.”

Kavar is also the sarpanch (village head) of Mohani.

In 2018, a herd of about 40 elephants moved from Chhattisgarh to Madhya Pradesh, and it was the first time that the state had an elephant colony. Photo credit: Alok Prakash Putul

“We first saw a herd of elephants last year,” he said. “This year too, a herd of tuskers came to our village to drink and bathe in the dam. There is an atmosphere of panic, and we are worried that the elephants might come towards the village.”

“I have unlocked the village’s community hall and have spread a carpet,” he added. “People living on the edge of the forest are being advised on loudspeakers to come to the village in the evening.”

Mohammad Sahajan, an elderly farmer from Khairaha village in Shahdol, saw an elephant on April 13 at midnight.

“I was sleeping in the courtyard,” Sahajan told Mongabay-India. “Suddenly, I hear the noise of leaves rustling. My buffalo tied near me also woke up. A giant elephant was standing in front of me.” However, the elephant did not attack Sahajan, but destroyed the tomato and sugarcane crops in his field, adjacent to his house.

Warning signs

Mansoor Khan, a Chhattisgarh-based elephant expert, says that based on his observations he feels that these attacks by the elephants are not done in anger. It seems to be more of a warning that the elephants are giving to the people.

He considers these incidents to be tragic accidents. “If humans go near elephants, the elephants in turn give a warning in defence,” he said. “If they attack in anger, they mutilate the dead body. People of both villages had gone to collect mahua in the night and wandered close to the herd of elephants.”

Khan said one of the solutions to this problem is to make people more aware. “After Chhattisgarh, I have now started making people aware by distributing pamphlets in the villages falling in the elephant movement zone of MP,” he said. Khan is also a member of the Achanakmar Tiger Reserve Advisory Committee.

Apart from Shahdol, there is movement of elephants in many other districts of MP that are adjoining Chhattisgarh, including Anuppur, Umaria, Sidhi and Dindori. These elephants do not belong to the forests of Madhya Pradesh but have migrated from forests of the neighbouring state, Chhattisgarh.

Mansoor Khan has started making people aware by distributing pamphlets in the villages falling in the elephant movement zone of Madhya Pradesh. Photo credit: Mansoor Khan

“Recently, Shahdol and Umaria districts faced the brunt of human-elephant conflict,” said JS Chauhan, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Wildlife, of Madhya Pradesh. “These elephants have just entered Madhya Pradesh from Chhattisgarh.”

“As per our assessment, there are two herds of elephants consisting of seven and nine members,” Chauhan said. “The elephants attacked villagers who had entered the forest to collect mahua.”

“Two teams are monitoring the movement of elephants,” said Chauhan. “One is following the movement, and other team is anticipating the next move of the herd based on drone footage. We are advising villagers to not to enter in the forest to collect mahua and follow the warnings of the forest department.”

Human-elephant interaction

Elephants typically enter Madhya Pradesh in search of food and shelter. In 2018, a herd of about 40 elephants moved from Chhattisgarh to Madhya Pradesh and it was the first time that the state had an elephant colony.

The forest department formed an expert committee in 2021 to look into the Human-Elephant Conflict and suggest solutions.

According to the committee’s report, 12 people have lost their lives during these conflicts since 2018. According to media reports, the elephants killed five people in April 2022.

“Last year, we found that some villagers are setting the forest ablaze as they try to shoo away the elephants with fire. The fire spread in Bandhavgarh forest in the year for the same reason. The government set up a committee to find a solution to the HEC problem,” Abhilash Khandekar, a committee member and a member of Madhya Pradesh state wildlife board, told Mongabay-India.

The then Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Wildlife, Alok Kumar was the chair of the committee. The committee, in addition to Khandekar, also included elephant specialist R Sukumar, field director of Bandhavgarh tiger reserve BS Annigeri and representatives nominated from World Wide Fund-India, Wildlife Trust of India and the Indian Institute of Forest Management.

The committee submitted its report to the Madhya Pradesh government in January. Mongabay-India has accessed the nine-page report.

“The single most important reason elephants enter human use areas is to feed on agriculture and plantation crops,” an expert committee report said. “The second reason is for water, with damage to property and human life arising as accidental damage from trampling or feeding on crops by the elephants.”

The report suggested that “the short-term goal should be to equip the forest department with trained staff and material to combat human-elephant conflict”.

The committee also recommended forming an elephant reserve in the elephant movement area. It further recommended considering habitat modification in elephant conservation areas, such as the proposed Project Elephant reserve with a scientific plan focusing on grassland management where natural grasslands once existed.

Domesticated and wild elephants meeting at Bandhavgarh. Photo credit: Satyendra Kumar Tiwari

“We have invited Wildlife Trust to organise our staff’s training and awareness program,” said BS Annigeri, Field Director of Bandhavgarh tiger reserve. “We are also circulating information about dos and don’ts in villages near the tiger reserve.”

“Forest department is also implementing traditional practices such as munadi (beat of drum) to inform villagers and disperse the elephants from the village area,” said Principal Chief Conservator of Forests Chauhan.

Chauhan emphasised on the training of locals as well. “We have seen that elephant-dominant states such as Kerala, and the northeastern states have adapted to living with the elephants,” he added. “Their crop pattern is also different from ours. We will learn to live with the elephant with time.”

Mining in Chhattisgarh

According to the elephant census in Chhattisgarh in 2017, there are 398 elephants in the state. However, according to estimates, the latest figure could be up to 500. The number of elephants is increasing in the state, but on the contrary, due to mining and other development activities, their habitat is decreasing.

Recently Chhattisgarh state government granted the final approval for Parsa Mining Project in Hasdeo.

Hasdeo is considered the home forest for elephants. The Chhattisgarh government had once wanted to make this area an elephant sanctuary, but now this significant habitat of elephants is under threat due to mining. Nature lovers and local tribal people have opposed the project for a long time.

“Elephants do not like any interference in their territory,” said Mansoor Khan. “Their residence will be affected because of mining.”

Khandekar also echoes the thoughts of Khan. He said, “The main reason elephants migrate to Madhya Pradesh is mining in Chhattisgarh and Odisha. Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh are the routes of elephant migration and these states are badly affected by mining.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.