Nipon Bora, 40, hoists his son onto his shoulders near the village of Pokhiajar in the Sonitpur district of Assam. A large herd of elephants with several tiny calves is crossing a dirt track that runs through the Durrung Tea Estate and Bora’s toddler loves to see them amble across.

These large herds, at times reaching 90 individual elephants are known to move from the forests at the foothills of the Himalaya down to the Brahmaputra every winter, a distance of about 40 km. This pattern has been noted for at least a century, with old records kept by British elephant capture officers noting this seasonal migration.

Elephants crossing the Nameri-Sonai Rupai-Arimora Chapori elephant corridor at Deputa. This is the most critical part of the corridor where it intersects the national highway. Credit: the corridor proposal document (2019)

While a good part of the elephant habitat in the region has been lost over the past few decades, two strongholds of elephants still exist in the Sonitpur district –Nameri National Park to the east and Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary to the west. These elephants also seasonally use the river islands on the Brahmaputra around Arimora Chapori.

In order to provide these elephants living on the north bank of the Brahmaputra with a safe passage along their historical paths, the State had proposed an elephant corridor, the Nameri-Sonai Rupai-Arimora Chapori corridor in 2019. This corridor follows the paths that elephants typically take like clockwork each winter.

Map from the Nameri-Sonai Rupai-Arimora Chapori corridor proposal document from 2019.

The corridor is actively used by elephants each year, evident not only from the elephant movement data and reports by wildlife scientists but also from direct satellite imagery – where one can see the tracks worn down by the heavy feet of the elephants.

Elephant footprints as viewed from satellite imagery overlaid with movement data of a radio-collared elephant. Credit: Google Earth Pro

Securing this corridor by ensuring that all development actions take into consideration biodiversity conservation is critical for the well-being of people in the landscape. If the elephants are unable to easily access the islands of the Brahmaputra, they are likely to spend more time trying to find a path. This would not only risk their lives in the process but also would be more likely to trample standing crops, along with potentially harming humans when moving through areas that they are not familiar with.

For instance, on finding their paths blocked, if elephants move just about three km eastwards, they will enter the bustling township of Tezpur, which has a high human density. In the recent past, wild elephants have inadvertently entered the town, leading to chaos and highly stressful situations for both, humans and elephants.

Elephants in tea estates that are part of the proposed Nameri-Sonai Rupai-Arimora Chapori corridor. Credit: Arjun Kamdar

The most critical part of this corridor is where it intersects the national highway at the village of Deputa. Despite strong protests against large development projects at this important juncture, an agrotech industry and a school were recently constructed, hindering the easy passage of elephants. Yet, overcoming these challenges, the elephants manage to cross the bustling national highway through gaps in between this infrastructure, to get to the river islands of the Brahmaputra.

However, this crucial corridor is at risk owing to delays in formally declaring this corridor. This notification by the State would recommend maintaining the status quo in terms of infrastructure development in this stretch of land. A wall was built a few months ago on the path that elephants use, and another part is being filled up clearly with the intention of building infrastructure.

A wall broken by the elephants to pass through the Nameri-Sonai Rupai-Arimora Chapori corridor. Credit: Rangjalu Basumatary

In October 2021, local farmers, the administration, the Assam Forest Department, and elephant experts part of the committee formed to work on the Nameri-Sonai Rupai-Arimora Chapori corridor met at the Deputy Commissioner’s office in Sonitpur to discuss the plan for the corridor. Here, the residents suggested that the State acquire land at these critical junctures which would safeguard these important stretches and prevent them from being blocked. The State often acquires such land for infrastructure work, and a similar process here could help create a win-win solution for both, people and wildlife.

This, coupled with immediate and adequate compensation for crops and property damaged by the elephants on their established migratory journey could help secure the passage of elephants through this corridor further.

Victims of damages incurred by elephants in the district in 2020 received an ex-gratia amount which was a fraction of the cost of the actual damages incurred. In addition, this amount was received after a delay of two years, leading to dissatisfaction.

Saving these historic elephant movement paths that are part of the Nameri-Sonai Rupai-Arimora Chapori corridor is crucial for the persistence of elephants in the landscape as well as for securing social justice, by ensuring that human-elephant conflict is not exacerbated in the region.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.