On May 2, a wild elephant ventured out of the wetlands of Kaziranga National Park and strayed towards the nearby villages. It proved to be a costly excursion. It ran into an electric fence put in place to protect paddy fields from wild elephants like itself.

The pachyderm was electrocuted to death instantly.

This was not a stray accident. Nearly 90 elephants have died of electrocution in Assam since 2011, according to the state’s forest department figures. The major reason for these deaths, say officials and activists, are illegal electric fences and ill-maintained sagging power lines.

Killer fences

With the human-elephant conflict reaching alarming proportions in Assam over the last couple of years, people living in areas frequented by wild elephants have been setting up electric fences to protect their farms and property. But instead of using low-intensity direct current in these fences as is the norm, people often end up drawing current from high-powered domestic lines. “You are supposed to use non-lethal direct current through a solar-powered battery,” said a senior state forest official. “The point is to repulse, not kill.”

Contrary to popular perception, the intensity of electricity required to repulse bigger animals like elephants is much lower than what would be needed to keep away a cow or a goat. “That is because the elephant occupies a larger surface area,” explained the forest official. “A 10-volt shock is more than enough to deter an elephant, but here people use 220-volt current from domestic lines.”

Assam’s wildlife experts say that the lack of punishment emboldens people to erect illegal electric fences. “These are deliberate murders,” contended Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, who heads the well-known non-profit Aaranyak that works to protect wildlife and environment. “And since there is no consequence, people see no reason to fear anything. It is upon the police and the forest department to build strong cases against offenders, but that hardly ever happens – because there is this attitude, ‘oh it’s only an elephant, which has died not a human being.’”

Indeed, it took the death of one of the forest department’s staff employed in Sonitpur district’s Nameri National Park for it to really sit up and take notice – and act. In 2018, a forest official was electrocuted to death as he accidentally touched a fence connected to a high-powered domestic line meant to keep elephants at bay. “A massive awareness drive followed and an FIR was lodged,” said the senior forest official.

But conviction may not always deter, say others. Farmers are bound to retaliate if their fields are routinely destroyed by rampaging animals, said Kaushik Baruah,Guwahati’s honourary wildlife warden. “Farmers need to be paid compensation in time,” said Baruah. “If we are pro-active, we do not have to be reactive.”

A task-force comprising representatives from various departments, including the state’s electricity and forest departments, has been in place since 2016 – but deaths have continued.

In the Narengi cantonment in Guwahati , the army installed beds of spikes to keep out wild elephants from the nearby Amchang Wildlife sanctuary. Credit: HT Photo

Electricity department under scanner

The role of the electricity department has also come under scrutiny. Experts say that the department is squarely to blame for electrocution deaths caused by low-hanging power lines. “They have arbitrarily drawn power lines everywhere, electrifying even encroached forest land,” alleged Bhaskar Choudhury, who heads the Assam zone of the Wildlife Trust of India. “In fact, we have given them a list of vulnerable spots. All they have to do is carry out routine checks in such areas for sagging lines, but they do not even do that.”

Forest officials also accused the electricity department of negligence. “They should be careful before giving electric connections and check if the settlement is an encroachment on forest land,” said a forest official.

But the state’s electricity distribution corporation said it routinely checked old power lines for leakage. “We do things that are our control – if a line has sagged, we take care of it,” said Sanjoy Kumar Bhowmik, a chief general manager at the state-owned Assam Power Distribution Company Limited. “But if someone put up an illegal fence, that is beyond our control.”

Rampant encroachment

Bhowmik, however, admitted that there was merit to the accusation of encroached areas in forest land being given power supply. “But we act as per the government’s order – we have cut off supply as and when directed by the government,” he added.

As Assam grapples with acute pressures on land owing to its peculiar fluvial landscape – 7% of the state’s total land area amounting to almost three times the size of Delhi has been eroded away by the Brahmaputra and its tributaries since the 1950s – large tracts of its forests are now home to humans. Not all of them are traditional forest-dwellers. According to latest state government data, more than 22% of the state’s forest area has been encroached.

Assam’s burgeoning elephant problem is perhaps the most visible aspect of its land crisis – and it is no longer restricted to areas adjoining forests. On April 30, two days before to the electrocution incident (when another stray pachyderm also died of an unknown injury), a wandering elephant laid siege to the metropolis of Guwahati, bringing traffic to a grinding halt in the city centre for one full evening.

But it is not just encroachment inside protected areas that is hurting elephants, say forest official. “The land use pattern of areas on the fringes of forests have completely changed; corridors connecting two protected forests areas have become part of four-lane highways so people should not be really surprised if they are venturing out to the city now,” said a Guwahati-based forest official involved in rescuing the stray elephant.

As wildlife warden Baruah said: “The real issue is shrinking habitat; that has to be arrested.”