“Daily ke daily, daily ke daily (day-on-day, day-on-day).”
That’s how Parvati Oraon of Hatiram Jote, a small village along the Mechi river on the India-Nepal border, recounts the damage caused to her paddy crops, by migratory elephants. The elephants, in north West Bengal, would earlier cross the Mechi river over to Nepal, along a regular route identified in the Right of Passage report as the Mahananda-Kolabari elephant corridor in the eastern Himalayan foothills.
Enroute they moved through Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary, Kolabari Reserve Forest and to the forests of Jhapa in the east of Nepal, travelling a distance of 12 km each day, mainly in the quest of paddy and maize crops. The herds moved during two distinct crop harvesting periods of paddy (November-December) and maize (June-July).
But in 2016, a solar-powered fence erected by Nepal abruptly cut off the herds’ transboundary movement along this route in the Darjeeling-Terai region, part of the sprawling Kangchenjunga landscape spread across India, Nepal, and Bhutan.
The Asian elephants, an endangered species, now amble up to the Mechi river and with the fence blocking the corridor, they return back to India. This has increased human-elephant conflict on the Indian side. The herds move southwards along the fence through villages within the Indian border, where they can access crops.
Parvati Oraon describes the crop depredation and associated financial loss with a tinge of rancour. “Herds of eight to 10 elephants pass through our village every day. They feed on 1.5 acres (or almost seven bighas) of paddy on our field,” she said. Compensation fixed by the forest department is Rs 1,500 per bigha of crop loss.
Discontent is rife in Hathiram Jote (village) and 17 other villages in West Bengal’s Naxalbari area, once the epicentre of an armed peasant struggle. Crop raids by the elephants are also a regular feature in neighbouring blocks such as Kharibari.
Although many elephants still come up to the Kolabari patch and Tukrajhar forest near the border, to raid crops, there is no viable habitat, and the fence has cut off the movement to Nepal.
The Right of Passage report states that the Mahandanda-Kolabari route in its current form cannot be considered a corridor because the fragmented area currently does not connect any habitat towards Mechi.
Nakul Chettri, regional programme manager, Transboundary Landscapes at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, partly agrees. He points out that the corridor exists physically, but the elephants’ movement was disrupted recently due to the fence. But the strategy may not be sustainable.
“This [erection of fence] is basically due to extreme local pressure on Nepal’s government by both the local government of Province 1 and the community living on the Nepal side,” Chettri told Mongabay-India, stressing the need to augment transboundary and landscape-level approaches to conservation, especially for species that move across borders. “The damage to crops and human fatality was severe and consistent for decades that compelled the Nepal government to decide to set up the fence to safeguard the lives of its citizens. However, this is a short term strategy and may not be sustainable. The consequence is quite visible.”
Elephants move over long distances
Crop raiding is part of an elephant’s most favourable foraging strategy and raiding peaks during specific times of the year when paddy becomes more palatable and nutritious as it approaches harvesting.
A majority of the estimated Asian elephants (Elephas maximus indicus) are in India. Although India shares border populations with Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar, the numbers are small relative to the overall Indian population. Mainland Asian elephants/Indian elephants migrate over long distances searching for food and shelter, across states and countries.
Some elephants are residents, while others regularly migrate in annual migration cycles, according to information available with the Convention on Migratory Species. In February 2020, the Asian elephant was enlisted in Appendix I of the CMS, giving it the highest protection.
Elephants in north Bengal have significantly larger home ranges than in most other parts of the country. This high degree of ranging by elephants searching for food and a high human population density and activity increases conflict in the landscape. Although the region supports less than two percent of India’s total elephant population, it accounts for almost 12% of all human deaths caused by elephants.
The landscape, which includes the Eastern Dooars Elephant Reserve, is highly fragmented. About 34% of the elephant range in North Bengal is under forest cover. The rest of the area is splintered into tea plantations, agriculture, human habitations, and development activities. North Bengal has 488 elephants spread over 1,933 square km, as reported by the 2017 elephant population estimation. In 2012, the North Bengal population was 647.
Conflict in the transboundary (north Bengal-Jhapa) region dates back to the 1980s, but over the years, this has worsened with the expansion of crop fields near forests. While Nepal has a relatively low population of wild elephants, Jhapa in Nepal Terai reports significant conflict incidents, researchers have said.
Crop expansion drive conflicts
Human-elephant conflict in the Darjeeling Terai region has a century-old history, according to a study. In 1907, author LSS O’Malley first recorded a herd of at least 30 elephants moving into Nepal by crossing rivers Teesta, Mahananda, Balason and Mechi in the Bengal District Gazetteer. The Tarai has “had a melancholy record of persons killed, crops destroyed, and villages ruined by them,” said O’ Malley.
Records reveal significant elephants gathering in the transboundary sal and mixed deciduous forests straddling Nepal’s Jhapa district, a prominent area/hotspot of human elephant conflict in the Himalayan nation. The Indo-China War (1962) and the Naxalbari revolution (1967) impacted the forests by splitting them into smaller patches.
In 1977-78, a herd of 60 elephants migrated to Nepal through Panighata by crossing the river Mechi but soon returned to India due to military intervention. The elephant population in the Terai region (Kurseong Division, Mahananda WLS, and Baikunthapur Division together) steadily rose from 46 (2000) to 164 (2010). The size of the migrating elephant population also increased in sync with the expansion in paddy and maize cultivation in the Terai of eastern Nepal in the same period.
High-risk, high gain
As the herds move, they continue to shelter in Naxalbari and surrounding forests like Uttam Chandra Chhat and Kolabari, although they cannot cross into Nepal due to the fence. Kolabari is a small patch of forest along the Mechi river. It is the last pitstop for the elephants in the India-part of their transboundary sojourn.
Earlier, the elephants would stay in the Kolabari forest area during the day and start moving towards Nepal as darkness fell. They would come back into Indian territory in the morning. As much as 18-km of agricultural land in Jhapa and Illame districts of Nepal, which are very fertile land for maize production abut river Mechi. This is where the fence lies.
Due to the technically robust and advanced scientific design of the fence, only solitary bulls or all-male herds can breach the energised barrier. Solitary bulls, and often a group of such bulls, are adapting to break the fence by using their foot to push through the fence; they are willing to put their lives at risk for maximum gain.
The female elephants do not risk moving past the fence with their calves, having tried and failed multiple times. But they enter into more areas in Naxalbari and Khoribari, and villages that had not seen the harm caused by elephant movement soon became a hotbed of conflict.
Augmenting transboundary efforts
In 2016, the West Bengal government urged the Central government to take up the human-elephant conflict issue along the Indo-Nepal border with the Nepal government.
Former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden Pradeep Vyas pointed out that the issue is an economic one for local communities as they are the ones experiencing life and property loss and crop damage. He said: “There has to be a ground-level dialogue, movement of elephants and damages should be discussed.”
“International NGOs can organise consultations with those working on the issue at the ground-level and can also help in providing relief to the people in affected areas so that local communities can tolerate the challenge,” Vyas said.
“There could be compensation issues,” Vyas asserted. “If those losses are compensated adequately, then the local communities will be more approachable for interventions. Only words will not solve the problem.”
The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development’s Nakul Chettri batted for augmenting the landscape approach to conservation. India’s National Wildlife Action Plan (2017-2031) also emphasises the landscape approach to conservation. “Human-wildlife conflict in general and human-elephant conflict in the Kangchenjunga Landscape and elsewhere is a major issue,” said Chettri. “It is now a global challenge, and there are no silver bullet remedies available.”
As part of its Regional Cooperation Framework developed for Kangchenjunga Landscape, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development organised a formal dialogue between Bhutan, India and Nepal in December 2018. The three country’s high-level representatives recommended a task force to jointly look at the issue and come up with a practical long term action plan to deal with both conflict and transboundary corridor and movement.
“The outcome of the meeting in December 2018 was a positive move, and since then, many things are happening,” said Chettri. “Good research results are coming from Wildlife Institute of India, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development is preparing draft status report, good practices compendium and hotspot map considering both country and border area hotspots. Also, we are now working hard to agree in terms of references for the task force and nomination from respective countries to take the recommendations forward.”
“Many species such as tiger, rhino, snow leopard, which have wider home ranges, use more than one state or even country as their habitat if they are connected or are being used historically,” added Chettri. “Therefore, a landscape approach is inevitable, and it also has success stories such as with tigers in Terai Arc Landscape.”
“However, it needs both stakeholders’ willingness of the respective governments and constant efforts at every level – local, national, and regional, including support from global communities,” Chettri said. “In north Bengal, there is a positive development happening, and India’s government is also in support of this recommended approach – as indicated in the December meeting,”
This article first appeared on Mongabay.