By Jay Mazoomdaar, Independent Journalist
AFTER 17 years, West Bengal is about to revive the tradition of mela shikar and catch four elephants this monsoon when herds from Jharkhand enter the state. State Forest Minister Hiten Burman recently told the Assembly that the permission for mela shikar was sought with the belief that if four elephants were caught, the rest of the herd might not visit south Bengal again. The state has also sought permission from the Centre to build two elephant rescue centres — one in the south (Midnapore) and the other in the north (Jalpaiguri) — to capture and confine eight rogue tuskers.
Since the late 1980s, elephants from Bihar (now Jharkhand) have been entering Bengal during the monsoon. The number of jumbos and the duration of their stay in south Bengal have gone up over the years, worsening man-animal conflict in the densely populated districts of Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia. On an average, five people and one elephant die and hundreds of hectares of crop is destroyed each year. The desperate state hit upon the idea of capturing the menacing jumbos in 2000. After 12 years, the Centre has now granted permission.
Before elephants got legal protection in 1977, a large number were caught every year. Few permissions of mela shikar have been issued since, helping the jumbos recover partially. But capturing four sub-adults is unlikely to have any deterrent effect on a herd. Training those animals as kunki for forestry work is equally pointless as the state already has over 650 pet elephants. This is merely a public relations drive to appease the conflict-affected communities by making a few young elephants suffer. But the state’s other plan — capturing and confining dominant bulls (the ones the minister called rogue tuskers) in rescue centres — may aggravate conflict.
The elephant society is matriarchal where the females jointly share the responsibility of raising the calves. At a certain age, the young bulls leave and join the big males and the females stay back with their mothers. The young bulls, when they are big enough and adequately groomed by the dominant males of the boy group, return to the females in the herds and mate.
Outside forests, dominant male elephants lead the raids on croplands. The typical human response is to identify and capture these bulls as “rogue tuskers”. The true rogue elephants (habitual killers) need to be removed, but such cases are rare. So under public pressure, the Forest Department goes on capturing random bulls. Certain experts argue that taking a few bulls away does not affect the matriarchy. Besides, elephants are polygynous and fewer bulls can mate with all available females. But in the absence of dominant bulls, young males get to mate before time and the gene pool becomes weaker with fewer bulls available for breeding.
In any case, the removal of the dominant bulls is a short-term solution since sub-populations soon find replacements. More significantly, the absence of dominant bulls in a boy group leaves young elephants directionless and aggressive. Since these young bulls replace their missing big brothers in the frontline, their inexperience and aggression when in charge of raids usually aggravate conflict.
When communities target elephants, they do not discriminate between sexes. When more than two dozen elephants were electrocuted in Karnataka in 2008, the casualties included a number of females. Loss of the matriarch can permanently upset a herd as a group of inexperienced mothers, saddled with a bunch of young orphans, is left leaderless. Now, throw in a few aggressive, immature bulls and the demographics explains why experts like GA Bradshaw claim that elephants as a species are suffering from chronic stress.
Elephants do feel emotions and they can get psyched out. The first MRI scan of an elephant brain conducted in 2006 found a large hippocampus that stores memory, and a prominent structure in the limbic system that processes emotions. Yet, we want to toss them around without considering why they are running into us in the first place.
This is merely a public relations drive to appease the conflict-affected communities by making a few young elephants suffer
NINE YEARS ago, the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) studied the elephants of Singhbhum. It was evident that the traditional transit paths of Jharkhand’s Dalma elephants ran through West Singhbhum district to Odisha’s Keonjhar. Over time, the route was obstructed by canals, roads and railway lines, dense habitation and a network of mines. The WPSI study found that “small groups of elephants have started venturing south of Dalma into the Seraikella Forest Division, and then further down towards the jungles of Saranda in Jharkhand, bordering the Odisha highlands”. Here, they ran into open-cast iron ore mines.
Beneath the 1,500 sq km of well-forested land in Keonjhar and Sundergarh districts of Odisha and the West Singhbum district of Jharkhand lies an estimated 5 billion tonne of high-grade iron ore. In these two states, around 5,000 and 2,000 hectares of prime elephant habitat is already being mined, blocking traditional forest corridors. The fallout of such loss of traditional foraging areas is the unchartered movement of herds. As demand for ores multiplied and mining activities expanded, man-elephant conflict worsened with increasing damages recorded on both sides.
Piecemeal efforts are on to recover forest patches, build overpasses on canals, guard corridors with stone walls and stop dynamite blasts during the night, etc. These efforts are vital to restore the integrity of the Odisha-Jharkhand forest landscape and reclaim the transit routes to the northern limits of the elephant habitat in this region. But the man-elephant conflict in south Bengal has perhaps developed its own dynamics in the past two decades.
Seven forest divisions of Bengal across Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura now have more than a 100 resident elephants that are used to living in and around agricultural fields. The herds coming from Jharkhand show little interest in staying put in the forests of Jhargram division. They head straight for the paddy and vegetable fields of Midnapore across the Kangshabati river. With ample water and tasty, nutrient-rich crop to feed on, these herds are now staying back longer than usual. It is anybody’s guess if restoration of their traditional wild habitats will draw these animals back.
A few years ago, the Supreme Court sought the view of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) on the viability of constructing two elephant overpasses in Rajaji National Park where a national highway and a railway track run through the forest to keep Dehradun connected. When the amicus curiae asked the WII chief if elephants would use the two proposed overpasses, he got a brief and simple answer: “Ask the elephants!”
So the plan for overpasses was dumped in favour of a 900m flyover between Motichur and Doiwala to allow elephants from the Rajaji National Park a free run. Yet, the Bengal forest bosses came up with a similar proposal for elephants of north Bengal along the killer stretch between New Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar that has felled more than 30 jumbos in the past decade. We still know very little about these animals but surprisingly never shy away from deciding for them.
The influx of herds from Jharkhand to Bengal may ease if traditional transits to Odisha are reclaimed. Ultimately, our land-use policies in forest areas will decide the extent of conflict we suffer outside the forests. Meanwhile, unless we can, and foolishly so, remove (capture or cull) the entire elephant population from south Bengal, we have no choice but to live with the giants.
Relocation of strategic villages, prompt and reasonable compensation schemes, awareness drives to ensure villagers follow safety norms, etc may not immediately or dramatically reduce conflict. But reckless interventions will surely make it worse. Then again, we can simply blame the elephant for not respecting our beliefs.
Jay Mazoomdaar is a Independent Journalist.