One sultry afternoon in October 2002, a small paddy farmer (who prefers not to be named) in Sonitpur district in the northeastern Indian state of Assam bought a few packets of Demecron, an organophosphorus-based pesticide. Demecron was then banned in the district; however, the lethal pesticide was still abundantly available in the black market as it continued to fetch buyers like him among the district’s farmers. The reason was obvious: to deter pests that had been regularly raiding crops in various parts of the district.
Significantly, the pest they were using Demecron to deter was of a different kind — something that isn’t normally seen as a pest or vermin but revered as a living embodiment of god in India. This “pest” rumbles through the jungle, trampling tall thickets of grass and bushes, but could be as stealthy as a slithering snake in its nightly crop depredations. It was nothing other than a herd of wandering wild elephants that plundered on croplands, as forests — the herd’s natural source of food, and habitat — had dramatically dwindled in the district due to rampant illegal logging, and human settlements gnawing away at the green spaces.
The district administration’s ban on Demecron had come following the death of more than a dozen wild elephants due to poisoning in the district’s Nameri and Haleswar areas the previous year — between July and November, 2001 — an event that jolted conservationists across the region.
“It was illegal to buy, sell, possess or use Demecron as pesticide. But one could easily buy it from most of the manure-sellers in town,” says the farmer, who’s now left farming to work as a manual laborer because “farming is not feasible” anymore. “In 2001, I’d lost half my produce to the elephants. But I didn’t use pesticide. Some of my neighbors did. In 2002, I was having a tough time. I couldn’t afford to lose the harvest no matter what. My old mother was just diagnosed with cancer, my wife had been ailing and bed-ridden for some time, and my 14-year-old son was forced to leave school because we had no money to pay his school fees. I had to save the crops anyhow,” he recalls.
For him, losing the standing crops meant grave consequences. So he opted for Demecron. “I laced the pesticide over a few ripe pumpkins and injected it into a few others, a favorite food of the elephants, before placing them in the paddy fields,” says the farmer.
Curious to know the results, I ask him: “Did it work?” The use of organophosphorus-based pesticides to keep rampaging elephants off the crops has taken a heavy toll on pachyderms elsewhere.
“A young calf got killed near my paddy fields. For a few days the elephants stopped visiting, but only to reappear soon. The pesticide was no permanent solution,” he recalls. “I didn’t kill Dangoriya [a term of veneration the Assamese use for the elephant] for fun. Yes, I’d sinned by killing him. But I had to save my crops — or what would my family eat?” he adds ruefully.
As the human strain on northeastern India’s remaining forest resources is leading to a shrinkage of elephant habitats and corridors, “pachyderms and humans sharing the landscape are increasingly [entering] into a confrontational relationship,” the farmer explains.
The farmer’s case represents the plight of nearly every poverty-stricken small and marginal farmer in landscapes plagued by human-elephant conflict across northeastern India.
A 2017 survey puts northeastern India’s wild elephant population at 10,139 — nearly 25 percent of the total Asian Elephant (Elephas Maximus) stock — of which 5,719 are found in Assam, 1,754 in Meghalaya, and 1,614 in Arunachal Pradesh, the three major elephant-range states. The rest is scattered throughout the remaining northeastern states. That makes Assam northeastern India’s prime elephant-range state.
In recent decades, multiple districts in Assam — Sonitpur, Goalpara and Golaghat — have turned into a ground zero for human-elephant conflict. “A combination of population boom, poverty, and politics has led to loss of elephant habitats resulting in the crisis that is now exacting a mounting toll on both pachyderms and human. The human frontier is being mindlessly expanded at the expense of wilderness, which is why we’re seeing a rise in the conflict,” says Saurav Barkataky, an Assam-based conservationist who has been working for human-elephant conflict mitigation.
A 2003 study conducted by the Conversation and Research Center, Smithsonian National Zoological Park had found that only 51 percent of Asian elephants’ geographic range consisted of unfragmented wildlands by the 1990s. Only 8 percent of the entire range was protected; little of that was unfragmented wildland, thus affording little protection for elephants.
The situation further worsened in the years that followed. The late 1990s and early 2000s witnessed the loss of huge swaths of wild elephant habitats owing to political instability in the state, says Barkataky.
However, the seeds of the conflict were sown back in the colonial era — particularly in the process of making a tea empire in British India’s northeastern frontiers. “Once tea was discovered, tea-capitalism followed afoot and massive forest tracts were opened for commercial tea plantations across northern and eastern Assam, which kick-started wildlife habitat loss and fragmentation in the colonial times,” explains Arupjyoti Saikia, a history professor at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Guwahati, Assam. Habitat loss and fragmentation are the most potent ecological reasons of human-elephant conflict taking an upturn, adds the author of Forests and Ecological History of Assam, 1826-2000.
According to Assam State Forest Department figures, from 2001 to 2014, 225 wild elephants were killed by poaching, poisoning, electrocution, and speeding trains; and nearly 800 people were killed by wild elephants in the state between 2006 and 2016.
Aaranyak, an Assam-based conservation group, estimated in mid-December, 2017, that in 100 days 40 elephants had died unnatural deaths as a result of anthropogenic interventions in the landscape. The causes of elephant deaths include being mowed down by a speeding train on a newly set railroad, falling into ditches on tea estates and the construction site of a manufacturing plant, colliding with a wall constructed around a golf course that blocked the elephants’ rights of passage, and electrocution.
In 2004, Anwaruddin Choudhury, a conservationist, wildlife expert and administrator, suggested that one of the only possible solutions to mitigate the human-elephant conflict in northeastern India is to restore elephant habitats to pre-1990 conditions.
Even as conservationists are seeking restoration of the elephant habitats, the region is seeing a spurt of industrialization and development-related activities, which India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government says is a part of its Act East Policy initiative. The government has also slackened environmental regulations in a bid to fillip development and facilitate the setting up of industries. Further, the Assam state government, in order to attract national and international investment to the restive state, is considering conversion of agricultural land into industrial land.
“With this more and more elephant habitats and corridors are likely coming under pressure,” says Barkataky, expressing his concern over the plan. “Farmlands provide rights of passage for the wandering elephant herds that cover a wide range. Once these agricultural lands are converted into industrial blocks, it’d doubtless be a menace for the elephants.”
In late 2016, the Assam government allotted 602,010 square meters (sq m) and 123,120 sq m of Assam Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC) land to Patanjali and Dabur India Ltd, respectively to set up manufacturing plants in Sonitpur, the northeastern Indian district hardest hit by human-elephant conflict.
Villagers near the site worry that the setting up of industries, which means clearing a forested patch where earlier elephants used to be, will likely aggravate the already severe conflict. Ranjit Saikia, a local to the area, says, “Before clearing of the site for industrial use, it was filled with shrubs, birina grass, herbs, and small trees, and wandering elephant herds often took shelter there.” Corroborating this, Barkataky says, “In 2014, I’d photographed a herd of elephants consisting about 18 individuals in the plot. It used to be a temporary refuge for foraging wild elephants.”
However, S. P. Sivakumar, Conservator of Forests, Northern Assam Circle, Tezpur, says the area allotted to Patanjali and Dabur industries is not a notified elephant corridor and the area has been industrial land since the early 1980s. But, he concedes, “Over the years the unwrought land supported vegetation and provided temporary shelter for wild elephants foraging out of Sonai-Rupai and Burhachapori wildlife sanctuaries in the district.”
“This means,” sighs Barkataky, “more like going by the law in letter but not in its spirit. Everyone knows the elephants have lost a crucial temporary habitat, notwithstanding the legal status of the land allotted for industrial development.”
Since Patanjali took over the land, wild elephants have broken into it on several occasions. On one such incident in November 2016, an adult female elephant died in a pit in the site. In June 2017, a herd of elephants broke into the Patanjali Plant, creating panic among the workers employed in construction work. The elephant herd also trampled two people to death in Namgaon and Dhendai Tea Estate, not far from the Patanjali plant site. The latest casualties in the area were the deaths of five elephants on December 10, 2017, when a speeding train mowed down the pachyderms in Sonitpur’s Balipara.
Local farmers living near the site fear the elephants, deprived of their shelter and food, could wreak havoc in the neighboring villages and farmlands. Gajen Bora, a farmer from Ghoramari village, says, “Besides shelter, the vegetation in that place offered food for the elephants. Now the elephants will come for crops.”
Assam’s Golaghat district has also seen a dramatic rise in human-elephant conflict as a result of forest loss. As the state-owned petroleum oil refining utility Numaligarh Refinery Limited (NRL) was established in the late 1990s, clearing a part of Deopahar forest, a prime elephant habitat in the Kaziranga Karbi Anglong Landscape (KAKL), the crisis took a catastrophic turn. Now NRL is collaborating with Finnish farm Chempolis Oy in a bioethanol refinery joint venture in Numaligarh — something local residents are opposing, fearing it will further the crisis as the upcoming project falls on a major elephant migration route.
Further, the forest cover in the foothills along Assam-Nagaland border, a major habitat for Asian elephants in the Northeast India-Myanmar range, has dramatically dwindled in the recent decades. One of the reasons for forest loss in these foothills is a growing “neo-tribal capitalism” that thrives on a clandestine political economy connecting insurgents, tea and rubber planters, government officials, and locals, says Medhi. “Along these foothills, traditional forest and land resources are being capitalized, and the emerging middle classes of various communities sharing the landscape are clearing forests in a bid to reclaim the forest for their community, which has expedited deforestation,” he explains.
In the meantime, elephant death by poisoning has plummeted over the years as most of the farmers are now using nonlethal electric or solar fencing — locally known as jhatka — to keep rampaging elephants off the crops.
What can be done to mitigate the conflict that is endangering Asian elephants and making millions of farmers’ lives precarious in northeastern India?
“A permanent solution to the problem of human-elephant conflict in northeastern India demands serious political attention, will and courage, and copious investment,” says Bidyum Medhi, a Johns Hopkins University Ph.D. candidate who has studied human-elephant intimacies in Assam’s local cultures and also hails from the state. “It will help if we think of site-specific solutions.”
A Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) report suggested a number of mitigation actions to improve the situation, which include stopping encroachment in the remaining forest covers, keeping elephant corridors intact, creating alternative livelihoods for people in the affected area, better enforcement of laws and better litigation, and providing technical support to and creating awareness among locals.
“But the government seems to be doing little for recovering the lost forest cover and saving the remaining elephant corridors and habitats,” says Assam conservationist Barkataky.
Nevertheless, while availability — or nonavailability — of forest cover remains the prime factor, it is not the sole factor determining elephant persistence in Assam, according to this Oxford University-collaborated research. “The attitudes and tolerance of people in Assam and elsewhere remain central to the search for ways to allow people and elephants to share the landscape,” it says.
Australian National University historian Professor Mark Elvin writes in his 2004 book The Retreat of the Elephants how farmers in Hepu County in 16th century China killed herds of wild elephants by forcing them to be exposed to direct sunlight. As a tactic to wipe out the elephants from the landscape, Chinese farmers rendered vast patches of forest virtually treeless — and apparently this took a heavy toll on the elephants, exterminating the species in most of precolonial China.
“You don’t find such organized cruelty in Assam,” explains Johns Hopkins University’s Medhi. “The attitude of the villagers towards wild elephant herds pillaging croplands is at best ambivalent. It patterns according to the fluctuations in the local ecology of human-elephant relations: when the animals are not damaging crops as such, villagers tend to revere the pachyderms as Dangoriya, but when the animals go on marauding, people increasingly come to see them as a vermin.”
In the backdrop of a rising human-elephant confrontations resulting in fatal consequences, Medhi fears, the tolerance threshold of the affected people might decline in the absence of proper and timely compensation. Unfortunately, existing government compensation schemes are failing, and given this, experts think, it is time to move toward an insurance regime.
“That could at least mitigate cruel retaliatory actions on part of the villagers suffering damages from rampaging wild elephants and other wandering wildlife,” explains Medhi.
Also, sulāi, a locally brewed beer, shapes the local ecology of human-elephant interactions in Assam, according to Maan Barua, an Oxford ecologist. Sulāi is entangled in the relationships between human and elephants in at least two visible ways. First, elephants are immensely attracted to it, which brings the giants to peoples’ houses and in the process leads to the trampling of homes and humans. Second, an inebriated state of mind that results from the consumption of sulāi helps the villagers to brave the elephants while guarding crops.
“If you gulp down a glass of sulāi, it really emboldens you to brave the giants. We often get drunk while driving elephants off the cropfields,” the small paddy farmer told me.
When it comes to responding to wild elephants’ crop depredations, the government has failed miserably, causing anger in the affected farmers, says Barkataky. “The forest department is understaffed and underequipped and there’s virtually no money. In Assam, they don’t even have enough kunki, trained elephants used in drive-out operations against crop-raiding wild elephants,” he says.
“As such,” Barkataky adds, “all stakeholders — government policymakers, locals, academicians, nonprofits — must collaborate to rethink the scheme of things and figure ways out. Or else we could be the last generation to co-habit with these magnificent Asian mammals.”
Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya is a freelance journalist based in Assam.