At war with God

A herd of eleven elephants (including three calves) entered the industrial city of Rourkela in Orissa on 6th July. The herd had strayed into the city during the quiet hours of early morning. As the day progressed and crowds swelled, the situation quickly deteriorated and the elephants found themselves trapped in an under-construction stadium in the city. Mobs gathered and started harassing the animals-screaming, jeering, pelting stones, bricks-and anything else handy. The agitated, terrified elephants panicked, running aimlessly around the stadium, charging the crowd in an attempt to protect their calves, and to flee…
The situation was explosive—but the concerned forest authorities, working in co-ordination with the district administration, handled it well. Police was deployed to rein in the mob, fire engines were tasked with spraying the animals to cool them down in the intense heat, and to provide water to drink. Fodder was arranged for the herd to calm it down and sustain it through the ordeal. The forest staff waited until nightfall, and ‘elephant trackers’-squads comprising daily wage labour present in all elephant occupied ranges of Orissa-were deployed to escort the animals out into adjoining forests. But eventually—since these forests are fragmented and cannot sustain an elephant population, they were led and ‘beaten’ into the North Chirobeda forests in Saranda, Jharkhand.

In this particular case, a tragedy was averted. But I would stop short of calling this a ‘happy ending’.  The forests of Saranda and Keonjhar—Asia’s finest, largest Sal forests—have been ravaged by mines. Many more mining operations are on the anvil, scripting the demise of this fecund forest….Where will the elephant go?

Incidents of elephants entering Bhubaneswar, Coimbatore, Mysore, Hardwar—cities abutting forests are not infrequent. Today, human-elephant conflict has escalated across its range, with fatal consequences to both sides.

In June 2011, an elephant showed up in Mysore, and in the ensuing panic, it killed a security guard, trampled a cow, and caused extensive damage to vehicles. He was part of a herd which had strayed into a village, and had been harangued and chased by the panicked locals. The equally panicked elephants tried to escape, and in ensuing melee, they got separated and two stumbled into Mysore—and deeper trouble.

While it is critical that we have best practices and a strategy for solving such specific situations—and have a trained and well-equipped force, these are first aid solutions to a deeper, more complex issue of conflict which needs to be addressed and resolved.  At the heart of the conflict is the destruction and fragmentation of elephant habitats and corridors by mining, industrialisation and infrastructure projects, highways, roads, canals and expanding human habitation—leaving elephants little room; and herds, disoriented in their seasonal migrations in search of food, water and undisturbed habitat.

I have touched on this issue before in this column, but it merits repeat: We may have declared the elephant our ‘National Heritage Animal’, but we have failed to honour the promise therein. We may worship the elephant as Lord Ganesha, but is our reverence limited to Gods of Stone?

I say this after much thought and deliberation. There is little doubt that it is our people’s tolerance, cultural association and indeed veneration, for animals that has played a key role in saving wildlife, apart from protectionist laws. But loss and fragmentation of habitats has thrown man and animal into deeper conflict, and coupled with increasing urbanisation and consumerism has led to alienation from our roots, and frayed our tolerance.

Let me narrate a particularly heartbreaking incident that occurred some years ago. An old, nearly blind tusker from the Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary, Jharkhand, strayed into Jamshedpur and was slowly pacing down the streets of the city. In no time crowds began mobbing it. Stones and burning rags were hurled at the hapless pachyderm. Efforts were made to control the mob, and with the help of two trucks on either side of him he was guided to a ‘safer’ area. However, reportedly, some local miscreants broke in and had the elephant tied near a high tension power line and in no time the great tusker lay dead, electrocuted.

Nothing, however,  illustrates our diminishing tolerance better than a photograph of  a fallen elephant killed by enraged villagers, lying lifeless in its own blood in a field of paddy. Scrawled on the carcass was ‘Dhan Chor Bin Laden’. Paddy Thief (Osama) Bin Laden. God had morphed into a thief and terrorist.

This was in Sonitpur district in Assam, where human-elephant conflict is particularly severe.

Somehow, despite the elephant’s cultural symbolism, despite its legally protected status, it has not quite garnered the requisite support and focus required for its conservation. The government has failed to act on the recommendations of its own Elephant Task Force. While some cosmetic recommendations viz. the Haathi Mera Saathi campaign are underway, the two key recommendations which granted the elephant a safe home have seen little action. A major recommendation of notifying critical elephant habitat and corridors under the PA network, and entire Elephant Reserve Areas as Eco Sensitive Zones has been ignored. Such a notification will help restrict and regulate drastic changes in landscape, and provide essential safeguards to protect habitats, and thereby help mitigate conflict. But elephant habitat, particularly in the Central-Eastern belt is also prime coal country. Elephants rate a poor second to coal…and  mining leases are being doled out in rich elephant forests.

Another key recommendation that was turned down was the constitution of a National Elephant Conservation Authority along the lines of National Tiger Conservation Authority. Such a statutory authority would help strengthen, consolidate and focus efforts on elephant conservation, rather than the toothless body Project Elephant it is currently—its role largely limited to doling out petty amounts, given its limited budget, as conflict compensation.

But let me end this on a positive note from Coimbatore. Forests  surround  this rapidly growing and industrial town. With six  major elephant corridors in the district amidst a mosaic of land uses,  the region is a conflict hotspot.

Write Aritra Kshettry & Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan who witnessed (in December 2012) in the outskirts of the city, “a mob of local youths jeering and provoking a herd of elephants. The matriarch positioned herself between the crowd and the herd, trying in vain to calm the young members of her family. Sometimes the men, trying to prove their machismo, walked right up to the elephants to instigate them and induce some reaction. The elephants were clearly traumatised, as reflected by their constant distress calls. This only seemed to goad the people further…” A week after the incident, two persons were killed as a result of similar incidents.

Six months later, the story has changed, Constant vigil and strict action by the forest department, as well as an awareness and sensitsation programme  by local conservationists, NGOs and the forest authorities has helped bring about positive change; and the people here,  in the foothills of the Western Ghats, now protect the elephant. People have learnt to let he elephants be, and granted them the rights of passage…

And herein lies a lesson…

Footnote: The above region continues to suffer severe conflict. Coimbatore, often referred to as the Manchester of South India, is a rapidly growing industrial town and  has a large number of factories and multinational companies. It is nestled in the foothills of the Western Ghats, and forested areas surround a good part of Coimbatore. There are six major elephant corridors  in the district, and many fragmented with growing urbanization, railway lines, roads etc.

Unless we have a long term vision of protecting wild habitats and corridors, such efforts, as illustrated above, will eventually fall apart. It’s imperative that development activities and expanding cities  factor in wildlife concerns for the safety and welfare of both people and animals.

My thanks to Aditya Panda for his inputs. My thanks to Conservation India, Aritra Kshettry & Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan for information and inputs.

Photo credit: Abraham Antony

This article was first published in an edited form in The Pioneer


One Response to “At war with God

  • Good article, Elephants being the largest land mammal needs large area for forage and water which is hardly available in its habitat range and as you mention the central- eastern area which includes Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha is highly fragmented and leasing of vital corridor to the mining operation only worsen the situation. All the linear intrusion and big projects leave our national heritage animal helpless….

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