Living With Elephant

The northern elephant range in West Bengal extends from the Mechi River along the Indo-Nepal border in the west to the Sankosh River in the east, bordering the state of Assam. Northern West Bengal (Districts of Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar) has a forest area of 2994 km2 or about 25% of the total geographical area of state forests and is rich in flora and faunal biodiversity. The forests are home to some of the rare and endangered animal species like Tiger, Elephant, One-horned Rhino, leopard, Clouded Leopard, King Cobra, Red Panda, and many others. The elephant range of the region constitutes flat, slightly undulating hilly areas to an elevation of 1,750m with numerous rivers and hill streams running from North to South. Such a geographical location is itself an attraction for tourism here with the added adventure of experiencing the wildlife of the land. Inevitably, the pressure of rapidly increasing human population and tourism is causing the wildlife habitat getting scattered and fragmented here. The Terai and Dooars has always been used by the elephants as their natural habitat and migratory routes through Nepal and Bhutan but these rapid changes has made this region prone to frequent human-animal conflicts. Loss of forest land due to human acquisition are posing survival threats for animals like elephants.

A minimum of 515 elephants use the north Bengal Landscape covering 5000 km2 out of which roughly 50% is forested and rest are human use areas such as tea gardens and villages/crop lands etc. The human density in the same landscape is almost 700 people per km2. A direct result of shared space between elephants and people is human casualties occurring due to a variety of causes. After forests, the major land use in the district of North Bengal is agriculture. As the terai has ample water supply, agriculture is better developed in this tract. The extent of arable land under various crop categories are rice (90.4%), wheat (4.76%), maize (1.31%), other cereal (1.28%), pulses (0.99%), oil seeds (4.04%), jute (14.55%) and other miscellaneous cash crops including vegetables (5.23%). Crop production pattern and productivity comparatively low as most of the people still use traditional variety of seed.

The next major land use in the region is Tea cultivation. Major elephant movements take place through the tea gardens. Almost 90% Tea gardens of Jalpaiguri is within the zone of conflict. The tree stands in tea garden provides cover and some amount of fodders to the elephants. Haphazard labour line distribution and their activities for crop cultivation and brewing rice alcohol are the major problems for man-elephant conflict in Jalpaiguri. It is noticed that small/marginal farmers are converting their Agri-fields for the purpose of Tea cultivation around Garumara N.P., particularly in Ramsai area to avoid Human-Elephant Conflict. This may cause shortage of agricultural production in future and immediate wild surroundings may be affected adversely due to application of strong chemical fertilizer/pesticides. But it is a fact that they are earning a secured amount than previously due to decrease in damage suffered loss.

However, human population and its growing demands for land and biological resources affected this landscape to a great extent. Fragmentation of habitat has primarily occurred as a result of infrastructure development, widening of road, conversion of railway line to broad gauge including heavy traffic, river training works through large scale construction of embankments, deposition of dolomite in rivers in the foothills bordering Bhutan and particle containing dolomite in the flowing river coming from Bhutan hills. Tea plantations have taken heavy toll on adjoining grasslands and also the industry has produced huge amount of unplanned human settlements. All these factors led to an increased level of human-animal conflict. Between 2009 and March 2018, 116 people died due to elephants and 217 people were injured in Gorumara Wildlife Division alone which covers most of the conflicted areas. In the same span 1-3 elephants die every year in Jalpaiguri District due to anthropogenic causes such as railway mortality and electrocution. More than 2 crore rupees is spent by the forest dept. for providing ex gratia for human injury and economic loss due to wildlife in north Bengal and majority of this damage is due to elephants alone.

AMONG 101 IDENTIFIED ELEPHANT CORRIDORS OF INDIA, 13 (+1*) IS IN NORTH BENGAL

  1. Apalchand- Mahananda
  2. Apalchand – Garumara-Lower Tondu
  3. Apalchand – Kalimpong Via Sylee TE
  4. Apalchand – Kalimpong Via Meenglass TE
  5. Chapramari – Bhuttabari (Kalimpong)
  6. Central Diana – Moraghat
  7. Moraghat – Rethi (via Banarhat)
  8. Central Diana – Rethi
  9. Rethi – Titi (via Dumchi)
  10. Rethi – Titi
  11. Titi – Buxa (via Torsa)
  12. Titi – Buxa (via Vernobari)
  13. Nimati – Chilapata
  14. Buxa – Ripu at Sankosh (West Bengal – Assam interstate)*

Wild Elephant Mortality (last thirteen years)

Year05-0606-0707-0808-0909-1010-1111-1212-1313-1414-1515-1616-1717-18
WL(N)#16343922202320272918301718

#WL(N) – Wildlife (Northern) Circle, Department of Forest, Govt. of West Bengal

ReasonRailwayElectrocutionPoisoning /PoachingRogueNaturalDiseaseInjury, Snake Bite etc.Other reasonsTotal
WL(N)#613013176284064313

RAILWAYS

Geographically this northern West Bengal (Chicken neck) connects the rest of India with its north-eastern states via roadways and railways, the second one becoming the most common cause of unnatural Elephant deaths in the region. New Jalpaiguri is connected by railways to Alipurduar by two separate lines, one of which (Siliguri to Alipurduar) stretches over 168 k. m. and traverses forest over 74 k. m. i.e. about 44% of the length. The rail line passes through 3 PAs and buffer of BTR including 9 sensitive established elephant movement routes and reserved forests. The railway track going through the wildlife sanctuaries and protected forest areas (Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary, Chapramari Wildlife Sanctuary, Eastern Duars Elephant Reserve) was upgraded to a Broad gauge line in 20th November, 2003. Since then, this track has become the reason for death of 73 wild elephants (from 2005 to 6th July, 2018) and gained the name of “Killer Track” of Dooars. This track cuts through several elephant corridors of the region killing the elephants while they’re trying to cross the track. In many cases (like July 6th, 2018) it has been found that adult family members got hit and run over by the trains while trying to save their calves. Most of these incidents took place during the night time, while some occurred in broad daylight.

It has been noticed that the most common reason behind these elephant deaths is the fact that the railway tracks here are 14 to 15ft high from ground level with really steep sideways. This sharp angle creates problem for the elephants to climb on, cross the track and get to the other side. Adult and experienced elephants have been doing this for a long time, but for the young this can be a tricky situation and they panic when they face such obstacle. The adults come in for help and as the trains in this route run on a high speed ignoring the speed limit, the elephants on the track face a painful death.

It can be suggested that the railway track-sides should be so built that the slope angle is much less than it is right now and is also easier for the elephants, especially for the calves to cross over. The authority can buy the land on both sides of the accident prone tracks and create safe crossing zones with light slopes. This will take less time for them to move to the other side safely. It has been seen that elephants of this region move freely through the underpasses of railway bridges over rivers and streams. To ensure safety for elephants the nearby streams, rivers and railway underpasses should be kept free from any human interruption and other obstacles. Also, at accident prone areas where the railway track runs for long stretches over the corridors, the authority can built underpasses for the elephants ensuring safe movement. To guide the elephant herds to the safe crossing zones, accident prone track stretches should be fenced with concrete upto 3’ from ground and then wires upto 8’ or more. Being an intelligent species, elephants will soon learn to use these safe routes.

CROP CONFLICT: –

Another big issue in Terai and Dooars for elephant death is due to crop raiding and subsequently be the victim of human-elephant conflict. Elephants are electrocuted and poisoned near agricultural farms and tea gardens. A total number of ±35 elephants has been electrocuted while the farmers used electric fencing to protect their crop and more than 10 others were poisoned. In spite of knowing it is illegal, some of the common peoples are using electrified wires as fences to protect their crop/home. As saddening outcomes, elephants are often electrocuted and lead to death. The major concerned coming up is the recent incidents which happened on 17th & 25th  October, 2017 in the same Gram Panchayet (Bagrakote),  where elephants were literally killed by spreading of electrical wires and death of two elephants happened by touching those live wires.

There can be a practice of experimental farming of non-traditional crops in regions where crop raiding is the highest and resulted in casualty on both sides. A considerable amount of land in such areas can be purchased or taken on lease to practice alternative farming. The experts on agriculture can suggest crops that are not liked by the elephants yet can be economically profit earning for the cultivators. Experiments can be done with different crops for different seasons in the areas mostly depredated by the elephants to see the immediate as well as the long term effects of such farming. If the outcome is positive, this will set an example for those farmers to share and encourage this practice to be adopted at all regions where crop raiding by elephants is causing casualty for both the species.

We (SPOAR) have started the project of Green Corridor Champion with WTI (Wildlife Trust of India) in our Northern part of the state of West Bengal to safeguard the rights of wild elephants of the region. This region is prone to frequent Human-Elephant Conflict from all aspects as mentioned above, causing massive damage for both the species. We’ve started the monitoring currently on first 5 identified corridors where the elephant movement is high and the conflict, too.

We’re looking forward to expand the initiative in three other corridors as early as possible as these are the locations where elephant mortality is highest due to over speeding trains. These are corridor-6 Central Diana to Moraghat, corridor-7 Moraghat to Rethi (via Banarhat) and corridor-8 Central Diana to Rethi. This railway track has been the reason for maximum unnatural (human caused) elephant deaths in recent years.

Living With Elephant
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