Award-winning picture of elephant calf on fire highlights the burning issue of man-animal conflict in Bengal

Villagers are not evil, they are suffering massive losses as the tuskers' migration route is disrupted.

 |  4-minute read |   07-11-2017
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A haunting photograph by a brick kiln owner from West Bengal has won him the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award, given by conservation not-for-profit Sanctuary Nature Foundation on November 5.

The picture, titled "Hell is Here", shows an elephant calf on fire, fleeing a mob along with another elephant. While the picture seems to show the very depths of human cruelty, the truth is a little more complex.

The photograph has been clicked by Biplab Hazra, in Bankura. South and south-west Bengal have been plagued by severe man elephant conflict for years, and the state or the central government is yet to come up with lasting solutions to tackle the situation.

In 2015-16, 108 people were killed by elephants in West Bengal, of which 78 deaths occurred in south Bengal, says a report in The Hindu. According to the environment ministry, in 2014-15, the figure was 89.

The same report quotes Professor Sukumar, who is associated with the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, as saying that 10 times more human deaths are caused in West Bengal than anywhere else in the country due to man-elephant conflict.

Elephants in south and south-west Bengal are mainly those coming from the Dalma hills in Jharkhand, where they spend the summer. Till the 1980s, they would stay for some months in Bengal, and then move on to Odisha.

However, destruction of forests in both those states due to increased mining activity, anti-Maoist operations in Jharkhand and steps taken since 2001 to prevent entry of pachyderms in Odisha has led to these herds now staying longer in Bengal.

Damages sustained

South and south-west Bengal are mainly agricultural areas, with few forest covers. Elephants staying in the region are bound to come in close contact with humans, causing loss of lives of both the animals and villagers, apart from massive economic damages.

Even a single elephant moving through a field can destroy crops. Herds of these animals running through smaller ponds leave them unfit for use by humans. In the mating season, heady pachyderms become a bigger menace, often uprooting trees. Toddy stored in villagers’ homes is a major reason for the animals straying closer to human habitations, and controlling an intoxicated elephant is, well, impossible.

Why was the elephant on fire

Villagers normally don’t kill elephants as the first step. As part of a government initiative, mobile squads and “hullah parties” have been deployed to spot and shoo away the animals.

The hullah party consists of children who shout out an alert when an elephant is spotted, after which the mobile squad tries to keep the animals off human inhabitations.

The villagers often carry torches made of inflammable cloth tied to sticks. The cloth is set on fire so that the smoke keeps the elephants away. Firecrackers are also used to scare off the animals.

The villagers often carry torches made of inflammable cloth tied to sticks. The cloth is set on fire so that the smoke keeps the elephants away. Firecrackers are also used to scare off the animals. Photo: India TodayThe villagers often carry torches made of inflammable cloth tied to sticks. The cloth is set on fire so that the smoke keeps the elephants away. Firecrackers are also used to scare off the animals. Photo: India Today

However, sometimes, the sound of the firecrackers can make the agitated tuskers run helter-skelter, including towards the humans. In the picture clicked by Hazra, a panicked villager might have flung a lit torch, which fell on the baby elephant.

Need for coordination among states

Bengal is having to bear the brunt of an increased pachyderm count because Odisha and Jharkhand are not doing a very good job of looking after their elephant populations.

In Jharkhand, the 2017 elephant census by the state forest department showed that it was home to 555 animals, down from 688 in 2012. According to state officials and conservationists, the reasons for these include deforestation for mining and burning down of forests by security forces in a crack-down bid on Maoists.  

The traditional migratory route of the elephants from Jharkhand to Odisha through Bengal has been disrupted. Photo: ReutersThe traditional migratory route of the elephants from Jharkhand to Odisha through Bengal has been disrupted. Photo: Reuters

The elephants from the state are now migrating to Bengal, adding to the resident tusker population there.

In Odisha, since 2011, trenches have been dug around the state’s border and solar fences installed to prevent the entry of elephants from Bengal. While the Bengal government too dug a trench along its border, that has only served to restrict the jumbos’ entry to Jharkhand.

Strategy has to be revamped

The measures initiated by the government to tackle the problem include raising the compensation offered to those who suffered damages from the pachyderms. From the remuneration of Rs 25,000 to Rs 50,000 provided earlier, by 2016, it had been raised to Rs 2.5 lakh.

To make sure that villagers don’t see elephants as their enemies, last year, the forest department had issued instructions that every time its officials killed a rogue elephant, the ground officials should observe a “two-minute silence as a mark of respect to the dead wildlife”.

However, none of these measures go to the root of the problem, which is disrupted migration of elephants and human encroachment into the animals’ territory.

Till coordinated efforts are made by the state, the Centre, the forest department and wildlife experts, it will be difficult to address this jumbo problem.

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