TW: Graphic images.
A 25-year-old elephant was electrocuted on July 22 at Bamandanga tea garden, in the Nagrakata police station area, in West Bengal’s Jalpaiguri district, hardly 24 hours after an adult male elephant was electrocuted in North Bengal.
This is the seventh such incident reported from the region since the lockdown was announced on March 25, and these highlighted the incident as a fatal outcome of negligence by those who installed the power supply system in the region. “This death happened due to a faulty electric line and an FIR has been registered in this regard,” said Nisha Goswami, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of Gorumara Wildlife Division.
The last case was reported inside Ramjhora tea garden under Birpara police station on July 21, when a 15-year old tusker was found dead. In both cases, forest officials said the elephant touched a low-lying electric wire and not a cable placed by villagers to save vegetation.
“These are accidental deaths not planned to kill. These elephants entered human habitations to fetch food and accidentally touched high tension cables,” said Kumar Vimal, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of Jaldapara Wildlife Division. He further claimed there is no such intentional killing happening in the region in the past four months. Neel Shrestha, a local villager of Ramjhora said, “The elephant must have entered the village to eat jack fruit and got electrocuted.”
Two elephant deaths were reported in Gajaldoba area in Jalpaiguri since March. One case was reported inside the cantonment area in Bagdogra in May, and two incidents were reported at Bhutia Basti near Buxa Tiger Reserve, and Madarihat near Jaldapara National Park, on June 16 and June 24 respectively.
On May 4, a 15-year-old elephant was found electrocuted on marshy land near a paddy field at Takimari near Gajaldoba. “It was deliberate electrocution at Takimari. Forest department arrested six people who were involved in the killing. We observed similar incidents in past and it becomes a regular practice in the area,” said Shyama Prasad Pandey of the Society for Protecting Ophiofauna & Animal Rights (SPOAR), a local NGO in Jalpaiguri.
Animal rights activists highlighted another incident that happened recently. A 27-year-old man was electrocuted at Rambholajot, near Hatighisa in Darjeeling, while passing through a paddy field. Locals claimed he was electrocuted by cables which were laid to drive elephants away from the farmlands.
Decreasing forest cover, food scarcity, human intervention, and rapid urbanisation have forced wild elephants to raid tea gardens and human habitat, say experts. As a result, elephants raid local paddy, maize fields, and tea gardens for foods.
“Two deaths out of seven seems to be deliberate killings. Elephants touched cables that were connected illegally to high tension overhead wires by local villagers at Takimari and Bhutia Basti. They lay these cables on the ground to drive away elephants from farmland,” said Siliguri-based wildlife activist Abhijan Saha.
In the same lockdown period, four locals were killed and a few injured during conflicts between humans and elephant in the region. The human-elephant conflict has claimed 1,713 human and 373 elephant lives in India from 2015 to 2018. Of this, Bengal, with 307 human deaths in the said period, is now emerging as the new arena of man-elephant conflict in the country. The research noted North Bengal comprises 1.8% of the entire elephant population of India which is responsible for 12% of the human deaths confirming to the magnitude of the problem.
Referring the census data, Kumar Vimal, the DFO of Jaldapara Wildlife Division said, “In the past decades, North Bengal observed rapid urbanisation, large tracts of forests converted to commercial tea plantations, army camps, and human settlements adjourning forest area. Simultaneously numbers of elephants multiplying rapidly in this stressed landscape.”
Both the elephant and human population have increased in the past few decades in North Bengal. Human population increased by 6,44,989 between the 2001 and 2011 census while elephant population increased by 201.
“Elephant habitats have been encroached by developments and are now fragmented in the region. There is no traditional route left for movement of this long-range animal,” he said.
Sharing the same sentiment, Abhijan said that the behaviour of elephants has been changed due to the continued stress in their life. “As the elephant habitat has fragmented the composition of herds have been changed. Earlier about 15-20 elephants in a herd but now we see small groups about 3-5 elephants each and these are more aggressive than bigger groups,” he elaborated.
Historically, North Bengal was a contiguous landscape with elephants moving across neighbouring Nepal in the west, Bhutan in the northeast, Assam to the east, and Bangladesh down south. This should be restored to ensure the functioning of a metapopulation across this region.
Kumar Vimal believes this conflict situation can overcome by reclaiming traditional elephant corridors and forest lands in North Bengal. “Half of the conflict can be managed if we start integrating forest patches and reclaiming traditional elephant corridors in the region. I submitted a plan to department now it is up to the government to act.”