Alarming elephant death rates in Assam, encroachment a major concern
The state accounts for nearly 21 percent of the total elephant population in India and racked up 51 deaths out of a total 105 in 2017-2018.
On 22 February 2019, Assam’s Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Chandra Mohan Patowary, during a state assembly session, spoke about the encroachment of forest land. 22% of Assam’s forest land is currently encroached.
The high percentage of encroachment is of concern as the human-animal conflict has increased in Assam. Particularly, man-elephant conflict is on the rise.
Assam is home to over 5000 elephants. According to the 2017 elephant population census by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), the state accounts for nearly 56 percent of the Northeast region’s elephant population.
Launched in 1992, MoEFCC aims to provide financial and technical support for states to aid their efforts in managing populations of Asian elephants.
Key activities of the project include mitigating man-elephant conflict in crucial habitats and strengthening measures for the protection of wild elephants. Elephant populations mainly face threats from poachers, railway tracks, and open electrical lines.
Assam saw the highest number of elephant deaths between 2017 and 2018.
On 11 February 2019, when asked if project elephant was poorly funded and has minimal staff, Dr Mahesh Sharma said there is no such problem.
The most recent guidelines issued for managing human-elephant conflict were distributed to states on October 6, 2017.
Nearly Rs 275 lakh was released to Assam under this project for the year 2016-2017. But this amount went unutilised that year. However, Rs 261 lakh of the amount was revalidated and utilised in 2017-2018.
Role of encroachment in man-elephant conflict
Elephants are migratory in nature. Their home range can vary from 600 to 700 sq km. Apart from this natural migratory behaviour, they are forced to wander outside their territories. Why?
There is a misconception that forest-dwellers are responsible for the increase in habitat fragmentation. But the reality is much harsher.
“Forest dwellers know how to live with animals in forests. The ones that step in are the problem,” said Vinod Krishnan, Research Associate of Nature Conservation Society. Infrastructural changes such as concrete walls and railway tracks make some of the biggest differences.
“An elephant will knock down what is in its way. You can’t change its habit. But, you can definitely work around it,” said Vinod.
Additionally, an increase in urbanisation has led to severe loss of habitat. Diminished food and water resources have forced elephants to invade zones outside their territories.
In Assam particularly, railway tracks that cut through forest lands are one of the main causes for an increase in elephant casualties. In a letter to Railway Minister Piyush Goyal in 2018, various organisations highlighted the importance of the declining elephant population.
Vinod also emphasized on the number of deaths caused due to electrocution--66 deaths in India in 2017-2018. He added, “We should take better steps to curb illegal electrical fencing and provide proper guidelines for high tension electrical wires.”
“The government should play a consistent role in high-risk areas,” said Vinod. Elephant corridors must be highly protected and for that, awareness is key. Forest departments must work with locals and teach them the importance of elephant behaviour.