Coexistence or Conflict of Space
Managing the conflict between humans and wild elephants in Assam’s tea gardens is a mammoth challenge for the estates. Saevus shares an interesting account of efforts and measures taken to safeguard the plantation and its people from herds of wild elephants.
It is pitch dark outside. The only light comes from the searchlights Habil Ekka and his fellow Anti-Depredation Squad (ADS) members switch on from time to time to check their surroundings. They are grouped on a machan on the edge of their village near the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh state border in Sonitpur district, keeping a watch on the paddy fields below. They are waiting for wild elephants, hoping they will not come tonight. A herd of about 40 elephants that moved out of their forests in neighbouring Arunachal was reported to be nearby. Except for the quiet murmur of conversation, all is still. Thankfully, it remains so. But Habil remembers other sleepless nights that they spent driving wild elephants back into the forests.
Increasing human populations and loss and fragmentation of habitat is forcing more and more wild elephants to move out of forests and raid crop fields and villages for food. This results in severe economic losses to local communities and at times injury and even death of humans. To manage this rising conflict, WWF-India is implementing ‘The Sonitpur Model’ in Sonitpur and Udalguri districts of Assam in collaboration with the Assam Forest Department where locals are trained and equipped to form squads that assist the Forest Department to drive the wild elephants back using searchlights, firecrackers and trained kunki elephants.
Meanwhile, Habil has returned home to rest for the morning. He has breakfast and is settling down for a well-earned nap when suddenly, the trumpeting of an elephant is heard in the distance. The elephants have come! Habil rushes out to join his other ADS members. They quickly learn that the elephants were seen entering a nearby tea estate. The Assam Forest Department is informed immediately, and a group comprising ADS members, Village Defence Party (VDP) members, student organisations, officials from the Police and Forest Departments, tea garden workers and villagers gathers in a designated place before the start of the drive operation. The police officials are requested to check the Assam–Arunachal highway and stop vehicle movement if the elephant herd crosses the road. WWF-India team members, Hiten Bahishya and David Smith, are present on location with required supplies such as firecrackers, water, lights, and batteries. The day is hot and humid. The herd keeps stopping wherever there is shade. By now, a huge crowd has gathered, complicating matters. The police, VDP members, and WWF-India team keep the crowd in check so that no harm comes to them. The drive begins! First, the kunkis fan out and move towards the herd urging the elephants to move back. They are followed on foot by the ADS members who make loud noise, light crackers and shine bright lights. The herd initially remains stubborn and refuses to move. The noise increases as more crackers are burst. Finally, just when it looks like the elephants have no intention of moving, the relentless noise and the kunkis moving closer seem to do the trick. The herd starts to move back, crosses the tea estate and slowly moves into the forests bordering the northern boundary of the tea estate. The excitement subsides and the crowd disperses in batches. The sudden quiet after so much activity feels unearthly. Habil’s tired face breaks into a slow but satisfied smile. Thirty-four years old and living next to the Daflagarh Tea Estate, he is passionate about what he does and knows the importance of conservation. “If all villagers work together as a team we can solve this problem without causing harm to the elephants and also protecting our crops. I hope people from other villages in the area also come forward and get trained to form more anti-depredation squads with WWF’s help,” he says. Habil heads back home on his cycle for a well-deserved break. He will be back though after dinner, to sit on the machan again with his fellow squad members for another vigil through the night, hoping that the elephants do not come back.
Cover Photo: The kunki elephants moving out towards the wild elephants in the background (Photo By David Smith)
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