Solution: good science

  • 14/03/2000

While there are several reports every year of marauding elephants trampling numerous people to death and destroying crops, there are cases when science has come to the rescue. Wildlife scientist Sushant Choudhary and his team at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, found that 40 per cent of the human-elephant conflict, especially those resulting in human injuries or deaths, in northern West Bengal occurred in five tea gardens in the sub-Himalayan foothills. "Every year 50-60 people are killed in this region," says Choudhary.

The researchers conducted an intensive study that included radio-collaring elephants. Information was also collected on human-elephant conflicts and land use patterns. The researchers found the tea gardens were located in two vital elephant corridors. What were elephant habitats earlier have been converted to tea gardens causing great fragmentation. "No scientific research was conducted in the region before this," Choudhary points out.

He explains that elephants' home range is small, usually 70-80 sq km. But once there is interference in the home range, it can increase three-fold. The shape of the habitat is also very important, he points out. However, selection of a protected area according to him is usually "by chance and not by choice", he says. "Often, this is why the animals venture outside the protected area and attack human settlements," he adds. Many researchers feel that land use pattern has to be taken into consideration. "But this has no mention in the Wildlife (Protection) Act," says Choudhary.

"We suggested to the state government that the two corridors be maintained by reorganising the labour settlements in the tea estate to avoid conflict. If this can be done, a reduction of 40 per cent in human-elephant conflict can be achieved immediately. To start the process, it is necessary that the government should initiate a dialogue with the tea garden authorities, the local administration, non-governmental organisations and people's representatives. This requires money, and the funding support needs to be worked out. Detailed mapping of both the corridors will be essential for planning necessary resettlements of labour camps and also planning the access route of elephants," he says, adding that the state government is gradually taking note of the recommendations.

"The problem is that protected areas are demarcated according to political considerations. But animals do not follow this," says Anju Sharma of CSE. For instance, Melghat Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra was expanded and shrunk to suit the government's whims, she says. "As far as the tiger population is concerned, I think 60 per cent of the tiger population in India lives outside protected areas, so where is the point in having a tiger reserve. Names such as tiger reserves, national parks and biosphere reserves mean little. The philosophy behind all is exactly the same," says Sharma.

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