Mission impossible?

  • 30/03/2003

Mission impossible? Walk along the paddy fields of southern West Bengal just before harvest in September-December and you can witness a 21st century reenactment of the theatre of the absurd. If you decide to undertake the walk at sunset, be sure you will walk alone and at your own risk. The villagers will not be sitting gathered around a fire talking hopefully of the new utensils and clothes they intend to buy after harvest. They shall be waiting for the night to come on. They shall be scared but determined to run the wild elephants out of their fields. You shall, if you are ensconced at a safe place, watch hordes of people run after elephants from all directions, with torches lit, the drums blaring and crackers fired at will. You shall see elephants eat the paddy mindless of the din around them, dismissive of the entire racket.

An odd tusker may decide at any moment to charge and chase after one odd person it has singled out. The absurd at this moment could turn gruesome.A couple of forest department (fd) vehicles and a posse of the department staff shall run around too, shooting their guns in the air. You shall wonder whom they are trying to control, the people or the elephants? A season"s hard labour of the village would have been annulled in a night.

But if the people have annoyed the elephants enough, hit home a bullet or two, the elephants shall quit the village early, then strut into adjoining villages. Next morning shall arrive the news of a forest guard being beaten by irate villagers, accusing him of letting "his" elephant run through their fields.

You may wonder: why do they suffer such a plight? A forest officer may conclude the farce for you by telling, "Its because, the villagers have worked hard and regenerated their sal forests via joint forest management." You may listen with your mouth agape, while he explains, "These elephants come from the adjoining Dalma wildlife sanctuary in Bihar. They stay in the villages" regenerated forests through the day and raid the crops in the night." You could walk away wondering: how, in this country, could a village be penalised with the loss of their livelihood for growing a forest? You could wonder: how is the forest department of the state helping them? The irrationality of the answers shall knock you off your feet.

There is a plan
The state fd has devised a plan to reduce the conflict. Read the decision taken by the wildlife advisory board of West Bengal in 2000: "…the elephants would be allowed to stay at selected areas in cyclic order in consultation with the panchayat…". This is exactly what the state forest department does. As a senior state forest officer narrates, "At the beginning of the season, officers of all the affected forest ranges meet. They rotate the responsibility of bearing the brunt of the elephants and suffering people"s ire." In mirth he narrates, "Arguments break out among the officers if the elephants are driven into a village falling in an officer"s range before the scheduled day."

You may ask who in the government is supposed to ensure that anti-depredation operations do not work on such a "circular" logic? A senior enough officer shall tell you (the guard may not know): "There is a Project Elephant (pe) run by the Union ministry of environment and forests (moef). It was set up some years ago. It has an office in Delhi. One S S Bist is its director. He has a steering committee to help him. I don"t know who all are on the committee. Ask Delhi for details. There better be a project, you"ll pray, for the situation here needs one. And it demands that the project works.

Anil kumar SinghRina Singh and Sushant Chowdhry, then of Wildlife Institute of India, conducted a study in three districts of Purulia, Midnapore and Bankura. They projected economic loss of more than Rs 3 crores.

With the increasing conflict a number of elephants had also fallen victim. Three had died of poisoning in 1987-96four declared rogue and shot and three captured. The forest department has spent Rs 3.3 crore between 1986-2000 on ex-gratia payments for crop raids and human deaths. If you think it"s a large herd causing such havoc, you are mistaken. There are just 62 elephants36of which migrate from Dalma.

Set task and go
Project Elephant (pe) was set up in 1991-92. It was the result of a seven-member task force set up in 1989 by the moef. The task force looked into details of the problems of elephant conservation. It worked out a project to conserve the elephant and its habitat and devise ways to mitigate the problems of crop raiding and human killings by elephants.The task force took note that in the past 100 years the elephant had disappeared in six states: Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh (mp), Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh (ap). It has subsequently again colonised erstwhile mp and ap though.

It recognised also that the existing system of protected areas (pas) that promoted the exclusion of the people from the pas was inadequate to manage the elephant"s habitat. This model had served the needs of the Project Tiger that had been begun earlier with much fanfare. The tiger, unlike the elephant remains mostly confined to forested areas and conservation largely means increasing its prey base and affording it protection. But conserving the elephant meant to think large, think the size of a landscape.

The task force in fact did a splendid job at charting out a clear route for pe. It set the following main objectives for the pe besides some others:

Ensure each elephant state maintains one or two natural populations that will be viable in the long term

Ensure rural communities are not affected by such conservation

Ensure efforts to conserve elephants are not diluted by efforts to save individual problem elephants

Manage smaller populations that are problematic

The task force said that the test of the project would lie in successfully handling the problematic small populations and not the high profile elephant reserves.

To achieve the objective, some short-term strategies and some longer goals were set forth in the report submitted.

pe decided, as a short term measure, to put up elephant-proof energised fences and dig trenches, as is practiced the world over in elephant ranges. These were to serve as effective barriers in sensitive areas where the human-elephant conflict is high. While these were preventive tools, compensations (or ex-gratia payments as the forest department likes to call it)it was decided, would be given to help the people caught in the conflict.

The measures to be taken for long term management were to consolidate existing good habitats and manage the elephants falling outside the demarcated good habitats. The good habitats were to be managed by using two strategies. One, demarcate (for managerial purposes) good habitats as "elephant reserves" to bring focus to activities and twosecure the elephant corridors. At the end of the day, using a judicious mix of these managerial tools and the emerging science of elephant ecology, it was expected that space would be secured in India for the elephant and the people to live and tolerate each other.

Breach of intention
But do fences and trenches exist today? How effective are they?

The project"s role in the forestry bureaucracy is to disburse funds to elephant range states, as they demand at the beginning of each financial year, for elephant conservation. It is finally the state that has to take action and prevent the conflict. The pe provides the finances and the technical guidance where it is sought. The same goes for building trenches and fences too. But one look at the state of the fences across the elephant ranges and one can make out that the ideas of pe are yet to percolate to the state fds.

Bist explains what makes a good fence: "Electric fences, besides having their technical specifications, also have design specifications which are very location specific. What can work at one place might have to be redesigned for other locations and terrains."

Energised fences usually consist of two to four wires appropriately strung and connected to an energiser that either draws power from a battery, solar charger or the mains. A current of 5000 volts is passed in pulses of 1/3000 of a second; thus elephants receive a shock but are never in danger of their lives.

The problem with the fences is simple. The elephants can adapt well to them. Arun Venkatraman of the aerc says, "Elephants are known to improvise and break through these fences over time." The tuskers, which do not bear the responsibility of calves, take greater risk. They throw down trees on the fence. Yet the fences can act as good deterrents when taken care of.

The fences suffer from two ailments. One, they are poorly designed. Two, no one really owns them. A forest officer in Assam says off the record, "The villages that we secure should take care of the fences, the department cannot." But irate villages contend that the fences are the property of the forest department and it should maintain them. Selective experiments of social fencing, where the concerned villages invest some capital in setting up the fence and take over ownership have paid some dividend in the southern states. Kerala and Karnataka have taken the lead in this effort and gained substantially. A senior forest officer says, "What is effective isn"t always costly" pointing a finger at Karnataka"s expensive choice of technology.

Bist also points out, "Very often you need to fence strategically. In initial years fencing was done without giving thought to what was fenced in and what was to be fenced out." He gives the case of tea gardens in Assam and West Bengal, which suffer high casualties."One doesn"t need to fence in the entire tea garden or draw up a fence along the entire boundary of the forest. Just fence the labour lines, where the people live and where most accidents occur. And light the area up." Strategise; secure one area at a time. Each extra day that the elephant is kept away from the crops is a battle won.

The trenches, like the fences, cannot work everywhere and demand maintenance. Diben Boraa casual labour working at the Gibbon wildlife sanctuary in Jorhat says, "If we don"t dig trenches as wide as 7 ft and 7 ft deep then elephants easily cross over. These too get filled in the monsoon." They areat the end of the day, just weapons, only as effective as the people wielding them, says a fd officer from Karnataka, making an oblique comment on the preparedness of the fd to take on any work that demands strategising and planning.

Pay up or insure
If the damage is done, the next step is to pay compensation. The task force had suggested that rural people not pay the price for the conservation of the elephant. The pe decided to pay monetary compensation for the loss of crop, damage to houses and loss of lives.

But the distribution of compensation has sullied the relations in many instances. The money for compensation paid increases each year. Karnataka has paid an amount of Rs 4.33 crore between 1997-2002 on compensation alone. The idea of compensation (or doles?) bears heavy on the way the village relates to forests. "The economy of doles is what got the villagers into such a fix in the first place" says Animesh Bose of Silliguri based non-government organization, Himalayan Nature and Adventure Foundation.

West Bengal has tried to experiment with crop insurance. "While group insurance against injuries and casualties has worked out in places where we have tried" says T K Mathews, conservator of forests, Wildlife Division-1 of West Bengal" the insurance companies are reluctant to go in for crop insurance which will surely be a loss-making proposition for them." S S Bist informs that talks are on to get the insurance companies to agree to crop insurance under existing schemes.

If it is achieved it will be a change from the compensation regime in place right now, which varies as much as the elephant habitat across the states. Assam pays nothing for crop damage and at times takes years to pay compensation for human deaths. The pe recommends at least Rs 100"ex-gratia" payment for deaths and is ready to give the money but most states do not adhere to this. "Maybe the need exists to enforce the compensation rates" agrees Bist. But he is also thinking of changing the compensation for crop damage from money to food. "This money transaction will cause problems in the long run" he avers. Neitro Sharma, a young field assistant in a project run by aerc in Buxa Tiger reserve agrees, "Compensations cause arguments in our village Pumpabasti. There should be another option."

Long term objectives
The only option, experts will tell, is to think long term, not years but decades down the line. The task force had set up clear long term objectives for the pe which have been lost for sometime now in the haze of fire fighting. Eleven elephant ranges were demarcated on the map as good habitats holding populations of elephants that would be viable over long periods. Within these elephant ranges the pe decided to set up the so called elephant reserves. These reserves were not to be similar to the protected areas and not displace people, but a managerial concept spread over a landscape that was home to a healthy elephant population. Securing the region by enriching the habitat for the elephant and securing corridors was the way ahead, it was decided. The landscape, unlike the other protected area, could include forest area as well as non-forest area, like a village or a cantonment. Of the 25, 000 odd elephants existing then, 20, 000 elephants fell within these reserves. The rest of the population (about 5, 000) lay outside. These 50it was considered, were too scattered in habitats where it would not be possible to sustain these elephants over the long run. Efforts of conservation were to be concentrated on the elephants within the reserves, which had a better chance of survival if helped. At the higher echelons of the bureaucracy and scientists involved there was complete understanding that the elephant shall set the trend in landscape management.

"The 5, 000 elephants outside the reserves were called problematic elephants" says Bist. The management of the 5, 000 elephants was to be different. In time, Bist says, these elephants were to be reduced to numbers that were tolerable.

But neither the creation of reserves, the purchase of corridors or the reduction of the so-called problem elephants was looked at for long years. " pe has been fire fighting for too many years" says Parbati Barua, the Assam-based expert who has worked with elephants for years. Its in the last couple of years that the pe has taken to programmes that will produce lasting results over long term" says one ministry insider. "These ideas never filtered down either to the states or the juniors and the field staff" says one bureaucrat in the ministry. "The states have not shown interest in the issue. Maybe the political will did not exist" says Barua.

The states for years remained sceptical of taking on another programme that used the dreaded word "reserves". The furore in the states about the protected areas and the consequent alienation had its repercussions on pe. States had to repeatedly be assured that the reserves were not to displace people but to bring focus to the work already being done. It was only in 2000 though that the work on elephant reserves began in right earnest. The designated elephant reserves cover an area of about 63, 400 sq km, out of which about 16, 400 sq km lies inside protected areas.

The quality of the habitat within the reserves was to be improved. Work was to be carried out in the reserve areas to maintain and improve the habitats. The two major works taken up for "improving habitat" were securing corridors to reduce fragmentation and "enriching the existing habitat".

Think wider
"The latter idea though has taken a completely illogical turn" says a scientist earlier working in the Wildlife Institute of India. A whole lot of pe money is spent on regeneration of forests, building checkdams, growing fodder plantations in forest areas under the habitat. Karnataka has, in its plans for 2002-2003 under the peallocated Rs 3.70 lakh for improving soil moisture and Rs 4.50 lakh for construction of check dams. West Bengal similarly had set up 500 ha of fodder plantations in the South and more than 450 ha of plantations in the North. Bist asks, "I wonder what the state governments are doing this fordo they want the already increasing number of elephants to increase further?" Sukumar and many other scientists also reinforce the point that a lot of the routine habitat maintenance expenditure is futile for elephant preservation. "The elephant population is not decreasing, if anything it is growing by the day, though that could also be reflective of an improved census technique" says one wildlife biologist. "Except in some degraded parts of the forests, these usual forestry exercises should not be met from the pe funds. The fd should exit from the dogmatic approach to wildlife management. Where is the trained field staff to differentiate the management of the elephant from a wild cat"s?"

"The money allocated should be spent over the entire habitat of the elephant and more than 75 per cent of the habitat remains outside the protected area network", says Bist, "But it"s hard to convince our state fds to do so. All activities are undertaken in the forest land; even today very little is spent on, say, revenue land, which could also be forested."

A jumbo-sized highway
While the expenditure on such frivolous activities (frivolous for the elephant) mounts, the other aspect of habitat and landscape management remains unattended to. This is the story of the so-called corridor. Hear any elephant-related conversation and the word "corridor" is sprung around with attendant gravity. Corridors are pieces of land that connect vital populations of the elephant in fragmented habitats. Populations that are otherwise under threat of getting secluded, which can cause genetic inbreeding and finally decimation of the population. Today these corridors may be fallow lands, cities or villages but traditionally such tracts have been routes through which the elephants have walked. Unfortunately the animal has a memory less fickle than humans. It remembers "its" terrain.

But the way corridors are understood in India today can get quiet hilarious. "It is almost a matter of pride to "identify" more corridors than any one else has in a particular region" says one field director of a national park. Sukumar recollects D K Lahiri Chowdhry"s statement, "There are corridors that start nowhere and end nowhere, then there are those that begin somewhere but lead to nowhere and then some which begin from nowhere and lead to somewhere." A plethora of studies on corridors do the rounds. "There is not even a consensus on what to look for to declare a tract of land as a corridor, forget prioritising them", says one wildlife biologist in disgust.

And despite all these studies only one corridor has been acquired in the country till date by the pe. A second one may become a reality soon. Corridors like the one connecting the terai populations of Uttaranchal have been talked to death but nothing seems to move. Even if a piece of land is secured as a corridor, it can be a rather futile exercise at times (see box: Acquire and forget).

An officer narrates the way a piece of tea garden was purchased adjoining the Kahziranga National Park. "The elephants only move through the regions, imply negotiating with the tea estates would have ensured a status quo." Lahiri Chowdhry in fact suggests that maintaining status quo through legislative fiat is feasible. Jacob V Cheerana veterinary doctor who has worked for years with wild elephants, says, "Genetic viability can be maintained by translocation of individual males from one fragmented patch to another. Such experiments are carried out in Africa." Sukumar agrees with him. But in India such experiments have not even been tried once. In fact the very science of translocation, wildlife veterinary care, capture and transportation is at an infantile stage in India, Cheeran laments. C K Subash, veterinary surgeon at the Veterinary Hospital, Kodungallur and Arun Zechariah at the clinical laboratory of Veterinary Polyclinic, Calicut, Kerala, (two doctors who helped radio collar elephants in Buxa Tiger Reserve) would be among the handful of the young ones who can be tempted into the field right now. But things seem to be looking up, with training for veterinary doctors and mahouts being organised in the past couple of years. "Of all the people who talk of elephants only the mahouts can manage them. They are your points, person for the job. If you don"t train them, all the theory and ideas can be just that, ideas. Revive the art and science of domestication, revive pride in the system, integrate them into conservation, not pay them a meagre Rs 500 per month as the Assam government does" comments Barua. When efforts start, it shall still take years for results to show.

Displacement blues
Meanwhile, the 50elephants pe and the task force had declared as problematic have only increased in number. There is no study to evaluate by how much. These problem elephants were to be removed. A rather simple word but one should consider its import. One can ask, why should these 5, 000 elephants be removed from what was (at least once) their habitat? One can ask about the morality or ethics of conservation.

While the question of the ethics of conservation might float about for the next one year, another 200 people will be dead. Killed. Pesticides like Demercon shall be used to poison some dozen elephants. Another few dozen elephants shall come up in statistics as "died of unknown causes". We shall try to find motives of revenge. The animal, assuredly, shall come out cleaner. These sections of the human society and the animal kingdom will be destined to become victims. They are the ecological orphans we have created over decades of mindless (or was it carefully planned?) degradation of the forests, a development paradigm that has slowly gnawed at the edges of the forests and pushed the elephants out.

Perhaps we will have another round of seminarsanother year of discussions. A desperate village might resort to desperate measures. Just like a village in Pagti valley, Wokha district of Nagaland did. It offered 150 sq km of its 170 sq km commons, claiming they would be happy if the fd could manage to keep the elephants out of the rest of the area (20 sq km). The fd did not oblige.

In the meanwhile some people shall try. Resort to three options. Three optional experiments, rather. Traditional mahouts and phandis shall be called in to rescue fd that has no clue what an elephant is. They shall try, like Parbati Baura did in Chattisgarh. They will know the elephants didn"t create the problem, we did. They will also know this is not about morality but about survival - the elephants" and the humans". Occasionally they shall fail in the experiment. The scientists and forest staff shall perhaps take courage and try chemical immobilisation (though you shall still need a kunki and a mahout"s help to do that). Some shall mix the two techniques train the traditional kunki and the phandi in the most modern techniques to get a blend of the best from the new science to the traditional wisdom. Whatever method you chose you shall ultimately have an elephant in captivity, maybe two elephants or perhaps three.

Half of the process called "removal" is over. The next half of the process is tricky. You can carry them away from this village fringe. But to where? Another village boundary? Certainly not. Then the only option is domesticate it. Put it to some use. They used to be used for timber logging earlier but that option is closed today. A number of domestic elephants and their owners today are jobless or used for illegal felling. Trading in domestic elephants remains banned (though it is carried on with as much alacrity even now). It is treated at par with any other wild animal even though it is the only endangered animal that can be domesticated. Create the laws and capacity for their use, you say. That shall take years and shall absorb only so many (see graph: Captive elephants).

There is a third option. Kill the elephant to help it survive. Remove it. Remove the problem elephant before people begin to remove all of them. Like in Assam or West Bengal or elsewhere. Science can help detect which ones are habitual crop raiders, which ones are rogue or which herds are nonviable. There will still be arguments, local adjustments to the ground situation. In the field, an officer could still be unsure if the right elephant has been killed or captured. Was it the one that killed thirteen people in three days? But at the end of the daya Parbati Barua in the field or a forest guard on the beat shall still take the chance for you, remove the one he or she thinks could kill tomorrow or destroy paddy fields worth millions. For all you know, they might commit a mistake. Kill the wrong one or maim one during capture. But, no one will have blamed them for sitting pretty in their drawing rooms talking about the beautiful beast while it slowly disappears from the face of earth, taking along a few thousand people, some property worth a few millions, an ecological system which is priceless. History shall hold these real scientists guilty of only one thing, trying when we didn"t.

With inputs from Mitha and Ramya Vishwanath from Karnataka, Satyasundar Barik from Orissa; Jharkhandand C Surendranath from Kerala

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