North Bengal or the northern part of West Bengal comprises of the three civil districts of Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling and Cooch-Behar. This area is bound by Nepal on the west, Sikkim and Bhutan on the north, Assam on the east and Bangladesh on the south. The elevation ranges from 60M to 3500M above mean sea level. It has forests spread over 3051 sqkm covering 24 % of the total geographical area.
The elephant holding areas of North Bengal are however mostly confined to an altitude of 900M comprising of 1954 sqkm of forest, which does not include the civil district of Cooch-Behar. This elephant holding area can be divided into the following three distinct geographical zones.
Terai: This zone is bound by the river Teesta in the east and partly adjoins Nepal. It includes the forest areas of Kurseong Division and the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary.
Western Dooars: This zone is bound by the river Teesta in the west and the river Toorsa in the east. It partly adjoins Bhutan and comprises of the forest divisions of Baikunthapur (Apalchand Range), Jalpaiguri (Gaurumara National Park & Chapramari Wildlife Sanctuary), Kalingpong (Chel, Noam, Neora, Samsing, Jaldhaka Ranges and Neora Valley National Park), Cooch-Behar (Madarihat Range) and the Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary.
Eastern Dooars: Which is bound by the river Toorsa on the west and the river Sankos on the east. This zone adjoins Assam and Bhutan. It comprises of the Cooch-Behar Range (Nilpara and Chilapata Ranges) and the Buxa Tiger Reserve.
These areas are characterized by high rainfall (350-600 cm) and the forests are of the dry-deciduous, moist-deciduous, semi-evergreen and evergreen types. Sal (Shorea Robusta) and its associates form the major species. Large patches of riverine forests consisting of Khair (Acacia Catechu) and Sisso (Dalbergia Sisso) and grasses exit in Jalpaiguri Division along the rivers. Large and compact forests do not exist except in the Buxa Tiger Reserve of the Eastern Dooars. The forests of the Western Dooars are fragmented and interspersed with tea gardens and villages. Over 20 % of the forest area has been converted into plantations of Teak and other species of economic importance.
Agriculture and tea form the major profession of the people of North Bengal with other industries being almost non-existent. Human densities vary from 325 per sqkm to 356 per sqkm as per the 1981 census figures. There however has been a steep rise since then.
Distribution and movements of elephants – Past and Present.
The elephant is a long ranging migratory animal that is believed to follow a definite route with a fixed seasonal pattern of movement. Changes in habitat and ever-increasing biotic pressure on existing forests have resulted in changes in their movements and distribution over the centuries.
The earliest records of the distribution of the elephant in North Bengal are found in the Gazetteer of Darjeeling (O’Malley, 1907). It states that they existed in the large forested tracts at the foothills upto 10,000-ft. and that there were three main herds. These herds operated between the Tondu forests of Jalpaiguri and a tributary of the Jaldhaka river to the east of the Kalinpong hills, between the Teesta and Jaldhaka rivers and from the Teesta westwards across the Mechi river into Nepal respectively. The first two herds were known to ascend the hills upto the snowline and grazed in the higher tracts adjoining Bhutan. Information on herds east of the Toorsa is not available from this source. However the records of elephant capture from Gauripur show that Khedda operations were carried out east of the Toorsa in Buxa and Bhutan in the years 1937-39. The capture of 127 elephants indicating the presence of a large population in the Eastern Dooars and adjoining areas of Bhutan and Assam.
A committee called the Fawcus Committee was set up by the Bengal Government to study the status of game and game fish during the early part of the forties. It states in its report that the large herds of the region had become smaller and less numerous due to the spread of tea estates and cultivation. It also noted that the elephants sometimes moved north into the valley and foothills of Bhutan and also east into Assam. It records the existence of a regular elephant path or migratory route running for miles in an east – west direction along the foothills. It concludes that this path could be centuries old. The committee however made no reference to herds operating west of the Teesta and migration of elephants into Nepal. It may be inferred that this had ceased to happen.
Information during the early years of independence is available through the records of elephant capture and the annual administrative reports of the West Bengal Forest Department. These records indicate the presence of herds both in the Western and Eastern Dooars.No capturing was done in Kalinpong and Kurseong Divisions perhaps indicating that herds did not frequent these areas. Records of the Darjeeling District show that elephants were only sighted during the summer months presumably on their way to and from Bhutan. Another interesting fact that comes to light is the poor performance of the Khedda operations indicating a change in their distribution.
Dr.D.K.Lahiri-Chaudhury made the first systematic attempt to study their distribution and movement in North Bengal. His studies showed that prior to 1977 (the year of his study) there was an east-west movement of elephants in June July and back in November December. This movement was identified to be from the Titi reserve forest in the east (west of the Toorsa) to the forests of the Kalinpong Division in the east with the eastern end perhaps extending to the Buxa division. The elephants followed a ` combine-disperse-combine’ pattern of movement i.e. they moved in large groups from one patch of forest to another and then dispersed over a limited area when settling down for a period. It was also found that they spent the dry whether months in small groups scattered over a large area. This annual migration of herds ceased after 1977 due to either biotic pressure or drastic reduction in population. It is interesting to note that despite an over 20 % increase in their population this traditional east-west migration has not resumed till date. This resulted in the fragmentation of the population into three groups pocketed in Kerseong Division west of the Teesta, the Tondu forest and Titi reserved forest east of the Teesta. There was a small population east of the Toorsa receiving some augmentation from Assam and Bhutan. The population west of the Toorsa however was reported to have very little to do with Nepal and nothing at all with Bhutan. Interestingly some of the seemingly good elephant habitat was sparingly used by the herds.
Elephant capture and conversion of natural forests into plantations has stopped since 1981. There has been a spectacular increase in the population of the Western Dooars herds (of upto three times). This is due to the migration of elephants from the Terai where the population has reduced by 50 %. The herd pocketed in the Kurseong Division also moved to the Western Dooars sometime in 1981. Herds still frequent the Terai with one small herd having taken up permanent residence in the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary since 1989.The herd pocketed in the Titi reserve forest no longer exists in all probability having moved east of the Toorsa where a herd has been seen operating in the Chilapata Range since 1991.This herd does cross the Toorsa and enters the Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary from time to time.The Buxa population in the Eastern Dooars has registered an increase of 29 %.
Observations in the field indicate that the elephants of the Western Dooars still live in pockets but the number and location of the same have changed. Elephants have also being visiting and inhabiting areas not reported in the past including some of the good elephant habitats previously only frequented by solitaries. The elephants of the Western Dooars have been operating in five separate herds since 1991/92 and are exhibiting a limited seasonal pattern of movement coinciding with the maturing of agricultural crops (June-July with maize and December- January with paddy). All these herds also show a tendency to concentrate on both banks of the Teesta in November-December and then proceed to raid crops in large groups. In 1990 as many as 102 elephants were counted on the western bank of the Teesta.
A survey conducted by Mr.S.S.Bist along with the DFO, Samchi Range of Bhutan showed that there is no resident population west of the Toorsa in Bhutan. Occasional movement of elephants between Western Dooars and Bhutan was however found to occur. Elephants from other parts of Bhutan were found to interact with the Buxa population of the Eastern Dooars. Migration of elephants to Nepal across the Mechi River seems to have stopped. Exchange between Buxa and Assam is still known to take place.
It is obvious from past experience that with the ever increasing biotic pressure and changes in the habitat, distribution and movements of elephants in North Bengal will always remain fluid with continuous changes.They are already showing a tendency to break into splinter groups under increased stress from anti-depredation measures adopted by the people of the region. An extensive and systematic effort has to be made to study and monitor these changes.