Elephant Depredation Ė the case of Western Dooars.
Elephant depredation or the destruction of human settlements, life and raiding of agricultural
crops has been occurring since ancient times. The Gajasastra (Sanskrit for elephant lore) written sometime in the 6 th or 5 th century BC mentions that elephants destroyed the kingdom of Anga during the reign of Romapada, an obvious reference to crop raiding. Elephants have been prized in India as beasts of war and burden and with manís crop fields providing them with an attractive source of food the stage was set to bring them into intense conflict with each other. The Arthasastra prescribes both their eradication from river valleys and their strict protection in the forests on the borders of the kingdom.
It therefore needs to be understood and accepted that consumption of agricultural crops has become an integral part of the elephantís natural optimal foraging strategy. Studies in South India show that an elephant consumes an average of 1.5 % of its body weight in dry weight fodder. This takes upto 12 to 19 hours of feeding in a natural habitat. A crop raiding elephant can meet itís requirement of fodder in 6 to 7 hours of feeding. This is possible because humans have selected their food crops primarily on considerations of sensory quality, digestibility, absence of toxins, productivity and nutritive value.
Incidence of crop raiding by elephants increase in frequency in areas where their habitat is fragmented and interspersed with cultivation as is the case in Western Dooars. Large and compact habitats allow for unimpeded movement and crop raiding is restricted to areas where the perimeters of cultivation abut the forest as in the Eastern Dooars.
The problem was first recorded in North Bengal in 1907 and every subsequent administrative record touches upon the damage to crops by elephants.The magnitude of the problem in recent times can gauged by the fact that as many as 476 people were killed between 1980 to 1990, an average of 800 houses were destroyed annually and compensation paid for crop damage varied from 10.26 lacs to 23.04 lacs annually. Over 80 % of this depredation having occurred in the Western Dooars.
The management of the Western Dooars herds is a challenge unprecedented in the history of man-animal conflicts. Any management policy to be adopted will have to accept crop raiding and should instead focus on the prevention of the destruction of homes and the loss of lives. Both of which are direct results of manís efforts to reduce the extent of crop raiding. Close physical contact between man and elephant has to be reduced and can only be achieved if the elephants are allowed to feed freely and move from one pocket of forest to another undisturbed. This is easier than it seems as the cultivated fields are distinct in location to the residential areas and also as crop raiding occurs during the night when human activity is minimal.
The following measures taken in combination can prove effective. The first is the erection of electric fencing around vulnerable labour lines and villages. These should be done in a manner that should allow the onward movement of elephants to other areas. Unless properly planned they can disturb the normal movement of elephants and create new areas of depredations. They should be of international standards and villagers should be trained in their mantanance.This needs to be supported with patrolling vehicles fitted with spotlights and sirens. There are already squads of this nature in operation and they have been successful in dislodging problem elephants. Their number need to be increased and their principal aim should be changed from chasing elephants away from cultivation to the protection of homes.
It has been suggested that crop raiding be allowed. This however has a serious adverse impact on the income of individual households. It is therefore imperative that the existing system of cash compensation be strengthened and extended. This can best be done at the Panchayat level with individuals from each block being employed as assessors after proper training. The recommendations of these assessors should be the basis for compensation instead of the adhoc system based on acreage destroyed which is in practice at present.
Long-term measures focusing on reduction of biotic pressure and interference and the improvement of existing habitat also need to be adopted. These can be successfully implemented with the tea garden management, NGOís and the Forest Department working together with well-defined roles in an organized and co-ordinated manner.
Role of the tea garden management should be restricted to the gardens itself. Tea garden labour receive firewood as a part of their terms of employment. This results in a huge demand for firewood, which is partly met by unscrupulous contractors. An agreement signed between the labour unions and management to substitute firewood with coal briquettes needs to be implemented urgently. Management needs to encourage the role of the Panchayat self-employment schemes on their gardens to help reduce the pressure on the forests by unemployed youth residing in the labour lines.
The NGOís should take up Eco-development schemes in the villages aimed primarily at reducing biotic pressure and interference in the forms of grazing, illegal collection of firewood and fodder,and unregulated fire. Excellent work has been carried out in the areas surrounding the Mahananda Wildlife Santury and many such projects need to be taken up in the villages of the Western Dooars.
The Forest Department should concentrate on habitat development in the forests. They can only be successful if biotic interference is reduced. It is therefore imperative that the tea garden management and NGOís successfully carry out their roles.
The main role of the department will be in the formulation and implementation of policies aimed at the management of the herds themselves. This will have to be based on sound scientific principals and must commence with a comprehensive study of the ecology of the herds. Some of the points to be addressed are, if reduction of the population itself would reduce depredation, the minimum viable population, maintenance of genetic viability in the small pocketed herds of the region, protection of the same from genetic variability and demographic catastrophe through disease and the elimination of rouge or problem elephants.
The disturbing question arises whether the price being paid for conserving the elephants of the area is worthwhile or not. Detractors point out that the elephants of the Western Dooars form less than 42 % of the total population of North Bengal, less than 10 % of the population in North-East India and less than 0.5 % of the total elephant population of India. They go on to add that these elephants do not play any significant role in the overall conservation of the elephant in the regional or national level but instead give a negative message to the public which is not conducive to the cause of wildlife conservation in the area. They advocate translocation or outright destruction of the herds if translocation is not possible.
The fitting reply to them is that the scenario of North Bengal could well be the future of other elephant holding areas in the country if requisite steps are not taken in time. Our ability to resolve and manage this problem population will play a crucial part in ensuring the survival of the elephant in India. Several mistakes will be made and important lessons learnt which will go a long way in shaping future strategy for the conservation of the elephant and other forms of wildlife in India and the rest of the world.
It is for this reason that the long and winding road be taken in the Western Dooars and it would be wise to remind ourselves that we did not inherit the world but only hold it in trust for the next generation.