Human-elephant conflict: Long-term solution needed

Retaliatory killing of marauding elephants has not reached a critical level in Nepal if compared with the situation in other South Asian countries. However, farmers’ patience could be running out. An amicable settlement of disputes and long-term solution to this knotty problem should, therefore, be sought before it is too late

The electrocution of a wild tusker inward No 5 of Khadak Municipality in Saptari district in the first week of January 2021 has once again reminded us of the thorny problem of human-elephant conflict in Nepal. Every year we read news about marauding wild elephants causing crop damage and loss of property in villages that are on the fringe of forested areas.

The foraging giants are also known to enter deep into human habitation in search of food.

At times, such incidents end in the tragic loss of human life or the death of the endangered wildlife. Then the issue is settled and the matter is forgotten. But for the locals, the conflict with wild elephants is a harsh reality. The said wild animal is reported to have been electrocuted by an electric fence erected by the locals to prevent foraging elephants from entering their crop fields.

During the harvesting season, farmers keep vigil by staying on machans (watch towers) at night and making noises such as shouting, beating drums and using firecrackers to discourage the foraging animals from entering their crop fields. In some Indian villages, farmers are also said to use the smoke of burning chili pepper to thwart crop raid.

Human-elephant conflict presents a curious paradox.

Nepal is internationally committed to biodiversity conservation, and the wild Asian elephant (elephas maximus) is legally protected in the country.

Killing of the endangered wildlife is punishable by law. Conservationists are, thus, often in a dilemma while dealing with human-elephant conflict.

There is often news on wild elephants wreaking havoc in the eastern district of Jhapa, who cross the Mechi River and enter the Nepali side from the Indian forests across the border through the old forest corridor traditionally used during their seasonal movement.

The pristine forests of the lowland Tarai and the contiguous jungles in north and the north-east India once served as one large habitat for the wild Asian elephant. However, the eradication of malaria in Nepal’s southern plains and the large-scale deforestation for resettlement and agricultural development programmes resulted in the loss of prime wildlife habitat, including that of the wild elephant.

Loss of pristine wildlife habitat saw the fragmentation of elephant population into smaller groups. Moreover, it narrowed the range of the long distances they used to traditionally cover in the past, and confined them into comparatively smaller areas of degraded forests. Rapidly growing human population and the need for agricultural land for subsistence farming have further aggravated the situation. All these factors have made interface and conflict between the locals and wild elephant inevitable.

According to a study carried out by Petra ten Velde in 1996-98 with financial support of WWF, four main populations of wild Asian elephant have been recorded in Nepal, existing along the eastern, central, western and far-western belt of the country. The Eastern herd of 10-15 individuals migrates from West Bengal of India during the harvesting times of corn and rice.

After crossing over to Nepal, this herd is known to proceed along the Churia foothills to Sunsari and Saptari districts before returning to India. A herd of approximately 25 elephants residing in Parsa Wildlife Reserve forms the central population.

The 40-50 resident population of Bardia National Park forms the western population. Likewise, the far-western population of 12-18 elephants lives within the Churia foothills national forests, occasionally moving to the Indian forests after crossing the Mahakali River. There are altogether 208 domesticated (captive) elephants in the country, which are owned by the government, conservation agencies and individuals.

In terms of conflict and resultant loss of life and property, eastern Nepal is the most affected. According to the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (Government of Nepal), an average household in Jhapa district loses up to Rs.30, 000 annually to wild elephants. And between 2003 and 2007, 20 locals lost their lives in elephant attacks while12 elephants were killed in retaliatory actions.

A relief scheme has been initiated by the government to compensate the loss of life or injury sustained in elephant attack.

Apart from legally protecting wild elephants, the government has prepared an Elephant Conservation Action Plan and implemented the Terai Arc Landscape (TAL) Programme by joining hands with WWF Nepal.

The TAL Program is aimed at improving the chances of long-term survival of this endangered species in their current habitats with the restoration of degraded forest corridors, while also linking the adjacent protected areas of Nepal and India with biological pathway through restoration and regeneration programmes.

Wildlife knows no political boundaries and wildlife authorities of the two countries also meet occasionally to deal with problems relating to the trans-border movement of mega terrestrial giants.

In order to minimise conflict, the initiatives taken at the site level include construction of physical barriers, such as wildlife watch towers and trenches together with the promotion of traditional deterring methods -building fires and making noises to deter crop raid. The government has erected electric fences in critical areas by joining hands with the local people.

Wildlife expert Dr Narendra B Pradhan states that retaliatory killing of marauding elephants has not reached a critical level in Nepal if compared with the situations in other South Asian countries. He, however, cautions that farmers’ patience could be running out. An amicable settlement of disputes and longterm solution to this knotty problem should, therefore, be sought before it is too late.