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Living with the elephants

The tribal belt of south Bengal has become ground zero of a grim battle with an ever-increasing population of visiting elephants

‘Hell Is Here’ by Biplab Hazra won 2017 ‘Sanctuary’ Wildlife Photo of the Year. Photo: Biplab Hazra/ Sanctuary Nature Foundation
‘Hell Is Here’ by Biplab Hazra won 2017 ‘Sanctuary’ Wildlife Photo of the Year. Photo: Biplab Hazra/ Sanctuary Nature Foundation

The elephants are here," Jiten Singh declares without any show of emotion as we arrive at Tapoban (Madhyapara) village. About 65km from Kharagpur town, Tapoban is a tribal hamlet deep within the vast forested terrain known as Jangalmahal, in West Bengal. It is nearing dusk. Ordinarily, the village would be asleep in a couple of hours. Tonight, though, will be one of sleepless vigil, not unlike nights during the cultivation season when elephant herds troop out of the jungle to picnic on the paddy.

Singh will lead the night-long watch. Only 20, this college dropout is a veteran of many an encounter with elephants and feels responsible for his village’s safety. West Bengal forest department officials have designated him head of the local hula party—village youth who are commissioned and paid by the forest department to chase away raiding herds.

Central to a hula party’s armoury, along with fireballs and crackers, is the hula—a long wooden stick with a gunny bag tied to one end, which is set alight, with a sharp metal spearhead sticking out. Fire scares the elephants. Occasionally, it singes. The metallic spear, a Tapoban villager explains candidly, is for the “satisfaction of hitting out" at an elephant when death looms. In recent years, Tapoban and its neighbouring villages have reported two deaths. Nobody keeps count of the times they’ve been raided.

As we speak to gathered villagers, someone gets a hula ready: The gunny rag has to be doused in burnt Mobil motor oil before it’s set on fire right before the chase. Some others hurry home in the fading light before the elephant herd, reportedly a kilometre inside the forest, emerges on to the road and farm land.

Shaktipada Choudhury, a farmer from neighbouring Pathardahara, guides us to his paddy field, which had been invaded two nights earlier by elephants. In near twilight, it isn’t difficult to make out the jumbo footprints on the ground or the mounds of dung. Choudhury points towards the foggy forest line not too far away. There’s no alarm or anger in his voice. Maybe, a touch of resignation. “That’s where they are."

In the forested parts of Bengal’s West Midnapore district, the pachyderms are there to stay. They started moving into Bengal from the Dalma Hills in neighbouring Jharkhand in the mid-1980s, an annual migration that only sees their numbers and length of stay in the south Bengal districts increasing. Forest department records note that a herd of around 10 elephants made its way into Bengal in the late 1980s, but official figures indicate that 90-120 elephants visited the Midnapore division alone in 2016-17, staying for as many as 285 days in 2016, compared with the herd of 70-80 that stayed for 15 days in 2009-10.

The ensuing run-in between man and elephant has been bitter, and often bloody. The state government paid compensation of Rs1.45 crore and over Rs11 lakh for crop loss and damaged houses, respectively, in Midnapore division during 2016-17; five people were killed during this period in the same division. Even though the toll has been coming down, the situation is described as “alarming". The state’s former chief wildlife warden and principal chief conservator of forests, Pradeep Vyas, told IANS in 2016: “In 2015-16, 108 people were killed and 95 injured by wild elephants in the state. A total of 14 elephants have been killed in retaliation." Seventy-one of those killed were in south Bengal, with Bankura and West Midnapore accounting for the highest number of deaths. West Bengal also reported the maximum number of deaths caused by elephants in India from 2013-16, followed by Assam, Odisha and Jharkhand.

“We should realize that elephants are not intruders in our land, we are intruding in theirs," asserts Arup Mukherjee, divisional forest officer (DFO), Kharagpur range, in West Midnapore district.

Migratory elephants too have been killed—there are instances of them getting electrocuted by energized fencing; after falling into ditches and wells; and, on occasion, rogues have been shot by government-appointed marksmen.

Elephant idols and statues are worshipped prior to an animal sacrifice ritual at the Kaluashar Mandir, 5km from Nayagram village. Photo: Shamik Bag

Earlier this year, the wildlife magazine Sanctuary chose Bankura-based Biplab Hazra as 2017’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year, showcasing his photograph titled Hell Is Here. In the photograph, an adult female elephant and a baby elephant can be seen struggling across a highway even as one of the front legs of the adult elephant and the calf’s hind seem to have been set on fire by villagers, who can be seen running away in the background.

If the photograph guts the soul of viewers, it is also a true representation of how tense the situation is, says Hazra over the phone. “I took this photo two years back. Forty to forty-five elephants were visiting the Nayagram area. The hula party arrived with crackers and fireballs and somebody threw the fire at the elephants. The hula party members are mostly illiterate and have no training on how to chase away elephants, while the forest department doesn’t care much," says Hazra. “The elephant population has increased but their lands have been encroached. I would blame faulty development for the crisis."

At Nayagram village, about 40km from Kharagpur, I met a civic police volunteer, Anup Bhakta, an acquaintance who would earlier brew mahua, the local intoxicant, at his home while keeping an eye out for elephants attracted by their love of the brew. The elephants have largely bypassed Nayagram this year, but Bhakta does tell me about farmers who have stopped cultivating the profitable sugar cane after repeated invasions of their fields.

“What to do, babu?" a farmer at Tapoban village wonders when I ask him about the way hula parties deal with marauding elephants. Herds are chased from village to village as they raid crops and granaries for food. An adult elephant requires at least 200kg of leaves and grass daily, and these are often unavailable in forests—ready, nutritious food in human habitats is, therefore, an attraction. “We barely live off our cultivation. If that too is gone to elephants, we will be as good as dead," the farmer reasons.

In areas like this, where non-contiguous forest tracts are interspersed with human habitat, victims fight victims—and there is no winner.

Official figures indicate that 90-120 elephants visited the Midnapore division alone in 2016-17, staying for as many as 285 days in 2016, compared with the herd of 70-80 that stayed for 15 days in 2009-10-

‘Hula’ on Pachyderm trail

Sometime in 1987, three years after he joined the forest department, J.C. Biswas received an unusual work order: He had to go on an “elephant drive", as elephant-chasing missions are called.

In his Bengali book Hastipuran, author Santanu Ghosh records possibly the first intrusion from Jharkhand to West Bengal: two elephants from the Dalma Hills crossed the Kangsabati river in 1986 and visited the Kantapahari area of Lalgarh village. Degradation of Jharkhand’s forest cover, ostensibly from large-scale mining, was forcing the animals out. Locals believe it was a recce mission for the bigger migration that was to follow next year, and in subsequent years, generally about the time thupi chali variety of local rice is harvested. According to the book, elephants raid these rice fields.

Like many others, Biswas, currently the beat officer of Ranja, had little experience in elephants. Help was sought from forest officers in north Bengal, a terrain habituated to sizeable elephant presence. As the migration gathered in strength with every passing year, a vital contribution came from an unlikely source. In 1989, the forest department pressed into service a tribal man and his team from Purulia, a district that had experienced elephant movement. Bhim Mahato brought with him a stick with a cloth tied to it, topped by a spearhead. He called this a hula.

Currently, there are 450 hula party members recognized by the forest department in the Midnapore division. “We have greatly benefited from their grass-roots knowledge on animal behaviour and psychology. They can predict reaction even from the twitch of a tail," says Rabindra Nath Saha, DFO of Midnapore. They are familiar with elephants—even earlier, the region had a few resident elephants staying in the forests. The huge migration from Dalma from the 1980s changed all that.

Over the years, the conflict has only become worse. After three decades of being in the thick of action, Biswas outlines the change. “Earlier, we could chase elephants away merely by burning tyres, using crackers and a 12-volt search light. The elephants seem angrier these days and more difficult to deal with."

We meet at the Pirakata range office near Lalgarh. A four-wheel-drive Airavat truck—retrofitted with 150 kW and 100 kW searchlights, a Honda generator, a multi-toned shrill hooter, a cordless microphone and a public address system, a tranquillizer set, radio transmission, ropes, chains and nets for elephant capture—is parked in a corner. The truck is among the two recent acquisitions of the forest department for the Midnapore range.

It doesn’t always make life easier. Driver Amal Chakraborty recounts one instance where an elephant upturned a car with the driver inside and tried to break in. Despite the hooter and blinding lights, it refused to move; Chakraborty had to shove it away physically with the truck.

In such a scenario, the fact that forest department-led awareness campaigns and initiatives like mass SMS elephant alerts have kept the toll down to two people in 2017, can be misleading.

Recently, a hula party member Sankar Duley was killed when he ignored the warning signs; and a local Congress councillor, Koustav Banerjee, was trampled to death when he was shooting photographs of a herd in 2015. Bhim Mahato, Purulia’s pioneering hula man, was himself mercilessly gored to death sometime around 2001.

In a shocking incident earlier this year, a hula party member of the Midnapore division was killed by a villager after a dispute over the route the chased herd would take—more indication if any was needed, of the complexities of this conflict. Inarguably, in man’s face-off with one of the world’s largest mammals, every inch of land is hard-fought.

Ironic though it may seem, it is Bengal’s increasing forest cover—a result of the joint forest management programme that entails the participation of local communities and state agencies in forest upkeep and development—that is now cited as a reason for the increasing number of foraging animals. “South Bengal has also seen better irrigation and agricultural practices, thus ensuring year-round crop cultivation. These are easy pickings for elephants, who have developed a taste for agricultural crops," says Saha.

On wish-fulfilment, idols are offered by devotees at tribal temples, such as this one in Rameshwar in Jhargram district. Photo: Shamik Bag

In God they trust

As DFO of the severely-affected Midnapore division, Saha leads efforts to minimize human-elephant conflict primarily by “reducing the zone of influence". After deaths in Bankura, political pressure ensured intruding elephants were chased out—and the district has been largely free of the animals this year. The jumbo congregation has been restricted largely to the West Midnapore district.

That hasn’t solved the problem. But “that there are fewer casualties on both sides can be credited to the respect the tribal population traditionally has had for elephants," says Saha. Villagers have been known to voluntarily offer a portion of their crop to elephants to invoke their blessings.

To understand this deep-rooted reverence, a happier aspect of the issue, we visit Chandankat village, under the Godapiasal forest range. The village started organizing an annual Haathi Mela four years ago. The two-day elephant fair gets over 10,000 visitors—there are tribal song and dance performances, folk theatre and other entertainment, besides an elaborate elephant-worshipping ritual. Villagers conceptualized the Haathi Mela in memory of three elephants which died in successive years, including one which fell into a well, in their vicinity. They pressurized the forest department to create an elephant cremation ground nearby (Haathi Shoshaan)—it required hydraulic cranes, 27 tractors of firewood and the specialized services of a tribal group from Garbeta town, which chopped the elephants into six pieces, to ensure their proper cremation.

The villagers are Bhumij, a Scheduled Tribe. Like the Kurmi tribal community we met at Pirakata, this tribe’s ancestors venerated elephant and horse idols. “And, suddenly, real elephants started appearing a few decades back. We knew god had descended on earth," says village elder Sudhir Singh. Last year, the villagers felt “blessed" when a group of 70-odd elephants visited the Haathi Mela site when the fair was on. “They silently looked at the mela from the forest’s edge before disappearing into the jungle," says Sudhir.

He speaks a day after an elephant herd had visited the elephant cremation site. Three elephant idols, symbolizing the three departed elephants, used to be worshipped before these elephants knocked down their replicas. Nobody complained. Strange are the ways of their god, the Bhumij know.

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