Jumbo effort: A village in Assam shifts to make way for elephants

The villagers of Ram Terang exchanged gifts with the wild elephants of Assam this Christmas, in a manner of speaking. On December 25, 11 of the 19 tribal families began the process of moving to New Ram Terang, clearing out of a vital elephant corridor. The other eight families will follow over the next 10 days, after which Ram Terang will be surrendered.

 

In exchange, each family has got a new home built to look like their old one, with the added advantages of 1.3 acres of arable land, a toilet and a bathroom (only a handful of the families had toilets in Ram Terang) and solar power (Ram Terang had none).

“Our new village is nice. We have got our houses, and also a community hall, and farmland to practice settled cultivation,” says village headman Khoi Terang. “We didn’t want to move when this was first discussed, but the NGO showed us all their plans, along with the workshops they plan to build to help us learn settled cultivation. And we decided to shift to help protect our own crops and to help protect the elephants.”

As an added advantage, the tribals will practice settled farming on their new plots, as opposed to their traditional slash-and-burn methods, and this will help protect local forest land.

The move has been in the making for five years, negotiated by NGO Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), in association with the local forest department and the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council. Planning and financial support was provided by the UK-based NGO Elephant Family, the Netherlands-based International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund.

The initiative has cost approximately Rs 1 crore. “When we first approached the Terangs, naturally no one wanted to move,” says Dilip Deori of WTI. “But we discussed the plans with them in detail, negotiated with them and made them aware of the crucial conflict in play. Eventually, we convinced them that it was as much about saving the elephant as it was about recognising their problems and trying to solve them.”

In a country where man-animal conflict claims hundreds of lives each year, this kind of voluntary relocation could offer a template for success. The corridor in which Ram Terang is located is a vital one because it connects the Nambor-Doigrung Wildlife Sanctuary with eastern Karbi Anglong, en route the Kaziranga National Park, says Abhijit Rabha, additional principal chief conservator of forests in the Karbi Anglong Forest Department.

Elephants, like most wild animals, are creatures of habit. They tend to follow the same paths as they migrate from one habitat to another through the year. This corridor is about 2.5 km wide, and when human settlements appear within or along them, it results in conflict.

“An estimated 1,800 elephants use the corridor in which Ram Terang is situated, so the village often found its fields raided by the elephants, and the elephants were in danger as people tried to keep them out of their fields,” Sandeep Tiwari, deputy director of WTI.

This, then, is a first-of-its-kind initiative for north-east India. “There have been previous instances of corridors being secured in Kerala and Karnataka,” says Sandeep Tiwari, deputy director of the WTI. “This is a big development in the struggle to reduce man-animal conflict as well as protect wildlife.”

Now that Ram Terang’s 101 residents are on their way out of the corridor, the second phase of the project will begin, with similar relocations and rehabilitations of other villages in the elephant corridor. Next up is Tokolangso village. “Most of the people in this village seem much more forthcoming about moving now that they have seen New Ram Terang take shape,” says Deori. “We are hoping to start work with them soon.”

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