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The 19 families of Ram Terang village, an elephant corridor

Man and beast can co-exist and in the constant war between humans and nature, a small village in Assam has shown all of us the way.

Ram Terang is a small village located  in Karbi Anglong, en route to the famous Kaziranga National Park. It is also home to 19 tribal families consisting of about 100 people. Located in the middle of a natural corridor used by elephants to travel between Kalapahar and Daigrung-Nambor Wildlife Sanctuary, the village was suffering the wrath of the animals and the animals at risk of human’s reaction.

Khoi Terang, the headman of Ram Terang village, was determined to do something for the elephants that he worshiped from childhood and for the 100 villagers who were living in the same village as him and facing the wrath of the pachyderm.

His prayers and pleas were finally heard and help arrived from thousand miles away in Britain where Prince Charles (also the joint President of the Elephant Family, an NGO) and his wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, launched the ambitious fund-raising drive for conservation of Asian elephants in India earlier this year, in memory of conservationist Mark Shand – founder of the Elephant Family charity and Camilla’s brother, who died last year.

Mark had served as a brand ambassador for Kaziranga National Park.

The royal family raised over £700,000 as part of a £1-million fund raising drive for the ‘Travels to My Elephant’ campaign aimed at creating safe corridors for wild elephants in Assam.

During the launch of the fund raiser, Prince Charles opined, “This is an enormously important cause. The establishment of corridors will transform the lives of the local farmers. If we can just complete the Assam corridor, it would make a huge difference in India.”

Soon five international NGOs working on wildlife conservation joined hands to raise £20 million for securing 100 elephant corridors across India in the next one decade. Elephant Family, International Fund for Animal Welfare, IUCN Netherlands, World Land Trust and Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) signed an MoU under the umbrella of Asian Elephant Alliance.

The selected corridors, 138 within various states, 28 more from State to State, and 17 international ones connecting to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal were documented by WTI in consultation with forest departments of the States.

This project aims to minimise the human-elephant conflict that has claimed almost 400 human lives and a minimum 50 Asian elephants every year in the country.

For the 100 villagers of 19 families in Ram Terang Village it was not easy to leave the land where they were living on for ages. Thanks to the endless effort of a dedicated team of WTI officials for the last five years, the villagers will have their new addresses – the “New Ram Terang Village”, which is nearing completion.

All the 19 families of Ram Terang village near Kaziranga National Park agreed to relocate from their current location to a site near Sar Kro village as part of the community-based conservation. Their new address will have concrete two-bedroom quarters each family with chunks of agricultural land of approximately 1.3 acres of arable land to further minimise their dependence on corridor resources. This news has been welcomed by the villagers themselves as their new village will have toilets, electricity and other basic amenities which their erstwhile homes never had.

Planning and finances of over 1 crore to the building of the homes for the villagers 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.

2016 will see these villagers make way for the Elephant Corridor and be relocated to their new homes. The New Ram Terang Village was dedicated to the memory of Mark Shand.

Dr. Abhijit Rabha, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests of Karbi Anglong Forest Department has been patronising this conservation effort since its inception with all possible support from the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council (KAAC) to secure this corridor being a first of its kind effort in eastern India.

Ruth Powys, CEO, Elephant Family said, “An entire new village comes to fruition. We have solved a problem both for elephants and people. Elephant Family is proud to be part of this venture. I can feel that Mark is with us today. Now, every child can play here without danger, and every elephant can move without conflict.”

Khoi Terang says, “Initially when we were approached by the authorities and NGO to vacate our village for a new one we were wary and suspicious about the intentions of the State Government and the authorities but today we are satisfied with our new homes. In fact the NGO showed us all their plans, along with the workshops they planned to help us learn settled cultivation. It was then that we decided to shift to help protect our own crops and to help protect the elephants.”

Elephants, like most wild animals, 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 and destruction of the crop.

“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 always in danger as people tried to keep them out of their fields,” Sandeep Tiwari, deputy director of WTI was quoted saying. It is estimated that every year crops worth lakhs are destroyed by elephants and many killed in this man animal conflict. This is perhaps the first time such an initiative has taken place in the Northeast though similar exercise has taken place in Kerala and Karnataka earlier.

The role of the NGO Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) has been lauded by many and this can become a test case for many such relocation where man-animal conflict is rampant. It may be stated that Kaziranga which also sees large scale poaching as a time poachers hiding under the garb of a local villager indulge in large scale criminal activities.

Elephant population which has been on a constant decline over the last few decades will surely benefit if similar initiative are taken agree most experts.“When we first approached the Terangs, naturally no one wanted to move, 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.” Dilip Deori of the WTI was quoted saying.

It is after the last families from the Ram Terang village are shifted the NGO and the forest officials with the Karbi Anglong district authorities will try to implement the same model for another village called Tokolangso not very far Ram Terang.

All’s not well though. A Comptroller and Auditor General team, in a joint inspection with Kaziranga officials recently, found “large-scale construction” of resorts, dhabas, dwelling houses, parking lots and garages on these corridors as also along the national highway. Once again interfering with the corridors. This relocating of an entire village to clear an animal corridor is the first in Eastern India and is positive news, much needed when besides residential and commercial blockages, several Government and Defence barricades and often railway tracks are reported to be the barrier of the wildlife in Assam.

Well, it looks like a vision from far across the continents and the solidarity of the animal lovers world over including the little known Ram Terang village have undoubtedly given a ray of hope.

In the day and age when the media only highlights the conflict in Northeast, for many this story where a small village has worked with dedicated authorities and NGOs to part with their land for the elephants in return for better amenities is surely a heart- warming narrative. Perhaps this is the beginning of something which is long overdue and a reminder that humans and animals need not live in constant conflict if practicality and sanity prevails.

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