A village where men, elephants coexist peacefully

Even as the man-elephant conflict rages across the State, a village near the Bhutiachang tea estate in Udalguri district has shown that it is not quite impossible to maintain a ‘peaceful coexistence’ with elephants. The No. 4 Bhutiachang village which has been frequented by elephant herds for decades with the debilitating consequences of human fatalities and crop loss, has evolved an innovative approach that is visibly easing the tension between man and animal for the past couple of years.

“Earlier we used to be aggressive towards the herds that destroyed our paddy and even killed people. Now, with the realisation that undue aggression on our part often enraged the elephants that developed a hatred for humans, we have ceased our hostility to the elephants. We have secured our paddy fields with solar fencing and at the same time never tried to hinder the elephants’ movement in our village,” Bimal Bodo, the local village defence party president with some training on handling elephant depredation, said.

The patience and tolerance on the part of the villagers is evident from the fact that they do not complain when elephants damage their betel-nut trees. This turnaround is extraordinary, as the village primary school continues to run normally even when 50-odd elephants keep rummaging barely a few hundred yards away.

The villagers have also been feeding banana trees to the elephants in a bid to strike a ‘cordial relationship’ with the elephants. “Conservationists may not quite welcome this idea of feeding wild animals but the context is crucial here. These elephants stay near the village for a long time and it is normal for such animals to be somewhat used to humans, more so when we shun our aggression to them. What is important is that this friendly approach has manifestly lessened the man-elephant conflict here,” Rajen Bodo, BLT rebel-turned-conservationist, said.

Often, it is the lack of a coherent reaction on the part of the people that worsens elephant depredations, and it is possible to minimise the damages by acting rationally. MK Sarma, DFO, Dhansiri Wildlife Division, while appreciating the locals’ role in easing the man-elephant conflict, said that the Forest Department intends to train up villagers for mitigating the conflict.

“There are proper ways to deal with elephants that frequent human habitations. Getting panicky or becoming hostile to the animals will only maximise the damages. We will train up local youths for handling elephants in such areas. This will also lessen the burden on the manpower-starved Forest Department,” Sarma said. The situation at Bhutiachang improved considerably this year following a series of awareness programmes in the district during 2013-15.

“People had little knowledge about animal behaviour and were often killed while trying to chase away wild elephant herds, especially during night hours. We, together with the Udalguri district administration, Dhansiri Forest Division – Udalguri, and members of the Udalguri unit of the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU), undertook the awareness campaign in remote India-Bhutan border villages,” Jayanta Das, coordinator of Elephants On The Line, said.

A total of 24 boys belonging mostly to the Bodo, Adivasi and Nepali communities were trained in computer, GIS, GPS, wildlife photography, wildlife behaviour, etc., and a data base was created with its headquarters at Kasubil near Bhutiachang. “Compared to earlier years, this year only two wild elephants and six people have died in Udalguri district – perhaps the lowest number of fatalities in a decade,” Das added.

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