India Interior

In Uttarakhand, tackling the tussle with tuskers

N Shiva Kumar | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on September 09, 2016

Tusk tsk! Wild elephants emerge out of a forest and cross a busy road near Lalpani village in Uttarakhand n shiva kumar

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Measures to reduce elephant-human conflicts are being tested in the State

Elephas maximus indicus, the Indian elephant, is not a happy animal in the wilderness today. One of its crucial woes is the conflict with human habitation.

In particular, in Uttarakhand, the situation in the jungles abutting the villages of Lalpani Grastanganj, Kumbhichaur, Rampur, Nathupur and Saneh in the Kotdwar tehsil of the Pauri-Garhwal district is distressing the mighty animals.

Acknowledged as an intelligent creature with an excellent memory, these pachyderms regularly meander between two surviving jungle labyrinths — a 500 sq km section of the Corbett National Park and 800 sq km of the Rajaji National Park. The natural corridors between the two lush jungles have been encroached by humans over the years, thereby perforating the age-old elephant highways.

The gentle giants with normally placid temperament have started to retaliate in recent years. As habitations in villages and towns increased, obviously the human-elephant conflict has also amplified, says the scientist Santosh Kumar Sahoo, Chairperson of Conservation Himalayas.

Instead of using the traditional methods of drum beating and fireworks to chase away the mighty elephants, ingenious techniques that safeguard both animals and humans are now preferred. The COSEFS (community-owned solar electric fencing system) around agricultural land is one such option. Sahoo, however, points to the need for proper coordination with the forest department, local panchayats, voluntary groups and zoologists to ensure the schemes are beneficial to stakeholders. It is even more important to involve local community in the habitat protection activities.

Sahoo explains that elephants can travel up to 50 km during a single nocturnal search for food and water. Unfortunately, they are caught in sticky situations brought about by the fragmentation of forests. Houses, walls, fences and trenches jeopardise the elephant’s access to its habitat. Like human beings they relish a variety of vegetation, including bamboo, standing crops of rice or wheat and sugarcane among others. Elephants also seek out high-energy foods such as jaggery, rice, potatoes, and sweet vegetables stored by villagers.

The unplanned barriers in and around Lalpani and Kotdwar, on the fringes of the north-western part of Corbett National Park, do not take elephant activities into account. Neither is the judicious use of the forest and rural landscape taken into consideration during “developmental” works such as the building of roadways, railroads and water canals. Denying elephants access to a critical water source or foraging area can be disadvantageous to their survival and may even aggravate conflict.

Disgruntled farmers may support poachers in killing leopards, tigers, elephants and other wildlife, explains Sahoo. It’s akin to the monkey menace in the cities where the situation turns into a vicious circle because the people who are averse to monkey tricks are the people who feed them.

To educate the villagers and opinion leaders on ways to mitigate and avoid confrontation, particularly with elephants and leopards, Sahoo and field programme officer Aruna Negi started, together with a team of dedicated villagers, a Community Livelihood Improvement (CLI) training model at Lalpani two years ago. The specific goals are to reduce deforestation and human-elephant conflicts, and foster sustainable behaviour change.

Under the entity Conservation Himalayas, the duo launched the CLI pilot project with the enrolment of 200 women and girls from Lalpani. Many of them are school dropouts who usually venture into the forests to collect firewood for cooking and fodder for their cattle. Helping them form self-help groups, training them in livelihood schemes and providing community benefit schemes such as LPG subsidy and new LPG connections, the attempt is to reduce their need to venture into the jungles. Some of the women have started earning well to support their homes using their stitching and tailoring skills.

Sarita Kumari, who recently passed Class 10, says, “Over two years I have managed to earn ₹6,000 by stitching ladies dresses and blouses and this is much better than fetching firewood and selling it in the market.” CLI trainee Viswambari Devi nods in agreement and says she now uses LPG to cook.

With over 20 years of experience in wildlife conservation, Sahoo and Negi have realised that wildlife research does not save endangered species. Innovative lab-to-land solutions have to be implemented. “Freedom from wildlife encounters and judicious use of produce from the verdant jungles, where wild creatures live in harmony, can only be achieved by peaceful co-existence,” says Aruna

Sahoo explains that in India only about 20 per cent of elephant habitat is in protected areas, while the rest is witnessing increasing human density. “We are planning more training centres for a peaceful co-existence between animals and people. We also continuously educate villagers about the virtues of elephants and other herbivores, as they play a vital role in revitalising the jungles by effective dispersal of seeds and enriching the soil through the large volume of dung deposits.”

“If man is the wiser entity, he should back off and follow the dictum of live and let live,” says Sharad Khanna of Delhi’s Indian Wildlife Adventures, effectively summing up the issue.

The writer is a photographer and wildlife enthusiast based in Noida

Published on September 09, 2016
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