Jumbo problem worries 5 constituencies (Assam, India)


Naresh Mitra, Times of India

Date Published

Udalguri: All through December last year, Mangal Munda, 36, couldn’t spend a single night with his family in his home in Jharabasti, close to the India-Bhutan international border in Assam’s Udalguri district.

Mangal and the other villagers would gulp down their dinner at dusk and, armed with bidis and khaini, would spend night after night in tree-top houses called ‘tongi’. They kept up the punishing routine to prevent herds of wild elephants, which frequently come down from Bhutan and feed on paddy in villages along the border, from plundering their crops.

“We lead a miserable life year after year. We need respite from this ordeal. Politicians should seriously do something,” said Mangal, bleary-eyed from nights of sleeplessness.

Over years of unabated deforestation, Udalguri and its adjoining districts have emerged as the epicentre of intense human-elephant conflict which kills both men and animals every year. Villagers living along the border have virtually given up cultivation because of frequent crop damage by jumbos.

Assam has over 5,000 elephants which are increasingly encroaching on human settlements because of loss of habitat.

With parts of the state going to the polls on April 4, not only ethno-religious issues, human-elephant conflict, too, has become a major election issue in districts bordering Bhutan. More than five constituencies sharing a border with Bhutan, as well as with Arunachal Pradesh, are part of traditional elephant corridors and witness intense and often fatal clashes between villagers and pachyderms.

“There’s hardly a single day during harvest season (November to December) when elephants don’t enter villages,” said Shanti Kujur, another villager.

Politicians campaigning in these villages often face the wrath of angry residents. “I did come across people raising the human-elephant conflict issue during electioneering,” admitted Congress candidate for Panery assembly seat Durga Das Boro. Jharabasti is part of the constituency.

Local conservation activist Ananta Bagh said at least 20 people were trampled to death by elephants last year alone, while five elephants were killed in Udalguri district. Bagh, who heads a local conservation group, added that in 2014, 23 people lost their lives in elephant attacks.

“Every year, there are human and elephant deaths. Humans often poison elephants or electrocute them,” Bagh said.

There are some bright spots though in an increasingly grim situation. Sonitpur district, adjoining Udalguri, also sees frequent human-elephant conflicts but got some respite this year after the forest department and conservationists successfully installed electric fencing in 30 villages in the district. The Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) has already started corridor restoration work in Karbi Anglong district after Prince Charles mobilized five international conservations NGOs to raise £20 million last year. The money will be used to secure 100 elephant corridors in the country, including in the northeast.