Man-elephant conflict: Loharghat’s lessons on unity among gross adversity (India)


Partha Prawal, Merinews

Date Published

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With man-elephant conflicts on the rise in Assam and when no help from the forest department is made available, a village in Kamrup district upholds an exemplary example as how one should face one’s adversity. Man-elephant conflicts in the region are quite rampant and every now and then someone or the other is being trampled by these ‘gentle giants’. But even then an uncalled truce seems to exist among between the humans and the jumbos.

Sixteen-year-old Probin wasn’t sure if the route that he had taken to reach for his friend Jatin’s house at the next village was actually safe! All he knew was that he had to be there by 1 pm for attending Jatin’s elder sister’s marriage.

‘Don’t go by the jungle’, his mother had warned him before he left home. But the adrenaline rush among youngsters of his age is always high and ignoring his mother’s warning he took the way through the jungle, which crosses through an elephant corridor.

Even though Probin was aware that it was that time of the day when elephants walked pass through the way to the other side of the jungle, yet he decided to give it a try.

“When I was half way through, a fear began creeping inside me for I was alone in the jungle and if I encountered the elephants, I knew I was in for some serious trouble,” recollected Probin while talking about a summer day in 2013, when he ‘realised’ that elephants are not that ferocious as people think they are to be.

“I was almost in the middle of the jungle and probably was crossing an elephant’s corridor when I saw a herd of around 10-15 elephants, all staring at me with amusement. I was perspiring profusely. I froze with fear. The jumbos kept staring at me. I knew I had no chance, even if I ran; I would be mauled for sure. But after a minute or so, the elephants moved back and made cleared the way for me to pass. Without making any further delay, I walked as fast as I could and after crossing them when I looked at the herd from a distance, they were already gone,” he added.

Loharghat’s 16-year-old Probin Rabha is one among the very few lucky ones who has had a narrow escape from death. Man-elephant conflicts in the region are quite rampant and every now and then someone or the other is being trampled by these ‘gentle giants’. But even then an uncalled truce seems to exist among between the humans and the jumbos in Loharghat, a hamlet in South Kamrup, some 45 kilometres away from Guwahati.

“Around 90 pc of our crops are explored by the wild elephants that come down from the nearby hills. But with time, we have learned to live in harmony with them and in the past decade there has been no untoward incident in our village. They come, feed themselves and leave,” recalled Merina Rabha of Deopani village under Loharghat Forest Range.

But the awareness and the ‘uncalled’ truce didn’t come in the village overnight; it is but a collective effort of the villagers that is aptly led by DiYA Foundations, a local NGO.

“I myself have had a face-off with the jumbos in the past. After my graduations, when I was working for Bosco Outreach in Guwahati, I used to hear that someone or the other was being trampled to death by the jumbos. It pained me and I wanted to do something for my people and with this aim I returned and joined this NGO,” informed Martin Rabha, a core team member of the NGO.

Even though the NGO’s prime focus is to bring about a social change in the region, it however has been putting a lot of emphasis on the conservation of bio-diversity.

“We teach tailoring to the girls, impart training on piggery and other cattle rearing through our NGO. But it has been observed that the people in the area are conscious regarding environment protection and hence over the last two-three years, our main emphasis has been to aware them on the various environment issues,” Rabha said, adding, “They are quite aware of the ill effects of the man-elephant conflicts and the people have also taken initiatives on their own. Our aim is to take these initiatives to the next level.”

The 30 plus something young environment enthusiast, who left behind a high paying corporate job as well, further informed that the people in the village have began cropping only for the elephants, so that the giants don’t destroy the crops meant for people’s feeding.

“60 bighas of land is especially cropped for the elephants,” he said.

While speaking in details about its activities, Martin said, “With the aim of conservation and creating awareness, DiYA Foundation (DF) in collaboration with various institutions and likeminded persons have conducted awareness campaign programs, village to village meetings in most affected villages generating awareness on how community can join together in conserving the natural resources and wild species and also regenerate livelihood in a sustainable manner. We have also successfully established links with institutions that outsource educated youths, train and give placements in their institutions. So far DF has successfully given placements to at least 30 youths.”

“Our aim is to aware people in protecting the flora and fauna of the State,” Martin was quick to add.

But even after such awareness it is not that there are no conflicts, in fact there are even deaths reported from the area.

“See, we have invaded their homes and we will have to pay for it. Even after such large scale destruction, we continue to invade more. Elephants in general are quite calm, but once you make them angry, even the gods can’t protect you,” said Kanthiram Rabha, a senior of the village.

“We try numerous ways to keep the elephants away, sometimes even kill their little ones and bury it on their path so that they don’t cross over. But acts like these have a mythological truth only, in reality these make the jumbos more ferocious and the end result is this what we have been witnessing now,” Rabha added.

But the senior Rabha, having an experience of around six decades, felt that a wind of change is actually blowing across the region.

“In the past, people feared, but now, the elephants and the humans have become like those friends who never call each other but understand each others’ feelings quite well. They don’t disturb us, we don’t disturb them. We keep food for them, they come, take those and leave,” Kanthiram Rabha said.

“When the forest department didn’t answer to our calls of distress, we knew we will have to find alternative ways and we have just done that,” he was quick to add.

People in the area alleged that the forest officials are good for nothing and they have failed to take steps to stop the elephant’s raid on the villages. This was in fact authoritatively stamped by a forest official. He under the condition of anonymity said, “What can we do when we are not equipped with any equipment for confronting the jumbos. With a cane and torchlight, one cannot face the elephants. The higher officials know everything, but they seldom do something.”

And amid this tussle life moves on somewhat peacefully.