It’s a nightmare they cannot quite pass off as a bad dream. Waking up to a deafening noise in the middle of the night, 52-year-old Sher Bahadur Chetri and his wife Khuman Devi of Nepania basti rushed outside with a flickering torch in hand. And froze to the ground. Standing just a few feet away in their backyard was a herd of about eight jumbos including two calves. Trampling all over their maize fields, the elephants were wreaking havoc on the paddy crop as well.
“We don’t remember when we saw something like this here. Elephants never strayed into our villages in the past, but nowadays we keep getting reports every now and then that jumbos have strayed in and destroyed acres and acres of farmland. Our livelihood is solely dependent on these fields, but within a fraction of a second, months of hard work and expectation get washed away,” quips Sher Bahadur pointing to the tell-tale signs of damage all around the lush fields.
Nepal has erected an 18-km long fence on the elephant corridor. The elephants are now straying into human habitations on the Indian side, leaving behind a trail of destruction and damage.
A few bylanes away stays Forest Protection Committee member B.K. Sharma. While distributing crackers to villagers in nearby villages and briefing them about the means they need to employ to ward off the elephants, like lighting mashals or torches and bursting crackers, he too is struggling hard to prevent frequent elephant incursions. “The elephants are creating absolute mayhem ever since their corridor was blocked. They are now venturing into areas where they have never come before. The problem is getting amplified by the day. Unless the government addresses this issue now, it will be a complete disaster,” he says.
The epicentre of the problem lies some 5-km away in Nepal. Along the Mechi river, which separates India and Nepal along the Kolabari forest zone of north Bengal, an 18-km long energised fence has been set up to thwart the entry of elephants into Nepal’s territory. Pushed back by Nepal, the jumbos are now walking for miles at a stretch in search of food and shelter. Leaving behind a trail of destruction and damage all along.
Wildlife activist Sandip Sarkar of Nature Help Organization, which works closely with the West Bengal Forest Department, rings the alarm bells. “Nepal’s move to erect the energised fence is spelling absolute disaster for our border villagers. And why talk of border villages alone? Elephant herds are now venturing deep inside areas where they have never ventured before. And villagers who are mostly engaged in farming are spending sleepless nights not knowing how to tackle this problem. Elephants are targeting houses, property is being damaged, farms are being destroyed, even livestock is getting injured. Threat of loss of human lives is also looming large,” he explains.
Hundreds of elephants migrate from the forests of Assam and West Bengal into Nepal through the India-Nepal border every year and destroy crops in border villages on both sides. The animals follow a traditional corridor to reach places like Bahundangi in eastern Nepal under Jhapa district after crossing the forests of Sukna and Panighata in Darjeeling district of West Bengal. With this elephant corridor now being blocked and Nepal planning to extend the fencing further, the elephants are turning hostile and the cascading effect is being felt in settlements and bastis along the border on Indian soil, especially in the Panighata range.
Range Officer of Bagdogra Elephant Squad, Premba Sherpa says squads are on the job 24*7 to keep an eye on elephant movements. “The situation is grave. Since the traditional elephant corridor has been blocked, the pachyderms are changing course in search of food. The smell of maize is drawing them in hordes, at times even far away from forests. Recently an elephant strayed into Siliguri town and triggered massive panic. Our effort is to minimise any man-elephant conflict and try and push them to safer zones. If this situation continues, we fear casualties as well,” he observes.
At the Tukiarjhar Forest Range Office, Range Officer Suresh Narjinary, is busy scrutinising the compensation claim forms pouring in by the day. “There are reports of elephant attacks every now and then. In this part at least, we had never heard of jumbo attacks, but this year the scene is different. And the Nepal fencing is to be blamed. Crops are being damaged and villagers are coming to us seeking immediate compensation. Since the compensation cheques come from the treasury, it is becoming difficult to explain to them the reason for the delay. We understand their plight as well since it impacts their life and livelihood directly,” he says.
Wildlife activists explain the economics of crop damage. “One acre of land or three bighas under cultivation fetches anything between Rs 40,000-50,000 from the market when the produce, particularly maize, is sold. The compensation offered by the Forest Department is just about Rs 1,500 per acre. Though the Forest Department tries to be sympathetic, the fact is this can never make up for the financial loss a family suffers on account of elephant attacks,” reasons Sarkar.
“In the past 15 years, at least 20 elephants have died inside Nepal and over 50 have been killed on both sides of the internal border. Villagers in Nepal have often resorted to firing and poisoning of elephants also. And now comes this fence, which has put a permanent obstruction in the traditional elephant corridor. We have brought it to the notice of state government and even tried establishing contact with a few organisations working across the border to make them understand the gravity of the situation,” rues wildlife conservationist Animesh Basu. Waking up to the threat, the West Bengal government, meanwhile has already written to the Centre in this regard, requesting that the matter be taken up with Nepal at the earliest. Forest Minister Binay Krishna Barman has recently held a meeting with forest officials at Sukna in Darjeeling and expressed concern at the ground situation. The Nepal government has, however, maintained that all international guidelines were followed while erecting the fence, constructed approximately at a cost of Rs 8 million in Indian currency.