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Herds of elephants that ventured into human settlements in Jharkhand during the COVID-19 lockdown are now refusing to return to jungles despite all efforts by the villagers and forest officials. This has resulted in human-elephant conflicts, claiming the lives of some 24 people, including seven in Latehar district, forest officials claim. Villagers and forest officials say some three herds of elephants, said to be 38 in number, are roaming around the human settlements in Jharkhand districts such as Latehar, Chatra, Hazaribagh, Gumla and Ranchi. They come too close to the villages as the entire areas remained literally deserted and the people stayed inside their homes due to some 90-day nationwide lockdown enforced last year.
Now, the situation is such that the herds of tuskers are just refusing to return as they have found enough food in the villages and got familiar with the local population. “The current situation is that the herds of elephants come back to the villages shortly after being driven away. That is happening again and again although we are trying hard to push them back,” a senior forest official Raushan Kumar informs from Latehar district. Forest officials say the tuskers have been able to find plenty of food in the villages and hence refusing to leave. “They have been breaking the mud walls of the houses and feasting on grains stored there as well as country liquor which they like the most,” another forest official says, wishing not to be identified. According to him, the tuskers are now damaging homes after smelling scents of this alcohol wafting through the air in the neighbourhood. Yet another reason for not returning to their natural habitats, forest officials say, is that quite many elephants have given birth to babies during their journey to the villages. They are now taking care of their babies and attacking any villagers whom they perceive as potential threats. According to the officials, the herds will not leave the areas until the babies become young. “Every village is trying to keep the herds out of their peripheries which has resulted in conflict with human populations,” said forest official Kumar. “But the problem for the tuskers is that most of the rivers in the state are in spate during these rainy seasons and they are unable to find ways to return to the jungle since the areas remain flooded,” he said. He says the forest department has engaged several teams of forest guards and are keeping a close watch on their movements to limit damage from both sides.
Reports say the villagers were using traditional methods such as bursting crackers, creating noises and burning fires in the localities to scare the herds away while the forest teams lack adequate training. A senior forest official posted with Betla National Park located in Palamu district sought for imparting adequate training to both forest guards and local villagers to safely drive away the herds of elephants seeking solace in the company of human populations.
Meanwhile, Chhattisgarh’s Forest department has mooted a plan to purchase paddy from the state government’s food and civil supplies department ostensibly to lure elephants away from human habitation to prevent human-elephant conflicts in the state that have resulted in loss of 204 lives in the past three years. However, activists and political opponents are accusing the department of conjuring an unscientific plan which they say in reality aims to help the state government cut its losses incurred in additional procurement of paddy in 2019-2020. Forest officials claimed that since elephants enter villages following the smell of stored paddy or mahua (a juicy fruit with strong smell) in houses, the department will dump paddy, a few kilometers away from these villages, distracting the elephants away from the villages. “We will start this drive as a pilot project in some villages of Chhattisgarh and will see how it works. Till now we have not decided the rate at which paddy will be purchased for the drive. The aim is to contain human-elephant conflicts,” says Narsimbha Rao PV, the principal chief conservator of forest (wildlife).
As per government records, 204 humans were killed in elephant attacks across the state in the last three years and 66,582 cases of damage to crops and 5,047 cases of damage to houses were reported in this period. The state government spent nearly ₹58 crores in paying compensation to the victims of elephant attacks in the last three years. A senior officer of the forest department, says the decision to buy paddy as a means to contain human-animal conflicts was taken in the last review meeting of the department. “The Chhattisgarh State Cooperative Marketing Federation (MARKFED) has offered to sell paddy at ₹2095.83 per quintal to us. Further decision regarding the purchase of paddy is yet to be taken,” the official mentioned above adds. Chhattisgarh MARKFED wrote to the forest department on July 22, offering rates to sell paddy procured in 2019-20. As per state government figures, 8.394 million metric tonnes of paddy were purchased from 1,838 million farmers in Chhattisgarh. Activists have questioned the forest department’s idea as “weird” and “unscientific”. “Instead of safeguarding the habitat and corridor of elephants like Hasdeo Arand, where the state government is permitting mining, this is a weird attempt to mitigate man-elephant conflicts. The efficacy of this drive is doubtful considering the nomadic nature of the elephants. This appears more to be an exercise to compensate for the loss incurred in surplus paddy purchase through forest department’s funds like CAMPA,” says Sudeip Shrivastava, an environmental lawyer.
North Chhattisgarh is home to around 240 wild elephants. In the past decade, the state recorded an increase in its wildlife population including elephants, whose numbers rose from 225 to 290, as per the state forest department. Meetu Gupta, a member of state wildlife board, says: “There is no case study behind this drive. The forest department should stop experimenting with wildlife management and should instead focus on habitats of elephants,” said Gupta. Some of the most dramatic impacts of wildlife trauma have been observed in elephants. Their populations have declined drastically due to poaching, legal culling and habitat loss. Undisturbed elephants live in extended family groups ruled by matriarchs, with males departing when they reach puberty. Today, many surviving elephants have witnessed their mothers and aunts slaughtered before their eyes. A combination of early trauma and the lack of stable families that would ordinarily be anchored by elder elephants has resulted in orphaned elephants running amok as they grow into adolescence.