The fire between us: why the Bankura elephants faced ire

In the mosaic of plantation and fields, people and pachyderm, is simmering conflict

November 25, 2017 04:20 pm | Updated 04:20 pm IST

 An award-winning photograph of a pair of elephants facing fire as they cross a road in Bankura district, West Bengal

An award-winning photograph of a pair of elephants facing fire as they cross a road in Bankura district, West Bengal

It’s a chaos of people yelling, balls of tar raining, and crackers exploding. The mother sprints ahead, her tail curled up in terror. Her calf follows, mouth agape in an agonised squeal. It’s hard to tell if it’s actually on fire. A lobbed fireball arrested in mid-air probably lands close behind it a moment later. Newspapers and websites around the world published this disturbing photograph called ‘Hell is Here’ that won the photographer Biplab Hazra, the Sanctuary Wildlife Photographer Award 2017 earlier this month.

As unlikely as it seems, the calf escaped, Hazra is quoted as saying. But no one knows the extent of its injuries. Or if it succumbed days later, somewhere in the woods of Bankura district, West Bengal. Widespread condemnation of the local people followed. They were cruel, heartless beasts for torturing poor hapless animals. Some expressed sympathy for the suffering of farmers who have to contend with these dangerous animals. What these well-meaning people offering free advice don’t realise is: the local people and elephants are victims of a bigger problem.

Herd on a recce

This situation has simmered since 1987. These elephants are from Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary in Jharkhand, about 20 kilometres north of Jamshedpur. On the west, the proliferating Chandil town, a highway, and railway line cut off the pachyderms’ access to the forested hills of the Ranchi plateau of Chota Nagpur. In addition, there is the Subarnarekha Multipurpose Project, a dam that ate a part of Dalma.

Some elephants manouevre around these obstructions and continue to frequent the forests of Saranda. To the east, extensive settlements and agriculture had replaced sal forests at least a century ago. In its place, in more recent decades, a successful joint forestry management programme created many chunks of forests. An initial expedition of about 30 elephants crossed the State border to investigate if the grass was greener. They established base camp in the wooded patches. At first, the Bengali farmers were charmed by the new arrivals, welcoming and offering prayers.

But these forests were plantations really and didn’t have enough forage to support the animals. So they ventured into the surrounding paddy fields at night. The farmers put up with them in the early days, but the shock of seeing destroyed crops every morning, day after day, upset them. When the honeymoon soured and people turned against the elephants, the West Bengal Forest Department unfurled an electric fence along its border in the early 1990s to prevent the animals from troubling farmers of its State. Hemmed in, the elephants made life difficult for tribals cultivating their lands in Jharkhand, then Bihar. When they could take it no more, the people surreptitiously cut the fence to be rid of their problem. The department drove elephants back towards Dalma, but there was no deterring them.

Sumptuous spread

Why would they return when there was a sumptuous spread as far as the eye could see? Take another look at the mother elephant in the photograph. She’s in top condition. In time, more and more elephants made the trek from Jharkhand and spread over three districts in Bengal. After the harvest season, some returned to Dalma, but many stayed put, somehow supporting themselves in that mosaic of plantation and fields. A desperate department excavated trenches, while people cut some of the very trees they had planted years earlier. Perhaps without shelter, the elephants would be forced to move on.

If you look at a map, most of the patches of greenery in southern West Bengal are called elephant corridors. Unlike traditional ones, these corridors don’t lead to thick forests. Instead, they are stepping stones leading to lush fields. Ironically, Jharkhand’s forest department now blames a nearly seven-kilometre-long trench that separates the two States for preventing the animals from returning. Either the elephants are trapped in West Bengal by the very trench supposed to stop them from entering the State, or their quality of life is better here and there’s nothing worth returning to Dalma for.

Census figures suggest elephant numbers are growing and the sanctuary is too small to provide full-time residence to all of them. Illegal brick kilns and mines operate in and around the reserve despite the courts, district, and State’s efforts to shut them down. Farmers, unwilling to suffer crop losses, have given up paddy and now grow lemongrass, mustard, and masoor dhal. For now, the elephants leave them alone since they enjoy better options in the neighbourhood’s agricultural buffet. But nowhere have inedible plants stopped elephants. The animals have the ingenuity of monkeys and will adapt to changing situations.

In this scenario, who do you blame? Farmers struggle to earn a living on a good day without the added trouble of herds of five-tonne grasshoppers nibbling on their hard work. Elephants have to feed their enormous bellies with what’s available: if humans cut access to other forests, they follow their trunks elsewhere. Farmers fight back with all they have — fire and noise.

Pitting the two against each other is the government that plonks dams, highways, railway lines, and mines in elephant country. Aiding and abetting them are businessmen and citizens in faraway cities, you and me. We want uninterrupted power supply, food grains, speed of transport, iron for a range of structural supports, and we don’t care where they come from. These are the villains behind that photograph.

Janaki Lenin is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover. @JanakiLenin

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