Protecting lands, people and elephants in Sonitpur, Assam
It is late in the month of November and the mist has already started setting in, blanketing dozens of yards of tea gardens of Dhulapadung Tea Estate in Sonitpur, Assam with a thick moving cloud of fog. Throwing a shawl over his head and armed with a flashlight, Joseph, a tea estate worker stands at the edge of the tea garden, peering deep into the field preparing himself for yet another long night. Guided by the flashlight, he slowly makes his way towards the south end of the field, where a machan hidden behind a thin film of fog begins to take shape in front of him.
Reaching the top of the machan, Joseph recognises Gobind, his next door neighbour sitting at the edge of the wooden platform accompanied by Samson, Birju and two other workers from a nearby tea garden. Gobind, with his back straight and squinting his eyes hard to look through the mist, pans the flashlight left to right and back, as if searching for something or someone!
“It is a silent night. There hasn’t been any activity until now”, Gobind says curtly, without changing his posture.
“Yesterday afternoon, a herd of fifteen visited Borjuli…”, replied one of the workers.
“I heard about them, they’ll soon cross over to our side, who knows...”, said Joseph crouching next to Gobind, while sincerely hoping the night to be a silent one and continues staring into the misty darkness.
In Sonitpur district, a similar scenario unfolds everyday as people in the tea estates of Dhulapadung, Borjuli, Ghoraille and Sessa continue living in close proximity to another living being that calls the surrounding forest its home - the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus).
An estimated 40% of the entire Indian population of Asian elephants and nearly 10% of the world population resides in an area of more than 40,000 sq. km. in the north-eastern Indian states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Surrounded by the lush evergreen forests and rolling grasslands these green spaces are home to a wide array of species including the Asian elephant, Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) and Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris). Moreover, the two contiguous Elephant Reserves (ER), Kameng ER and Sonitpur ER, form the core for elephant conservation in the north bank of Brahmaputra river in Assam. The area harbours one of Asia’s largest populations of Asian elephants with an estimated population of 1,800 as documented in 2003 as per estimates provided by the Assam Forest Department. Over the last few decades, unprecedented forest loss (approximately 65%) in the Assam part of the landscape has resulted in the reduction and fragmentation of critical wildlife habitats.
In recent years, conflict has become more severe with larger volumes of crops destroyed, people killed, which ultimately leads to elephants being killed in retaliation. As per reports published by WWF-India, the entire landscape has witnessed 206 human and 131 elephant fatalities between 1996 and 2009. According to estimates provided by the Assam Forest Department, more than 50% of human deaths in Sonitpur are caused by negative human elephant interactions in the tea estate areas. From 2001 to 2014, a total of 245 people died in Sonitpur during such cases out of which, 121 belonged to the tea estates.
Since 2015, WWF-India in partnership with the Assam Forest Department under a project supported by Apeejay Group have involved the community members to be the major stakeholders in protecting their villages from the marauding elephants, while also ensuring safety for the elephants and reducing the number of cases of negative human elephant interaction. Community members like Joseph and Gobind who have spent years seeing elders in their communities pelting stones and sticks and installing illegal electric fences to prevent elephants from entering human settlements, are now the leading members of the Anti Depredation Squad (ADS).
Delegated by the Assam Forest Department and trained by officials from WWF-India, the ADS forms a close-knit unit of members from the communities voluntarily coming forward to protect the land and the elephants. The volunteers are trained in mitigation methods, understanding elephant behavior and basic dos and don’ts. Equipped with flashlights and fire crackers, the ADS is responsible for keeping a watch over the tea gardens from high mounted machans, to assist the Forest Department officials to drive away any herd of wild elephants systematically. The ADS often aids the Forest Department in driving away herds of raiding wild elephants by acting as a direct link between the Department and the local community.
“This year has been one of the most important, in terms of achievements in the reduction of total loss inflicted by conflict cases in four Apeejay gardens”, says Hiten Kr. Baishya, Coordinator, Elephant Conservation, Brahmaputra Landscape, WWF-India. “Since 2015, there has been a decline of about 74 percent as compared to the loss incurred during the first year (2015) of the project, marking a reduction in the number of registered cases of conflict.”, he continued.
With over 450 trainings, orientations and workshops conducted for the ADS during the project period, awareness towards the conservation and protection of this key species forms the major part of the training. The shift in the attitudes of the communities is evident, as per reports prepared by WWF-India. Till date, over 60 ADS teams have been instituted and deployed in the Sonitpur district including four Apeejay tea estates with assistance from the Assam Forest Department.
Apart from the Anti Depredation Squad, WWF-India has also helped the communities to install solar fences as an alternative to electric fences. Maintained by the community members, these solar fences give out a non lethal electric shock in cycles of less than 1 second on contact, thus acting as an effective deterrent in the form of a psychological barrier for elephants that are crossing over. In addition to the solar fence, the communities are also trained in the skill of preparing chili mounds from cow dung, rice husk, chili and tobacco that produces thick chili smoke on being burnt, thus quickly forcing an advancing herd to retreat into the forests.
With rising population and habitat loss, the boundaries for both humans and wildlife are continuously growing thinner with an urgent need to redefine measures to prevent crop loss and human and elephant mortalities. Initiatives like ADS, installation of solar fences and disseminating awareness among the villages is a strong step ahead in defining coexistence as the new age of conservation in Sonitpur, Assam with a hope that other districts in the state affected by similar cases of conflict will follow suit.