by Ashvita Anand
• In north Bengal, a hotbed of human-elephant conflict, crop-raiding is more prevalent in areas that are on the boundary of protected areas, close to agricultural fields, forests, plantations, and areas close to water sources such as rivers.• Eighty-eight percent of the crop raids coincided with the harvesting of paddy and maize, two of the most commonly consumed crops in the landscape.
• Presence of haaria (local rice beer) breweries in north Bengal also drives conflict because elephants are attracted to the pungent smell of the fermented liquor.
Elephants in north Bengal are more likely to raid crops in areas with a matrix of agriculture, forests, riverine patches, tea plantations and peripheries of protected areas, a study has said.
North Bengal in the foothills of eastern Himalayas supports less than two percent of India’s total elephant population. Still, it accounts for almost 12 percent of all human deaths caused by elephants in the country, according to the Right of Passage report. The region reported nearly five-hundred fatal attacks on humans by elephants in the last 15 years.
Dipanjan Naha of Wildlife Institute of India and team investigated the spread of crop-raids in this conflict hotspot from January 2017 to December 2019, spanning all seasons of the year. The researchers found that 88 percent of the events happened from July to February — coinciding with the harvesting of paddy and maize, which are two of the most commonly consumed crops in the landscape.
In the neighbouring state of Assam, this crop-raiding peak occurs between August and December.
“Both landscapes are fairly similar; it would be abnormal if these similarities were not observed. The raiding patterns coincide with the agricultural patterns of the area. Crop fields provide easy nutrition to elephants and in a fragmented landscape, they supplement their diets as well. When there are no viable crops during the summer, the elephants rely on the food inside the forest areas,” Naha told Mongabay-India.
“Elephants are either browsers or grazers; in grassland ecosystems they prefer to graze while in dense evergreen forests they browse. But, these areas are not large enough to sustain these populations all through the year,” said Naha.
The study site, also called the Dooars, is spread across five districts of north West Bengal state (Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Jalpaiguri, Alipurduar, and Coochbehar) and encompasses an area of 12,700 square km. Two of the primary causes of human-elephant conflict (HEC) in north Bengal are crop-raiding and property damage, according to a 2019 study by Naha. The 2017 census lists the number of elephants in north Bengal as 488.
A total of three national parks and two wildlife sanctuaries are located in the foothills of the Dooars landscape, while four protected areas are above 1,000-metre in the mountains.
Elephants’ thirst for rice beer
While the primary crops targeted by the elephants were paddy (65 percent) and maize (11 percent), an interesting finding from interviews of local community members was that haaria (local rice beer) breweries were present in 75 percent of the areas raided by the mammals. Rice beer production units were concentrated around forest edges and peripheries of protected areas.
The brewed mixture emits a strong smell, which previous studies have shown to draw in elephants, a species highly sensitive to smell. Elephants consume this rice beer, negatively impacting the livelihood of those who brew and sell haaria. The researchers recommend the relocation of the breweries away from human settlements to reduce human-elephant conflict.
Alcoholism (in humans) is a significant driver of fatal elephant attacks in this region. People intoxicated with rice beer have been reported to harass and chase elephants from villages, crop fields, the authors write in the study. Similar patterns have been reported from Assam (India) and Terai region of Nepal where HEC victims were drunk and chasing elephants.
The study also indicates that 89 percent of the crop raids happened during the night. The reason for this nocturnal behaviour was probably so the elephants could gain access to food at a time when there was minimal human activity, suggest the study authors.
Further, the study also substantiated the belief that crop-raiding would be more prevalent in areas that are on the boundary of protected areas, close to agricultural fields, forests, plantations, and areas close to water sources such as rivers.
The chance of crop-raiding in human-occupied areas increased with increasing human density till a critical threshold of 40 persons/square km. The highest number of events that were recorded were in the areas that were about 1.5 km from forests. This is due to elephants avoiding areas of high human density where conflict may increase, and their movement is more restricted.
“These forest fragments offer refuge to the elephants, and they use it for shade and rest. Forests provide both security and cover for elephants within fragmented landscapes and hence crop raiding is highest near such patches,” Naha added.
The human-elephant equation
The two species in the landscape share a relationship, according to conservation ecologist Aritra Kshettry. “I would say there is a deep veneration and acceptance towards elephants despite heavy losses due to elephants. The landscape is a mix of many communities due to the cultural and ecological history of the place,” said Kshettry, an INSPIRE-Fellow with the Ministry of Science and Technology.
“My research shows that these communities even accept losses such as crop damage due to their cultural and religious beliefs around elephants,” Kshettry noted.
“Things do turn ugly when lives are lost due to sudden encounters with elephants and where some elephants regularly break into houses to access stored food and liquor. The people who face the brunt of the problem are already marginalised in society and it would be prudent to ensure their losses are minimised if we want to conserve elephants in the landscape in the long term,” added Kshettry.
On paper, there are safeguards in place to protect both people and elephants in the region, however, in practice, things are quite different.
“Ex-gratia or compensation payments due to losses are remarkably slow and inefficient. Our recent study shows that more than half of the people who face losses due to elephants don’t even bother to claim ex-gratia relief. Elephants, though protected in forests as well as private lands, often fall victim to railway accidents as well as electrocution (accidental and deliberate) and more focus is warranted to minimise these incidents,” Kshettry told Mongabay-India.
One of the major reasons for an increase in crop-raiding events over the years is the drastic decline in forest cover that elephants usually depend on for their diet. Further, the fragmentation of the existing forested areas has forced elephants to depend on agricultural lands and other human-occupied regions for their food and water. As big mammals, access to sufficient amounts of water plays a crucial role in their survival.
In fragmented areas, elephants are more likely to forage for food around water sources, the same water sources that are also required for the cultivation of rice and other crops. This proximity of the crop field to water sources could be an additional factor that contributes to the correlational increase in raiding events close to riverine patches.
For the human-elephant conflict to be mitigated efficiently, especially in the landscapes of north Bengal, it is essential for the fragmented forest areas to be connected, so elephants are allowed safe passage from one foraging area to another, with minimal human interactions.
“There is a need for large scale communication initiatives where local people are made aware of safety practices to avoid direct encounters with elephants. These can be through print, electronic and digital media. However, these cannot be achieved unless all relevant agencies come together and deal with the issues in a holistic manner. Currently, the approach of only making the forest department accountable for all of this is not working,” Kshettry explained.
“Recently, there has been better coordination between the forest department and district administration with the installation of solar lights in many areas where elephants and people co-occur,” concluded Kshettry.
Naha, Dipanjan, et al. “Elephants in the neighbourhood: patterns of crop-raiding by Asian elephants within a fragmented landscape of Eastern India.” PeerJ 8 (2020): e9399.
Naha, D., Sathyakumar, S., Dash, S., Chettri, A., & Rawat, G. S. (2019). Assessment and prediction of spatial patterns of human-elephant conflicts in changing land cover scenarios of a human-dominated landscape in North Bengal. PloS one, 14(2), e0210580.
by Ashvita Anand