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Man versus elephant on India's border with Nepal

Raids escalate as electrified fence disrupts pachyderm migration

People chase away wild elephants near the Indian-Nepal border. (Courtesy of WWF)

MECHI RIVER, India-Nepal border -- Most frontier barriers are erected to prevent humans from breaching national boundaries, but along India's northeastern border with Nepal an electrified fence has been built to stop a different kind of intruder -- hungry elephants. The consequences have proved disastrous for thousands of Indian villagers.

The anti-elephant blockade is probably unique, but the conflict it illustrates is being waged daily across India and a dozen other Asian countries as humans continue to destroy forests and grasslands where elephants thrived for centuries, driving the intelligent mammals to raid crops, demolish dwellings and kill people.

Casualties on both sides of Asia's elephant wars are heavy. In India, which harbors the continent's largest elephant population, one animal is killed every four days -- by bullets, poison-tipped arrows, high-tension wires, speeding trucks and trains, or homemade liquor laced with insecticides. In the past three years, the government says, one person each day has died in an elephant attack. Shark attacks receive far more international publicity, but killed only four people worldwide in 2016.

For decades, elephant herds crossed the border-demarcating Mechi River during their seasonal migrations, moving from the Indian state of West Bengal to Nepal, where they took a mounting toll on crops -- and villagers fought back with gunfire. To halt the depredations, the Nepalese government erected a 17.5km World Bank-funded fence in 2016, about 1km from the frontier. The fence forces elephants who cross the river to return to India, where they raid rice and maize fields and take anything edible that they can find in nearby villages.

Antara Chakraborty, a wildlife biologist with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), said Indian villagers have tried an array of defenses against the intruders, from torches and firecrackers to banging pots and pans, smearing fences with chilies, and planting prickly lemon and pepper trees. The latest "weapon" being tried is burning dried elephant dung, the smell of which the animals are thought to dislike. But Chakraborty said the savvy elephants rarely fall for the same trick twice, so new repellents must constantly be devised.

Village women carry firewood collected in forests near Changa, India, once home to large populations of elephants. (Photo by Denis D. Gray)

"We are doing all this to prevent the elephants from harming humans, but where will they get their food?'' said Saswati Sen, head of WWF's West Bengal office, which has been trying to mitigate the conflict in the border area since 2012. Sen questions whether it is ethical to erect barriers across elephant corridors: ''First you take away their land, and now you give them no place to go to,'' she added.

In Changa, one of nine villages where Chakraborty works, elephants have raided virtually every household. Some fields lie fallow because farmers have stopped planting or have switched to crops such as turmeric and bay leaves, which elephants shun. Schools are forced to shut when the giants amble down village streets lest children are hurt.

"The elephants come so often that we can no longer expect anything from our fields. What is left after the elephants eat is regarded as a bonus. So we must find other sources of income,'' said Bishnu K. Tamang, a farmer in Changa. Elephants have even knocked down the concrete posts of his shed to get at crops he dries and stores high above the ground.

Blazing chains wrapped in kerosene-soaked cloth are used to keep elephants at bay. (Courtesy of WWF)

Tamang is a member of one of two anti-depredation squads supported by the WWF which act as rapid reaction forces: When raiding elephants are spotted, one of the squads is alerted and attempts to scare off the animals. Lately, blazing chains wrapped in kerosene-soaked cloth have been found to be quite effective. Squad members swing the chains above their heads, and the flames and swishing noises keep the elephants at bay. Also effective has been a simple early warning system -- a trip wire rigged to a sound alarm which can be purchased for less than $5.

Increasing losses

The 18-member squads are on call from about 4 p.m. until the following morning during the two periods of the year when migrating elephants are most active: between May and July during the maize cultivating season, and October to December when rice is grown. Recently, however, elephants have remained a threat throughout the year: A few remain in the nearby Kolabari forest, which provides a refuge for up to 150 animals.

Antara Chakraborty, a wildlife biologist, explains how simple trip-wire alarms are used by villagers to hopefully scare of elephants raiding their fields. (Photo by Denis D. Gray)

Chakraborty said retaliations by villagers have escalated in the face of increasing losses and inadequate compensation. The government pays villagers a maximum of 15,000 rupees ($235) for each hectare pilfered, whereas the average profit from a rice field of that size amounts to more than 50,000 rupees. The family of a person killed by an elephant receives 200,000 rupees.

Remarkably, however, many villagers hold no grudge against the creatures that strip them of their livelihoods. "This used to be a forest where elephants always stayed,'' said Tamang, speaking of his farm and the surrounding village of some 5,000 inhabitants. ''This was their home. So we should accept the present situation.''

Traditionally, elephants are revered in Indian culture and the Hindu religion, and among longtime residents of the border villages coexistence has long been an integral part of local life. WWF research shows that recent settlers who have no history of interaction with the animals are more likely to exhibit anger and violence.

"It is just not possible for man and elephant to live together happily ever after, but we must make sure we can manage this conflict and end retaliation, most of which comes from the human side,'' said Chakraborty, a 25-year-old researcher who has lived in the border area for three years, studying elephant behavior and ways to ameliorate the conflict. Elephants are not wanton killers or destroyers of property, she said, except for occasional solitary males.

The World Wide Fund for Nature's 18-member squads are on call from about 4 p.m. until the following morning when elephants are known to become active. (Courtesy of WWF)

However, humans often die when elephants break into houses in search of food, or their special favorite -- rice wine or other liquor. Disruption of age-old feeding patterns caused by the border fence has also created highly stressed elephants that are more likely to charge humans than in the past, when they would veer off at the sound of a firecracker.

While Indian villagers suffer, their Nepalese neighbors virtually worship the fence, Chakraborty said, guarding it assiduously because it is stopping almost all the raids. ''You can't find a solution to this problem. You can only shift it to somewhere else, like a balloon you squeeze on one side that bulges out on the other,'' she said.

The only lasting solution that Chakraborty and other experts can envisage is securing large blocks of good elephant habitat with corridors between them to allow safe passage for migrating herds. Existing corridors are increasingly blocked by roads, railway lines and other infrastructure.

Asian elephants, which numbered hundreds of thousands at the turn of the 20th century, have disappeared from 95% of their historic range, which stretched from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Yellow River in northern China. Fewer than 50,000 survive today, according to WWF estimates, and their decline continues.

"We knew elephants by heart and they also knew us by heart. The golden era is gone and that is quite painful,'' said Dinesh Choudhury, who was once a hunter dispatched by the government to deal with killer elephants but is now an ardent conservationist. "The conflict is at the high end, and the elephant is fighting a losing battle," he added. "We will see only their graveyard, and nothing beyond that.''

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