Slaying of a magnificent bull elephant in Bankura district of West Bengal on a black Sunday in July with the help of seven randomly fired bullets rocked the conscience of citizens of India and this deplorable incident brought out in the open the fact that ignorance of ground reality allowed the benighted officials to breach all civil, criminal and social laws while eliminating this mythical “rogue” elephant.
This disgustingly stupid knee-jerk action by the Chief Wildlife Warden was unrepentantly supported by an indulgent Forest Secretary and his minister, who went on to state that sickness demanded elimination of the elephant Rs a factually incorrect claim. The incident came as a sequel to three such killings that occurred within a span of the last four months.
Over the past few years we have observed a perceptible change in attitude among the top brass in Bengal forest department who are finding shoot-to-kill orders as a convenient way out from the alarming human-elephant conflict scenario in the state. In the past one year, 71 human lives were lost in southern Bengal, of them 35 died in Bankura.
Questions like why and how so many human deaths occurred within the limited space of only two Ranges in this district remain unanswered. No serious attempt at reconstruction of the offence scenario was ever attempted fearing such scrutiny would probably reveal unpleasant truths that may hold failed governance and forgotten promises responsible for such unfortunate incidents.
Many injudicious decisions by the present as well as past Wildlife officials of Bengal are to responsible for circumstances leading to the present situation where state-sponsored killings of wild elephants remains a management method.
When the conflict record of the past is reviewed it gives an impression that even the predecessors of the present lot of forest managers of Bengal and Jharkhand will not escape the wrath of the gods for their inactivity in considering steps that could put a brake on the ever declining situation. Although our records confirm that beginning with the dying years of the last century, elephants in very small numbers entered the well-stocked forests of West Midnapore from Dalma Hills but since early 2000, matters worsened with the opening of 70,000 hectares of forest lands to mining of iron ore in overlapping habitats spread through Odisha and Jharkhand that ensured closure of their migration routes. Added to it was the unassailable concrete-lined Subarnarekha Multipurpose Irrigation Canal that comes as a barrier to their movements.
With dislocation of past transit routes to Odisha, between 60 and 90 of them are now confined within the minuscule space of 190 square km of Dalma Hills of which, less than 90 sq. km shows signs of greenery while the rest has gone under the axe. Though, Dalma Hills remains the true parent habitat for these elephants of Chhotanagpur Plateau, the utterly deplorable administrative apathy of Jharkhand forest department has failed to stop the timber and illicit liquor mafia from removing the sustenance resources for elephants. This constricted space of the remaining forests is wholly insufficient for the living numbers. That has compelled the present situation of mass seasonal exodus from Dalma into southern Bengal and Nilagiri Hills in Balasore of Odisha from where they aim at reaching the excellent forests of Kuldiha. Such seasonal moves are undertaken to ensure growth of food in Dalma while they remain out of their original habitat. Forest managers of Bengal try to offload their burden of responsibility by condemning arrival of elephants as “encroachments” by residents of Dalma Hills and hence, their right to survival is denied in this state. Years of field research undertaken by teams of experts have already revealed the reasons for choice of south Bengal forests as ‘seasonal habitat’ by these migrants from Dalma Hills and consequently, possible ways for conflict mitigation were recommended to the government. Unfortunately, the information still remains concealed in departmental lockers with the keys lost forever. In a world where trans-boundary conservation areas are established between two warring nations in Africa, then why could Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha not plan a common strategy for conservation of a national animal?
Ironically, the two most affected districts in Bengal; West Midnapore and Bankura remain among the most densely inhabited places in the country where four crops are harvested every year, allowing no land to remain fallow. Even in this gloomy scenario reasonably dense sal jungles with adequate stock of fodder species remain intertwined with crop fields wherein the migrants try to take refuge. These jungles are extremely small in size and any movement between the isolated patches calls for walking over sown fields.
But unless chased or driven by aggressive torch-bearing ‘hula parties’ it remains an amazing sight to observe how deftly herds of elephants manage to pass the fields in Indian file formation bringing least of damage to standing crop. However, any damage to crop is compensated by the state and believe me, at present rate, such amounts are more than the value of actual loss incurred by the cultivator. However, the villagers, many of whom are encroachers themselves, quite justifiably do not like the sight of an elephant in their backyard and hence, bully officials to act in detriment to the welfare of the globally protected species. Other than damage to crop, human lives are also lost, though, in most cases such deaths occur from accidental contacts. In three decades of my life in the jungles of India I have never encountered any incident where unprovoked attack by an elephant has caused death to any man though all deaths are unfortunate and mourned. For reasons unknown, officials in Bengal tend to believe that all villains in such incidents are single bulls and possibly motivated by such belief, the Chief Wildlife Warden is setting about creating a dossier of all the “lone bulls” that would enter south Bengal in the days to come. This action is ostensibly planned to keep a watch on the future entry of any animal listed in the dossier so that villagers can be informed of its movement. It sounds more like the list of persona non grata maintained by the immigration desk of any country. This effort has invited, and rightly so, more ridicule than appreciation from anyone with rudimentary knowledge of elephant behaviour.
Several old beliefs like matriarchs shun adult males forcing them to become fugitives that ultimately turns them into “rogues” and hence, a source of threat to human life make the rounds in wildlife conservation circles. Possibly dictated by such absurd beliefs, the Warden has initiated this hilarious plan. In fact, large bulls mostly with tusks remain on guard of family groups during their movements through hostile territory like human settlements and are always seen to forage within short distance of the group keeping a close watch on it. .
Until the recent past, efforts at removal of ‘problem’ elephants remained within a tightly restricted zone that stopped short of killing them but allowed capture and rehabilitation. In 2012, an application to allow capture of 16 elephants was sent to Delhi from Bengal, only to be turned down by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Yet again, in 2015-16, another request was sent for allowing capture of 18 elephants on which, blissfully, Delhi has not taken any action yet.
Silence from the union ministry has probably encouraged the state Chief Wildlife Warden to consider other options like declaring those planned earlier to be captured as “rogues” to qualify them to be shot to death. Captured bull elephants remain a source of irritation for the department staff hence plans for capture are discarded outright.
I had very high opinion about the management talent of the present set of decision-makers but recent mischievous actions by them foretell the ruin we must expect in the jungles in coming days. It is now apparent that a set of obstinate officers utterly ignorant of the survival needs of the wild elephant, are considering elimination as the easy way out to bring down the numbers of these long ranging animals to protect financial interests of villagers.
For field staff of the forest department contemptuous villagers remain a threat and to appease these tyrants, arbitrary shooting is pursued. That is what happened in Bankura district over the last few days and caused sensible citizenry of India to unite in denouncing the actions by the Chief Wildlife Warden of West Bengal.
The writer is a former wildlife