One of the prices that the states of northeast India are paying for rapid deforestation is the escalating incidents of man-elephant conflict. The north-eastern region of India houses about 10,000 Asiatic elephants, which is 25 percent of the total world population.
Assam has seen the death of over 900 people and 400 elephants over the past decade due to conflict between the two- the prey and the predator. Most of the time, the former is the predator.
The frequent deaths
This year, the death of 40 people in Assam in different incidents of conflict between man and the jumbos has compelled the state government to hold a series of discussions with wildlife experts, NGOs, forest departments and communities to find out a way out to tackle the menace but without many breakthroughs.
But the effort of 35 youths in Assam’s Udalguri, one of the worst affected districts, has brought back the hope to the concerned departments with a simple yet effective method, which can solve not only conflict but also contribute towards the co-existence.
According to the Dhansiri Forest Division in the district, 17 people and four elephants have lost their lives in Udalguri during the current year.
Close to India-Bhutan Border, in Udalguri district, 110 km away from Assam’s capital Guwahati, this group of youths have turned a barren land of 5,500 acres into a lush green thick forest to divert the jumbos from entering the villages in search of food and rather to keep them in the jungle full of edibles plants and fruits.
The beginning of the plantation
Since the year 2007, youths of six villages of Sonaigaon, Goroimari, Sapangaon, Majargaon Part 1, Majargaon Part 2 and Bhairabhpur of Dhansiri Forest Division of Udalguri district had started planting trees upon a 22 sqkm of barren land after two massive floods washed away the vegetation of Bhairavkunda Reserve Forest.
Two floods occurred in 1979 and 1989 by the rivers -Dhansiri from Arunachal Pradesh and Jampani from Bhutan had turned the forest in the tri-junction of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Bhutan into a sheet of sand and gravel leaving the nearby villagers prone to attack of elephant coming down from the hills.
“We were a group of 35 youths who were into poultry and vegetable farming. Our villages are always affected by conflicts with the elephants. Many of our relatives had lost their lives in confrontation to the wilds that come down from the nearby hills,” said Esmail Daimary, a member of the Joint Forest Management Committee.
The committee was set up in the year 2007 to start plantation with the help of the forest administration of Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC).
“The conflict started growing many folds when the forest disappeared. Earlier the elephants used to come and venture into that jungle for food, but after the flood ruined it, they started coming down to the villages from the Arunachal and Bhutan hills in search of food. They would destroy our houses, vegetables and paddies. So we decided to do something about it which can control both flood and the menace of the jumbos,” said Daimari.
Initially started in 22 sqkm of barren land situated on the western bank of river Dhansiri, the thick forest is now known as the Gedshimani Joint Forest Reserve and it covers an area of 5,500 acres. The thick jungle houses at least 14 lakhs trees and is home to wild species like elephant, deer, monkey, wild pigs, python and other variety of snakes.
“We have planted a lot of jackfruit trees in the jungle so that the elephants get enough food in the jungle and do not have to come out to the villages and paddy fields. These days, villagers around the jungle, which were otherwise very prone to elephant attack, can sleep in peace without the fear of encountering with a wild elephant,” said Esmail Daimary.
In the year 2007, the Bodoland Territorial Council had allotted a fund of Rs. 82 lakhs for the first five years to the Joint Forest Management Committee for plantation. Of late, it has sanctioned another sum of Rs. 1 crore to plant 10 lakhs more trees in the barren lands available across Udalguri, one of the four districts which comprise the Bodoland Territorial Area District.
Madhurjya K Sarma, Divisional Forest Officer of Dhansiri Forest Division of Udalguri said: “According to the latest census, 81 wild elephants live in the forest. This is a big number and we are happy that the forest is serving as the shelter of the elephants, which is otherwise shrinking rapidly due to human intervention and disasters like a flood.”
“We are planning plantation in another 175 hectares of land in the eastern bank of the river Dhansiri. This plantation will be looked after by seven other Joint Forest Management Committees,” said Sarma.
Not only the man- made forest is tackling man-elephant conflict, it is also serving as a breeding ground for the jumbos.
“For the past three years we have noticed that elephants are coming down from the hills during the mating season, and they are giving birth in the jungle. The jungle has lots of streams from where the elephants can take water. Right now, we have a herd of eight elephants living in the forest along with various other animals,” said Jayanta Kumar Das, a wildlife activist and the Honorary Wildlife Warden of Assam.
“The government of Assam has taken the decision of afforesting the barren lands outside and inside the forests of Assam to tackle the man-elephant conflict. The foresightedness of these young minds is commendable. Now even the government is contemplating to restore barren lands in and around the forest belts of Assam,” said Das.
“The solution to the man-elephant conflict in Assam is to create a man-made forest to mitigate the man-elephant conflict,” he said.
More than just a home for the jumbos
Not only the forest is contributing towards the ecological balance, but also offering livelihood opportunities for these youths as they sell the extra fruits from the jungle in the markets across the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts. The forest is also attracting domestic as well as international tourists with a beautiful eco camp with four rooms inside it.
“This year we hosted tourists from 13 different countries of Australia, USA, China, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh, Bhutan etc. Among these tourists, many are researchers studying man-animal conflict in Northeast India,” said Esmail Daimary.
Right now Gedshimoni Reserve Forest is being maintained by at least 1,500 youths from the district under six Joint Forest Management Committees.
Photos: Syeda Ambia Zahan