- The Patharia Hills Reserve Forest in Assam along India-Bangladesh border is in urgent need of transboundary cooperation for conservation.
- If transboundary measures are not introduced, the Patharia Hills Reserve Forest will be a dense human settlement area without any trace of wildlife in the near future.
- Bereft of a male elephant, the population of the remaining migratory female elephants in the wildlife haven could soon collapse, warn researchers.
A tiny reserve forest in Assam along a fenced stretch of the India-Bangladesh border is facing a unique predicament. Bereft of a male elephant, the population of six remaining border-cruising female elephants in the wildlife haven could soon collapse, warn researchers.
They add, if transboundary measures are not introduced, the Patharia Hills Reserve Forest will be a “dense human settlement area without any trace of wildlife in the near future.”
Reeling under human-elephant conflict, the Patharia Hills Reserve Forest, the size of Panjim, the capital of India’s smallest state, is a mere 76 square km-slice, hugging Sylhet district in eastern Bangladesh. The reserve forest lies in southern Assam’s Karimganj district.
While India and the government of Assam work towards securing international borders against infiltrators in the state which shares a 262 km-long border with Bangladesh, these elephants have reportedly broken down a section of the border fencing on their corridor to reclaim their passage.
A fragmented herd of six, all-female elephants move between the two countries using this section, passing through the reserve forest, fringed by paddy fields and tea gardens. Their migratory corridor runs from Bangladesh side of the reserve forest (RF) to neighbouring states of Mizoram and Tripura traversing the RF in Assam, the study says.
“From what we have learnt through our interactions with locals and surveys, the last male elephant died around 2012. Our appeal to government authorities and NGOs is to aid translocation of a male elephant to the reserve forest to stabilise the population, otherwise, the population may collapse,” Assam-based ecologist Parthankar Choudhury told Mongabay-India.
According to Choudhury’s estimate, there were six elephants until last year moving across the border.
“As per my observations, there were 30 to 40 elephants in 1984. From that figure, the numbers came down to seven or eight, about seven to eight years ago and now there are only six of them. Their population is declining continuously. In 2017 a young female was electrocuted in a neighbouring tea garden and before that, the last male was killed,” Choudhury, who is with the Wildlife Research and Conservation Laboratory, Department of Ecology and Environmental Sciences, Assam University, Silchar, said.
One of the elephants was fatally injured in a fencing-related incident, informed Vinay Gupta, Chief Conservator of Forest, Southern Assam circle.“We tried to nurse the elephant back to health but she succumbed,” Gupta.
The six-elephant herd recently split into two with three pachyderms in each group. Although they move independently, one herd always follows the other, said Choudhury.
Both Gupta and Choudhury alluded to the fact that the Border Security Force ensures the elephants pass through peacefully and local communities are used to them ambling past.
“This elephant population has not attacked humans. They are believed to be the remnants of the war elephants deployed by the then Pakistani Army during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. Although the introduction of a male elephant is a valid proposition, it is not an easy procedure. One needs to conduct studies and understand the various factors that come into play in the landscape,” Gupta told Mongabay-India.
Assam with an elephant area (15,050 square km) the size of East Timor, is India’s prime elephant range state, harbouring 5719 jumbos, the highest population of wild elephants in the country after Karnataka.
Read more on how a cup of Assam tea can aid elephant conservation
The latest government data on human-elephant conflicts reveals increasing incidences in the state has claimed over 1000 human and elephant lives between 2010 to 2018.
The number of human deaths has gone up from 61 in 2010 to 92 in 2018 while the number of elephant deaths has also increased from 25 in 2010 to 46 in 2017 and 27 in 2018. In total, 761 people and 249 elephants died since 2010.
Of the 249 jumbos, 92 fell prey to electrocution, trains ran over 54 and 20 were poached. Wild elephants damaged 1021 houses in 2017-18, while in 2018-2019 property damage doubled. Destruction of cropland went up by 34 percent in that period.
Transboundary pacts needed for saving the elephants
Choudhury and study co-author Nazimur Rahman Talukdar lamented their appeals have fallen on deaf ears.
Gupta concedes the forest department takes care of the day-to-day affairs surrounding the reserve forest but a long-term solution has not been drawn up. For one, they have to deal with crop-raiding incidents.
“It is not that for the hred food is in short supply. They prioritise. For example, they are attracted to the paddy and they raid crops at night,” Gupta explained.
It was also in the last two decades that developmental activities such construction of national highway and railway track began in earnest in and around the RF, obstructing their routes.
“Food scarcity on both sides has altered their migratory patterns. Earlier they used to come to the Indian side during winter months and the rest of the year they used to reside in Bangladesh. Since the last few years, we have been observing that this periodicity is not maintained. When there is a food scarcity on our side they move across into Bangladesh,” said Choudhury.
The herds seem to be spending most of their time in Assam observed Gupta.
Choudhury says a large portion of the Patharia Hills RF has been subsumed under the territory of the neighbouring country, Bangladesh.
“Initiating any conservation action for the area is comparatively difficult, as this section needs joint participation of both the countries,” Choudhury said.
India and Bangladesh in 2015 agreed to collaborate to save the rare spectacled langur or the Phayre’s leaf-monkey (Trachypithecus phayrei) along with other primates found in the Patharia Hill Reserve Forest on both sides of the border. The authors also cited the instance of the agreement between the governments of the two countries to conserve the Sundarbans mangrove forests.
“We need similar pacts for these patches that have a transboundary continuation,” Choudhury said.
Push to elevate reserve forest to wildlife sanctuary
Talukdar who hails from the area elaborates on about the complex dynamics in the human-elephant relationship in southern Assam.
“There are other reserve forest patches around Patharia Hills RF and they have been largely encroached by local communities. Rubber plantations are a major cause for concern,” Talukdar said.
Villagers are in total sympathy with the plight of elephants.
“They are not hostile to the elephants but they are scared of them due to crop raiding. This has led to the development of a negative attitude towards conservation. During our interviews, they told us that they no problem in improving the reserve forest but they need protection from crop raiding and other damaging activities by the elephants,” he highlighted.
Quoting the study, Talukdar stressed: “It is the need of the hour that the reserve forest is elevated as a wildlife sanctuary, the activities within the RF be stopped, eviction of forest dwellers and rehabilitation into other government lands may be done.”
Banner image: The elephant herd (then with six members) passing through a tea garden in Patharia Hills. Photo by Choudhury et al.