Can a new elephant reserve address human-elephant interaction in Chhattisgarh?

  • Increasing human-elephant interaction has been one of the major concerns for the tribal communities and forest dwellers living in the forest areas of the northern and central Chhattisgarh.
  • Diversion of forest land for mining and agriculture has been a significant reason for elephant habitat degradation in the state and has further aggravated the situation.
  • On August 15, 2019, the Chhattisgarh government declared a large elephant-bearing forest area of nearly 2,000 square kilometres as an elephant reserve promising to not permit any mining activity near this area.

At midnight on September 14, 2019, Bir Sai, the sarpanch (village head) of the Thirriama village, falling under the Kendai forest range in Korba district of Chhattisgarh woke up to the sound of an animal raiding his maize fields. He ventured out to scare the animal away, which he thought to be a wild boar. Instead, he was taken by surprise by the sight of a wild elephant, who attacked Bir Sai and one of his family members. Bir Sai survived the incident and is now in the district hospital of Korba being treated for serious injuries on his chest and spine. 

His family told Mongabay-India that till five-six years ago there was no elephant in the jungle. But now it is common to find elephants of different age groups in the same forests. The people of the Thirriama village said that the forest department with the help of forest guards used to share the information regarding the movements of elephant groups around the villages but in the case of a single elephant, it’s difficult to track its exact movement. 

Maize Crop of Bir Sai raided by wild elephants in Thirri-ama village of Korba district. Photo by Asha Verma.

Human-elephant interaction has been a growing cause of concern in the northern and central regions of Chhattisgarh. With elephant habitats diverted for mining and agriculture, the elephants are increasingly showing up in human-dominated areas. According to the data on human-elephant interaction, every year, on average, 65 people and 14 elephants succumbed to injuries in incidents where humans and elephants come in conflict. Moreover, these conflicts have a financial bearing on the people as they face damage to crops and property.

As per the forest department data, 325 human deaths and 117 cases of human injury have been reported between 2014-15 and 2018-19 in the state. The maximum cases of damage due to human-elephant interaction are related to damage to crops followed by houses and other assets. During the same period, the department has paid a total of Rs. 650 million (Rs 65.75 crore) in compensation for losses incurred by human-elephant interaction.

Mining driving elephants to human-dominated habitats

People dwelling in the forests of Surguja, Korba, Jashpur and Raigarh districts (north Chhattisgarh) have been witnessing the migration of elephants into their forests from the neighbouring state of Jharkhand, since 1988. 

They state that this is due to rampant open cast mining in Jharkhand which destroyed elephant habitats, ultimately pushing the pachyderms to the rich forest regions in north Chhattisgarh. At present, the state has over 247 elephants spread across 30,000 square kilometres in nine districts of Chhattisgarh – Surguja, Surajpur, Jashpur, Balrampur, Korba, Raigarh, Mahasamund, Bilaspur and Raipur.

Among these districts, Korba and Raigarh have heavy forested areas with rich canopy cover which is a good habitat for elephants. But these districts are also a hotbed for coal mining and most of the mines employ open cast mining techniques which have further led to the destruction of the elephant habitat and corridor in the state. This has further driven the elephants in search of new forest territories, which takes them through human-dominated habitats, aggravating incidents of human-elephant interactions that end in injury or death.

Trees being cut down for an earmarked open cast coal mine in the Hasdeo Arand region of Korba district which is also a good habitat for elephants. Photo by Asha Verma.

To tackle the issue, the state forest department has taken several measures including regular forest patrolling to locate the elephant groups and alerting the villages about their movement, announcement of elephant locations on local radio stations, updates via SMSs and WhatsApp groups and radio-collaring of five elephants in five groups to track movement. As per forest department officials, the department had even brought five Kumki (trained) elephants from Karnataka, who are trained in capturing, calming and herding wild elephants and to chase away wild elephants  in conflict situations, but they have not proved to be very useful in mitigating conflict in the last one and a half years of their stay in Chhattisgarh.

However, most of the measures taken by the department are focused on alerting the villagers and less emphasis has been laid on changing the existing cropping pattern and developing community-level awareness on elephant conflict mitigation.

As per an article, ‘Human-Elephant Conflict and Its Consequences: A Preliminary Appraisal and Way Forward’, by a group of elephant experts from the Sarguja University in Chhattisgarh, “Human-elephant conflict is a symptom of inappropriate land-use practices such as diversion of forest for development and mining activities leading to loss or fragmentation of elephant habitats and traditional routes which leads to loss of food and water for the elephants in the forest and the elephants compensate for this loss by eating crops and stored grain in the houses near the forest.” 

Another land-use change issue contributing to human-elephant conflict interaction is the growing of elephant palatable food crops like maize and sugarcane adjacent to elephant habitations. The article suggested that mitigating this situation by conservation and restoration of corridors is an important aspect of reducing the negative effects of habitat fragmentation.

A coal mine in Chhattisgarh. Photo by Asha Verma.

Formation of an elephant reserve could be a win for conservation over coal mining 

The issue of human-elephant conflict was part of the election discourse in at least the areas that are severely impacted by the human-elephant interaction. 

Indian National Congress during the November 2018 Chhattisgarh legislative assembly elections had promised to resolve the issue. Subsequently, it came into power last year after 15 years of rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the state.

To restore elephant corridors from the pressure of mining activities in the forest and to mitigate human-elephant interactions in the state, the Chhattisgarh legislative assembly, in 2005, had passed a resolution to form two elephant reserves – one in Surguja-Jashpur forest division and another one in Korba-Raigarh forest division. 

In line with the resolution, the Chhattisgarh government had declared the formation of Badalkhol-Tamor Pingla elephant reserve spread across an area of 1,048 square kilometres in the Surguja-Jashpur forest division in 2011. But the other elephant reserve, Lemru, which was planned in an area of 450 square kilometres in the Korba-Raigarh forest circles, was dropped at that time, with speculation that it was dropped due to the pressure of the coal mining companies as this forest area has huge quantity of coal reserves.

View of the forest in Katghora forest circle which is a part of the Lemru elephant reserve. Photo by Asha Verma.

“To ensure long-term conservation of the threatened Asian elephant in the Indian landscape, it is recommended to adopt an integrated land use planning and emphasis of the state governments should be to take appropriate steps to secure and restore corridors for mitigating human-wildlife conflict,” said Surendra Varma, an elephant expert and research scientist at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, who is in regular consultation with the forest department on elephant conflict mitigation in the state.

On August 15, 2019, the plan for Lemru elephant reserve was revived, with Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel declaring the formation of the reserve for ensuring the conservation and protection of elephants. The final area proposed for the reserve is 1,995.48 square kilometres, significantly higher than the 450 sq. km. proposed earlier.  The reserve is in a coal-bearing area with an estimated value of Rs. one trillion (Rs 100,000 crore). 

“The proposed Lemru elephant reserve is a natural elephant habitat with very few human habitations and has been an elephant bearing area from ancient times. The identified reserve area has very good availability of elephant food and has approximately 27 perennial rivulets of water present inside the forest for the elephants,” said Atul Kumar Shukla, who is the chief wildlife warden of Chhattisgarh’s forest department.

He also stated that the Chhattisgarh forest department plans to undertake elephant habitat improvement activities and awareness-building activities among the inhabitants inside the reserve for better management and conservation of the reserve. There are at least 142 villages inside the reserve whose total population is over 86,700.

House of Bihani Bai Neti near the earmarked open cast Kete Coal mine was destroyed by a wild elephant in January 2018 which is at a distance of just 500 metres from coal mines. Photo by Asha Verma.

The forest department has already issued an order for restricting coal mining activities (both opencast and underground) in a 10 kilometres radius around the reserve. It is a crucial decision as mining activities has been one of the major reasons for the destruction of the habitat of elephants in Chhattisgarh as the majority of the coal blocks are located in the pocket stretching between Raigarh, Korba and Sarguja districts which are also the elephant bearing areas. 

“Although the current government has taken a commendable step by declaring a large tract of forest area under the elephant reserve, it should also take steps to ban mining in the nearby forest areas like Hasdeo-Arand forests which is also an elephant bearing area. This area should also be included in the proposed reserve and ensured protection by providing special legal provisions completely banning any mining activities in the future in the elephant reserve area” Alok Shukla, who is the convenor of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, told Mongabay-India.

‘Elephant affected area’ signage on National Highway -130 falling under Katghora forest division of Chhattisgarh. Photo by Asha Verma.
‘Elephant affected area’ signage on National Highway -130 falling under Katghora forest division of Chhattisgarh. Photo by Asha Verma.

Banner image: Representational image of elephants in Chhattisgarh forests. Photo by Subrata Biswas/Greenpeace.

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