Human-elephant conflict in Wokha district

Habitat loss and degradation is forcing elephants to venture close to human settlements in an imminent showdown

Imti Longchar
Wokha | March 12  

On February 5, 2017, early morning, a herd of wild Asian elephants numbering 13 crossed the NH-2 (erstwhile NH 61) just one kilometre away from Wokha town and scaled their way up to mid of Mt Tiyi, the tallest peak in Wokha district and a reserved forest.  

Mt Tiyi at the summit is nearly vertical and unimaginable for the pachyderms to negotiate its terrains. It was, therefore, a baffle for the alarmed villagers of New Wokha Village residing below Tiyi summit, who chased down the elephants with fire, drums and firecrackers after it ventured inside their village area and banana plantations.

This is not the first time that the elephants had strayed so close to human settlement. Triggered by factors such as habitat loss and shrinkage and degradation of their range, reports of wild elephants venturing close to villages in the Wokha districts are seeing an increasing trend.  

Human-elephant conflict in Wokha district is not a new phenomenon with Baghty valley in the lower range, which lies close to the plains of Assam, having a history of human-elephant co-existence and conflict for centuries.  

But it is only recently, or a decade, that wild elephants have ventured up to the middle and upper ranges of Wokha district seeking new sanctuary and food. Wokha district is divided into three ranges- upper range covering the Wokha, Wozhuro, Chukitong and Englan circle; middle range covering the Lotsu, Sanis and Aitepyong circle; and the lower range covering the Bhandari circle and Ralan area.  

Although there is no official census on the number of elephants in Wokha district, villagers and conservationists suggest that there are at least 150 elephants in Baghty valley area alone while at Doyang valley in the middle range, the number is pegged close to 60.  

Conflicts from crop raiding, injuries and deaths to humans caused by elephants, and elephants killed by humans for reasons other than ivory are reported every year from Wokha district.

Of the most recent, in 2016, a farmer from Longtsung village (lower range) was trampled to death while an unspecified number of people were injured during the encounter with the elephants. In 2015, a villager hailing from Old Riphyim village was also mauled to death.  

Despite this continued threat, which is alarmingly on the rise, the absence of any worthwhile mitigation to this conflict continues to pose a grave threat to both humans and the elephants.  

Trapped elephants?

One major factor forcing elephants to venture uphill to the middle and upper reaches of Wokha district is being attributed to fragmentation of their old habitats in Assam.  

“With most of their habitats destroyed due to human encroachment and leaving them without food or home, the elephants are dramatically expanding their range and getting pushed up to the hills from Assam,” Steve Odyuo, founder of Natural Nagas, an NGO working for wildlife and environment conservation said.  

As human settlements and plantations replace the forests areas, Odyuo, who has been at the heart of elephant conservation, said the elephants have no place to go back and therefore tarry up in the valleys and mountains in Wokha instead of going back. Calling them “trapped elephants,” Odyuo said the pachyderms crossed the Baghty valley in the foothills and reached Doyang in search for food, water and home and now cannot go back.  

With the increasing interaction with humans, the elephants in Doyang are stressed out and this may induce the elephants to become more aggressive, Odyuo also observed.  

Crop raiders

The presence of elephants has become the leading frustration for the farming community of Wokha district that they once demanded the forest department to “take away your elephants from our land.”  

Majority of the population in Wokha district are cultivators and dependent on the farm and field produce for their livelihood. As the season for the jhum cultivation begins, there is growing apprehension among the farmers that their crops would be damaged/ raided by the elephants like the years before.  

For instance, during 2015-16, from New Wokha Village alone, there were 100 farmers who filed for compensation from the forest department due to damage to their crops, banana plantations and properties by elephants. Similar scenario is reported in most of the villages under the three ranges of Wokha district.  

Ex chairman of New Wokha Village, Khyolamo Lotha claimed that a number of cultivators from the village have given up on large scale farming as their crops are destroyed by raiding elephants every year. Many of them are now confined only to vegetable cultivation in the village vicinity, he added.  

However, even the cultivations and plantations in the village vicinity are not safe anymore. With the elephants venturing nearer to human settlements each year, the villagers are in a fix and this may lead to full-scale conflict leading to loss at both sides, Odyuo pointed out.  

Forest department grossly underfunded

The villagers are also dissatisfied on the meagre compensation/ex-gratia given for the damage to crops, deaths and injuries caused by the elephants.  

According to Khyolamo Lotha, who is also the founder of Tiyi Wildlife Conservation and Animal – Human Conflict Control Society, a meagre Rs 1000 compensation from the state government, which is also not timely, is not going to alleviate the loss of the affected farmers in any way.  

“We have been asking the state government that the compensation should commiserate the damage done by the elephant. It should also be timely, however, there has been no positive response so far,” Lotha informed.  

The communities had also demanded village-level forest patrol squad, construction of watch towers and resting sheds; supply of equipments, creation of proper research and awareness on elephants deterrent and arranging viable alternative sources of livelihood for villages that are in elephant-human conflict.  

Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Wokha, Zuthunglo Patton, speaking to The Morung Express admitted that the forest department was grossly underfunded to tackle with the issue of the human-elephant conflict. “The forest department is grossly underfunded and the staff highly undertrained that it is struggling to tackle with the conflict, provide adequate and timely compensation to those affected,” Patton said.  

Commenting on the rising number of elephants in the district, the DFO maintained that Wokha district with only a total area of 1628 square kilometre has to accommodate at least 150 to 180 elephants along with the rising number of human population.  

Apparently, this may be one reason why there are frequent reports of human-elephant conflicts, further compounded by the lack of commitment or urgency on the part of the state government to recognize the issue and tackle it in all earnestness.  

Strained human-elephant relationship

In fact, the already fragile relationship between humans and elephants appear to be becoming more strained as reports of retaliation/conflict against the elephants become more frequent.  

The presence of elephants has also attracted poachers armed with sophisticated guns. Officially, the forest department recorded four suspected cases of poaching between 2015-16. However, villagers in the elephant inhabited areas have put the figure at six (6) cases- all from the upper and middle range area.  

Wokha DFO said there have been instances of suspected poaching but the department could not verify the reports because in most cases, the villagers were reluctant to provide details.  

“With no trust building initiatives undertaken by the department with the villages, forest staff reach the spot only when all traces of evidence have disappeared and the meat have been distributed among the villagers,” she stated. While awareness creation is a must among the community for peaceful co-existence of humans and elephants, Patton, however, pointed out that this can backfire if it is not coupled with incentives and with income generation facilities.  

Odyuo suggested that wildlife conservation groups should come up in every village from individual and community level, so that information dissemination is quick and NGOs and government can intervene in time for action.  

“The villagers have no problem with the elephants living in their areas, but to co-exist, there ought to be proper policies and remedial measures for any problems arising thereof,” Lotha maintained.