Humans and animals are at war in West Bengal while politicians look the other way

India is in the middle of the elections, but sadly none of the politicians have uttered a word on man-animal conflict that has been devouring several lives every year.

Kolkata, 1 May. Alok Barla still shudders to recall the ill-fated night when a wild elephant ravaged his house completely forcing him to run for covers along with his wife and four-year-old daughter, around six months ago.

The 30-year-old stays at Bhauka Line village in Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal, around 650 kilometers from Kolkata, the State capital. He says that he was preparing to retire to bed when he was shaken by the noise of the approaching pachyderm.

“I was playing with my daughter and was about to go to bed around 9.30 pm when the elephant attacked us and razed our house. I somehow managed to cuddle my daughter in my arms and ran for safety along with my wife leaving all belongings behind. Within moments, the elephant dismantled my house like the pack of cards.”

Man-animal conflict

Alok who does odd jobs for livelihood is yet to re-build his house completely due to financial constraints, “We still sleep in neighbors’ house during the night hours as the construction of the house is not complete due to financial issues. It is difficult to explain my situation in words”.

Tilas Muni Lohar, 70, who stays in the same village shows the deep crater in her house formed by the elephant during an attack on her house, around a year ago, “I am too poor to repair my house even after a year of the incident. The tinned-roof was completely damaged by the jumbo and it leaks during severe rains. We are yet to get any help from the state government to repair the house.”

The duo, however, is not alone in the tragedy as man-animal conflict is a major issue in Indian state of West Bengal due to rising encroachment of humans in the wild animals’ habitat.

No help from politicians

As India, , the world’s largest democracy, is in the midst of the political carnival to elect the government that will run for the next five years, and politicians are leaving no stone unturned to woo the voters for victory, the hapless villagers say that nothing has been done for them to build their houses and no politician has ever come to know about their condition after the polls.

“We have been urging the political parties to look into our issues and help us in building our houses destroyed by the animals but nothing has been done. They just make fake promises and take our votes but never come back to take stock of our situation. We are frustrated by the apathetic attitude of the political satraps. Our lives are in danger due to wild animals but nobody cares,” said Rohan Mandal, 28, a villager in Bhauka line village as his voice gets choked with emotion.

But the damage is not just restricted to property. Man animal conflict also causes loss of lives.

Sumitra Mahali, 40, had gone inside the forest in north Bengal for firewood when she was attacked by a jumbo, in January, this year. She suffered serious injuries and died on the spot. Her only child, Kisan, (13) now stays with his aunt while his father works as a labourer in Kerala state of South India, several miles away from his house.

“Her (Sumitra) death has shattered the family completely as her husband works in Kerala for livelihood while her son stays with us. He has stopped going to school after the death of his mother and stays quiet. His upbringing has got severely disturbed after his mother’s death. We have also not received any financial help from the government either,” said Sita Mahali, Kisan’s aunt with whom he stays since her mother’s death.

As per norms, the state government pays no compensation to the victim’s kin if the death by the animal happens inside the forest as the entry is banned but people still venture inside for firewood. The compensation of Rs 5 lakhs ($6000) is paid only when the elephant enters into the human habitat and causes casualties.

Several casualties every year

The magnitude of the situation could be understood by the fact that around 50-60 people lose their lives in elephant attacks every year. India has around 52000 population of Asian elephants which is sixty percent of the world’s global population of jumbos. In West Bengal, the population is around thirty thousand.

Environmentalists blame the encroachment in elephant corridors (natural habitat linkage route) to be the major reason for the human casualties, “A healthy elephant requires a daily food diet of 180-200 kg but the shrinking of forests coupled with the encroachment in their corridors restricts their passage from one habitat to another. As a result, they enter into human habitat in search of food like bananas, jackfruits and agriculture fields causing severe losses to farmers,” pointed out Shyama Prasad Pandey, founder of Spoar, a non-profit working for environment conservation.

Sadly, the elephants are often poisoned or electrocuted by the revengeful villagers, “Villagers erect electrical fences around their fields to prevent the jumbos from entering that results in casualties. They also face deaths on railway tracks after being hit by locomotive drivers who often violate speed restrictions in elephant corridors,” he added.

But elephants are not to be blamed completely as there has been also conflicts with tigers, snakes, wild boars, bears and leopards in India. The situation has reached to such an extent that Kerala state has declared man-animal conflict a state specific disaster after 98 people lost their lives in the man-animal conflict last year.

According to the Indian government, more than 1500 people lost their lives in the country between 2019 and 2022 after being attacked by elephants. Tigers killed 125 people during 2019 and 2021.

Observation towers West Bengal
Around the villages there are towers to observe any animals coming © Sourav Mandal

Mitigating the conflict

Several steps are being taken by the respective governments of different states and non-profits to mitigate the conflicts like patrolling during the night hours, alarms, community based solar power fence that deters elephants with non-lethal shocks and growing lemon trees that is avoided by elephants because of thorns.

Damu Murmu, 32, who lives in North Bengal is also part of Quick response team (Qrt) formed by Spoar to minimize the conflict.

Damu Murmu
Damu Murmu © Sourav Mandal

He has a strong team of village youths who immediately inform the other villagers once they spot the elephant entering into their habitat, “We have a team of villages who alert others after spotting a jumbo. We immediately ask the villagers to gather at a common location with the help of public addressable system. The crackers are then burnt to force the elephant to move out of the village. It has helped us to reduce the conflict without causing damage to the animal.”

Environmentalists say that it’s a high time for politicians to address the issue, “The situation is turning grimmer with each passing day as forests are thinning out. Rampant urbanization coupled with rise in anthropogenic activities have been causing huge stress to the wild life. But sadly such issues do not find a place in the election manifestos of any political parties in our country. The loss of wild life is a serious cause of concern and proper awareness is required among people to ask tough questions to our political mandarins on biodiversity conservation. Polls will come and go but loss of wildlife is a permanent loss,” said Tuhin Subhra Mandal, a West Bengal based environmentalist.

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