A wider environmental crisis

The first of the human-elephant clashes happened in September 2017, just weeks after the first refugees began pouring into Bangladesh and exhausted and traumatized new arrivals took shelter wherever they found space. But they have not let up as the main Kutupalong-Balukhali camp, which has existed since a previous Rohingya influx in 1991, grew into the world’s largest refugee settlement. Motaleb warned more problems lay ahead during the imminent monsoon season, when elephants traditionally migrate.

An IUCN survey prompted by the refugee crisis, which studied elephant footprints and dung, estimated up to 45 elephants live in the area. They had been able to freely move along corridors between Bangladesh and Myanmar in search of food and shelter — until hundreds of thousands of new people arrived in the area.

Unlike the host community, who the new arrivals said warned them about the elephant presence, the refugees struggle to avoid the elephant paths because of the limited space given to them to settle in. That clash has only been heightened by the rapid deforestation caused by the crisis.

As the camp expands, nearby forests have been cleared for settlements and stripped for firewood, leaving a barren landscape and increasing the chances of human-wildlife conflict. Photo by Kaamil Ahmed/Mongabay.

An estimated 20 square kilometers (7.8 square miles) of forest have been cleared to make space for the new settlements and by refugees needing to make almost daily excursions for firewood in the absence of any alternative fuel. The muddy, winding route they take into the forest becomes longer each day, constantly increasing the tension between them and the environment. At one of the stopping points, a group of children hauling heavy loads of firewood on their shoulders told Mongabay they had run into elephants before — and just like in the camp, tried to scare them away by shouting and throwing stones.

And as that thick forest has rapidly retreated, it has been replaced by a now barren, washed-out landscape of crumbling, pale-brown hills stripped of all vegetation and even their roots. That newly emptied space has also increased the entry points for the elephants, who in recent months have been scavenging for food during the dry season. This is where the IUCN plans to build 56 watchtowers to monitor elephant activity.

The camp where Rohingya refugees have settled overlaps with migratory paths for Asian elephants. Photo by Kaamil Ahmed/Mongabay.

UNHCR spokesperson Caroline Gluck said some of the more recent video of panicked elephants stampeding through the camp convinced them of the issue’s urgency, but this is just part of a longer-term plan to start dealing with the dramatic environmental changes caused by the crisis.

“The camp itself is not environmentally friendly. It’s below international standards by any measure. The numbers of people there exceed the numbers of people who should be there,” she said.

Work is currently focused on preparing for a potentially disastrous monsoon season because of the surge of people into the area. Gluck said they would also be working on providing alternative fuels to end the firewood crisis, providing new water supplies, and running a reforestation program to start reversing some of the damage that has been done.

“We want to work on creating a better environmental awareness, both among the refugees and the host community, to try and better preserve the fragile environment that they have at the moment,” she said.

Banner image: Rohingya refugees listen as IUCN’s Mohammed Abdul Motaleb teaches them how to safely guide elephants away from their homes. Photo by Kaamil Ahmed/Mongabay. 

Kaamil Ahmed is a foreign correspondent who has reported on conflicts, labor and the environment in South Asia and the Middle East. You can find him on Twitter at @kaamilahmed.

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Article published by Isabel Esterman
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