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In north Bangladesh, human-elephant conflicts signal need for greater protection

Elephants and humans sharing space

Elephants and humans sharing space in Sherpur, Bangladesh. Image by Mohammed Mostafa Feeroz.

  • At least four people have been killed in wild elephant attacks in Bangladesh in the last few weeks, three of them in the northern Sherpur district.
  • At least one elephant was also killed by locals via electrification after a herd of wild elephants roamed the area for food.
  • Of the 12 elephant corridors in Bangladesh, Sherpur is the only corridor that has seen a rise in attacks, as the government and other conservation organizations focused their efforts in the southern zone, where the other 11 corridors are located.
  • Conservationists blame the scarcity of adequate resources and funding for proper management of conservation activities, resulting in the continuation of conflicts and killings.

For the last couple of decades, Bangladesh has been taking on several projects with an aim to protect the wild Asian elephant (Elephas maximus indicus), which is critically endangered in the country. However, the conflict between humans and the wild pachyderms, consisting of both migratory and resident population, is yet to be controlled.

An example is the recent clashes between humans and elephants which resulted in the death of at least four people and one elephant.

On May 6, a wild elephant was found dead in a paddy field in the Jhenaigati area of Sherpur district in northern Bangladesh. This happened as the locals had baited electric cables inside the field so the roaming elephant could not enter.

In Bangladesh, conflicts arise mainly during paddy harvesting when wild elephants come into human settlements to feed on the crop. To save their crops from the elephants, the locals use different elements, including fire, to spark fear in the animals. Sometimes, locals use high-voltage electric cables, a weapon that can kill wild animals.

Earlier — on May 1, April 14 and April 26 — three people lost their lives in Sherpur district in a similar incident. The most recent incident happened on May 7 in the southeastern Bandarban Hill district, where a wild elephant attack killed a local.

Fire in the farm with elephants in the background.
In an attempt to save their crops from wild elephants, the locals use different elements, including fire and other means, to spark fear in the animals. Image by Mohammed Mostafa Feeroz.

M. Monirul H. Khan, a professor of zoology at Jahangirnagar University, said elephants have huge food demands, but their habitat continues to deteriorate in the country.

Farmers are cultivating crops near the natural habitats of elephants. It’s due to this drastic habitat loss the wild elephants enter the croplands, accelerating human-elephant conflicts, he said. He added that, sometimes, people cultivate crops on encroached forestlands. “Certainly, wild elephants will invade these croplands for ample food. Farmers often kill this flagship animal of the forest to save their crops,” he said.

Unprotected northern corridor

Among the 12 declared elephant corridors along the Bangladesh, India and Myanmar borders, the one located in the northern part of the country — Sherpur, adjacent to the Indian state of Assam — is mostly unprotected. This is where most of the recent incidents have happened.

There are a few projects for elephant conservation in the southeastern part of Bangladesh currently, operating sporadically with limited resources, said Raquibul Amin, country representative of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Bangladesh.

“To be frank, the funds coming for elephant conservation are very limited,” said Raquibul, and they don’t cover all the issues. For example, IUCN Bangladesh is running activities to reduce conflicts in Cox’s Bazar, where funds are geared toward humanitarian needs. The conservation activities here mainly help with reducing damages to the Rohingya community settlement located in an elephant corridor, Raquibul said.

The northern corridor is often neglected, where conflict between humans and elephants frequently arises, resulting in both human and pachyderm losses.

Three women watch wild elephants.
Bangladesh’s northern elephant corridor is often neglected, and conflict between humans and elephants frequently arises here, resulting in many losses of humans and big mammals. Image by Mohammed Mostafa Feeroz.

Elephant status and conservation in Bangladesh

According to the Bangladesh Forest Department, there were only 268 resident elephants in Bangladesh in 2016, all residing in its southeastern forest areas. Meanwhile, during the period of 2017-21, at least 50 elephants were killed in human-elephant conflicts and electrification by humans. Of them, 34 were killed in 2021 alone.

Currently, there are some projects, mainly in the southwestern Chittagong Hill district and Cox’s Bazar district, aimed at reducing clashes between humans and elephants.

A World Bank-funded Sustainable Forests and Livelihoods Project is also working to protect the elephant, which is implemented by various Forest Department partners.

Nature Conservation Management (NACOM) is one of the implementing partners working on creating an elephant response team and other activities. S.M. Munjirul Hannan Khan, NACOM executive director, said the funds they get are not enough to run the whole conservation initiative.

For example, he said that under the project, they are supposed to form Elephant Response Teams (ERTs) that will create awareness among locals and inform the people of practices to avoid conflict. However, the teams are not functioning properly, he said, as they work voluntarily without any financial or other benefits.

He expressed the need to deploy resources to the people involved to handle the situation in the field.

Farmers set fire in their fields to scare away the wild elephants.
Farmers set fire in their fields to scare away the wild elephants. Image by Mohammed Mostafa Feeroz.

Considering the recent rise in elephant killings, the Forest Department has planned a new conservation project to save the endangered species by minimizing elephant-human conflicts and reviving their habitats. However, the planning commission recently rejected a proposal for a project that would cost BDT 500 million ($4.6 million).

Under the new elephant conservation project, orchards growing plants that elephants prefer to eat, such as calamus palms and bamboo gardens, would be introduced to ensure their safe habitat, breeding and food security.

Regarding the project’s rejection, Raquibul Amin said that the government should approve the project as it would help to take the next step in conservation.

Banner image: Elephants and humans sharing space in Sherpur, Bangladesh. Image by Mohammed Mostafa Feeroz.

Bangladesh struggles to protect the last of its last wild elephants

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