"They have cut trees. Where would the elephants go?"
Rampant deforestation in Odisha and Jharkhand has forced elephants to stray into the northern districts of Chhattisgarh. For villagers here human-elephant conflict is a 'jumbo' problem. It results in loss of property, destruction of crops and even loss of human lives
"I don't remember when was the last time I slept peacefully at night. Every time I close my eyes, all I can hear is thud, thud, thud, thud sound of elephants approaching. I often get nightmares that elephants have destroyed my sugarcane field, yet again," said Harishankar Rajak.
Harishankar, 29, lives in Silphili village in Surajpur Tehsil of Surguja in Chhattisgarh. For villagers living in many districts in Chhattisgarh human-elephant conflict is a 'jumbo' problem. These conflicts result in loss of property, destruction of crops and even loss of human lives.
"Jungle kaat diya to bichara haathi jayega kaha?"
"They have cut forests. Where would these poor elephants go?" asked Geeta Tekam, 17, who lives in Surajpur and had to miss school for 10 days this year because of fear of elephants.
While nod to bauxite mining and coal excavation are to be blamed, but the primary reason which has emerged as the main culprit behind elephants venturing into villages is deforestation and decrease in forest cover in the neighbouring states of Jharkhand and Odisha.
It has forced elephants to stray into the northern districts of Chhattisgarh. These include Raigarh, Korba as well as five districts – Surguja, Balrampur, Surajpur, Jashpur and Koriya — that fall under the Surguja administrative division. 117 villages of Surguja district are on elephant corridor.
"The real crux of the problem lies in the rapid loss of habitat in Odisha. In normal course, these elephants would have moved to Jharkhand as this was the ancient route which elephants used to undertake. But Jharkhand has also undergone a phase of serious destruction of habitat," said environmentalist Mohit Sahu, who lives in Raipur, Chhattisgarh.
The number of elephants venturing into Chhattisgarh from neighbouring states has gone up in the last 10 years, claim villagers. "Humans and elephants used to co-exist peacefully. But now they don't let us live. They kill people and damage our crops," said Manja Rajak, 64, father of Harishankar.
The numbers are staggering
According to the official figures with the state government of Chhattisgarh, close to 200 people have been killed in attacks by the elephants from January 2013 to December 2017, while these elephants have damaged over 7,000 houses and crops sprawling 33,000 hectares of land.
"These elephants don't get anything to eat in the forests. The forests used to be dense, but they aren't anymore. Angry elephants then come out in big groups are destroy everything – homes, sugarcane crops. Everything," said Raju Rana, 26, who lives in Surguja.
"It's terrible when they kill humans. It's understandable why they go on a rampage. It's not their fault. But what is out fault?" he asked.
"Just last night, an elephant entered into our village and damaged two houses. People started screaming. All the villagers gathered and we managed to chase him out. At times, we have to use fire and force. Some villagers put barbed wires around their fields and sometimes elephants die of electrocution," said Rooplal Madavi, 35, who lives in Dhumadar village in Surguja district. His house is right next to the forest.
According to data with the forest department, 42 people had died in 2017-18 in five districts of Surguja region in incidents related to man-elephant conflicts. At least 1,743 houses were damaged in elephant attacks in the same period. In 2016-17, 50 people had died in elephant attacks in the region and 1,860 houses were damaged.
In the name of development
According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, we are losing 130,000 square km of forest cover every day. Another study by the Center for Global Development shows that if the loss of vegetation continues at this rate, forests covering an area nearly the size of India will be destroyed by 2050.
India has been trying to achieve its target of keeping 33% of its geographical area under forest cover for decades, but the 2017 State of Forest report shows that it is still struggling to get above 22%. According to government data, 14,000 sq km of forests were cleared to accommodate 23,716 industrial projects across India over the past 30 years.
Villagers say before the forests were opened for coal mining, they co-existed peacefully with elephants. After mines were allowed to operate in forest areas of Surguja and Surajpur districts since 2011, lakhs of trees were cut down.
The Chhattisgarh government is developing a 180-km-long east rail corridor. The project is likely to pose a serious challenge to the elephants as the rail line would cut through the belt that has been an established path for the tuskers.
"It's not just mining that is responsible for the loss of corridors and habitat but encroaching jungle for farming and human settlement is also an issue which has to be addressed," said environmentalist Mohit.
"Under the Forest Reserve Act, we have been illegally allocating land to tribals. And this is going to continue. So, the man-elephant conflict will only accentuate. If we want to contain this problem, I have three possible solution. Either kill all the elephants, or capture all of them or give them their forest back. All the three solution are not possible. Villagers will have to learn to co-exist with elephants," said Nitin Sanghvi, a wild life enthusiast.
"In such a scenario, we can either have a dedicated project like the one that was designed to save tigers or we need to educate tribals. There some very basic things that they can do. Like, for instance, not storing liquor at home, because that attracts elephants. Secondly, they should never ambush elephants. They are peace loving animals. They get angry when villagers hit them or chase them and that's when they attack," he added.
According to him the government should also increase the amount of compensation given to villagers in case of loss of life or damage to property and crop.
"The situation is so bad, now the elephants have started moving into Madhya Pradesh as well. "If we have to address this problem, there has to be coordination between all these four states and permanent corridores have to be left for them because elephants never stay at one place. They are constantly moving," said Mohit.