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Wild elephants in Southern Bhutan
Chhukha and Samtse - Raiding elephants on the rampage

On 14 June 2005, even as the 83rd session of the National Assembly discussed preventive measures against the encroachment of wild elephants in the southern dzongkhags of Samtse, Sarpang and Samdrup Jongkhar, several wild elephants destroyed the home of Ram Bahadur of Peljorling under Sibsoo geog in Samtse.

For more than a decade, the wild elephants have become an increasingly intolerable nuisance for the farmers in the south.

A herd of seven elephants completely wiped out about 300 kilogrammes of ginger, 100 kilogrammes of maize, and 100 jackfruits from farmer Sonka Uroan's five-acre field. The herd also destroyed his home.

In a continuing battle between the man and the animal, the farmers and the local officials said that hundreds of elephants not only destroyed the crops but also damaged houses and attacked people. "My house has already been destroyed twice," said Deo Kumari Gurung of Peljorling, who recently lost most of her four acres of maize crop to the elephants. "As soon as the cultivation starts the elephants turn up and there is nothing much we can do."

Raghu Raj, who takes turns with his neighbours to keep guard at night, has given up growing vegetables in his nine-acre field. Raghu Raj used to get about 80 sacks of rice from his field, but now even getting 20 is a good yield for him. "We sow the crops but we do not reap," he said, adding that the elephants attacked during the night and disappeared in the morning.

The villagers tried to chase the elephants with sticks, stones and torches. They also tried local repellants like burning dry chillies and hanging poisonous bushes. Once they even brought donkeys to the village with the belief that the donkeys' bray would scare the elephants away. "But all was vain," said Deo Kumari Gurung. "The elephants got used to it all and now they simply carry on with their munching spree."

Know the elephants
Wild elephants have become a nuisance to farmers in South Bhutan

The orld's largest vegetarians, the elephants have the longest gestation period (of about 22 months) among mammals.

It can grow up to 13 feet (four metres) tall and weigh as much as six tonnes. Despite its big size an elephant can run 40 to 48 kilometres an hour.

An adult elephant can eat about 180 kilogrammes of food a day while a herd can consume an entire field in one night. Fences and other deterrents are often useless against hungry herds.

An elephant family is led by a matriarch, with the matriarch being the oldest and most experienced of the herd. The matriarchal society consists of her female offsprings and their young. When the matriarch dies, one of the oldest offsprings takes her place.

About 400 kilometres away, the villagers of Lhangchenphu geog in Samdrup Jongkhar are living with similar painful experiences. The villagers apparently spend sleepless nights guarding their fields but the elephants attack the field at dusk and munch on the crops all through the night. "They don't leave until they wipe out the fields clean," said a farmer whose home was partially destroyed by the wild animal. Numerous houses and crops have been destroyed, leading to near-starvation for some households, the farmers said.

With no crop compensation from the government, the villagers chip in and help those affected. "When we have no help from anywhere we have to come together and help ourselves," said a disheartened farmer.

Farmers in the Indian states used exploding "chilli bombs" as a stopgap measure. The elephants with their very sensitive trunks dreaded the fiery smell and it worked well as an effective measure.

The farmers believe that poaching and destruction of elephant habitat across the border force the animals to seek refuge in their land. The elephants came in herds, sometimes in hundreds, the local officials said.

The Samtse dzongda, Tashi Gyaltshen, said that even with an army of forest officials, police and the villagers, it was difficult to ward off the animals. "By the time these animals reach the Bhutanese border, they are already agitated and they become more wild and dangerous," he said. Once a farmer nearly lost his life while trying to chase the elephants away. In Samtse alone, two people have lost their lives and many have been injured in the process.

The district forest officer of Samdrup Jongkhar, Kado Tshering, said that it was difficult for seven officials deployed to guard 3,000 sq km of forests. "We never know when and where the wild elephants would attack," he said, adding that the single male elephant called the "rogue elephant" was even more dangerous as it attacked people.

The wild elephants, according to Kado Tshering, not only attacked people and crops, but also attacked domestic animals like horses and cows. He said that the wild elephants were violent even against their own breed, employed for logging.

While some geogs like Lhamoizhingkha, Umling and Chazigang geogs in Sarpang have benefited greatly with the introduction of electric fencing, the elephants continued to cause havoc in Dargaythang, Yangchenphu, Dekiling, Chokorling, Bur, and Singaye geogs.

The Sarpang chimi, Thakur Homagai, said that he electrified the fencing around his field from eight in the evening till four in the morning. "This has helped me to keep the animals at bay," he said.

But some doubt the technique. "Unless the wires are really big and strong, I doubt they would keep the 6-tonne beast away for long," said an observer working at an international agency.

The officials of the Nature Conservation Division under the agriculture ministry, said that a project to study the entire situation has been proposed, and accordingly the government will come out with effective measures "against the jumbo menace".

According to the officials, an elephant census in the south would be conducted before taking further action. "In the meanwhile, the villagers will have to work hand in hand with the government officials to chase the wild beasts away," an official said.

The officials believe that the elephants strayed into human settlements mainly because human activities have shrunk animal migratory routes. "Elephants attack only when their natural habitats are threatened," they said. "But we cannot exactly identify how this has happened since we do not have any background information."

A national geographic news documentary noted that thousands of elephants were killed each year for their ivory or meat, or because they had become a danger to humans living around them.

The World Wildlife Fund estimated that there were about 1.3 million African elephants in 1970. By 1989 the number had slid to 600,000.

In Sumatra islands in Indonesia, the Sumatran subspecies were rapidly disappearing in large numbers because the forests were cut at a fast rate. With nowhere to go, the elephants ended up causing crop damage, and then in turn, were either poisoned or shot by the irate farmers.

By religion, Bhutanese avoid harming elephants as they are considered sacred animals. Officials said that some resettlers in the southern dzongkhags from the east who revered the elephant as "meme Sangay or langphochey", meaning Lord Buddha, believed that if one prayed and paid respect to the animal, it turned and went away without harming either crops or people.

Elephants are revered and worshipped in many religions. In Bhutan, the elephant is considered as one of the seven precious possessions (Gyalse Naduen) or Langpo Rinpoche. The precious elephant symbolises unlimited capability and power of the Buddha.

International elephant researcher, Joyce Poole, explains in her study of elephant behaviour that like humans, elephants may also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. "If a matriarch has a bad experience with people, her behaviour will be adjusted accordingly - either more fearful or more aggressive depending upon her own personality," she said.

"Other members of the family will follow her lead during moments of crisis, and younger elephants will learn how to act. Aggressive behaviour toward people can be learned. Just as children learn prejudices from their parents, so, too, do elephants," she added.

Meanwhile, farmers like Raghu Raj Gurung do not know how to deal with the wild elephants. They just scare them away to save their crops, but often it doesn't work. "It is a frustrating dilemma," said Raghu Raj.

Contributed by Karma Choden, KUENSEL, Bhutan's national newspaper, 2005


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