Close Quarters

In Assam, India, and beyond, WWF and our partners are working to address human-elephant conflict and find ways for people and elephants to live alongside each other

Illustration of elephants and village

Heaps of elephant dung smear the peak of a hill leading to Assam’s Singlijan Reserve Forest, some 32 ft. above a dirt road cutting through vast swaths of verdant tea gardens. Atop the hill is a fence made of two metal wires stretched between wooden posts.

One evening in March, Anil Bey, who lives in the nearby Kekurijan village, was on his routine rounds to monitor the condition of the fence. He watched as an elephant—a bull from the nearby forest—moved closer; when its trunk touched the wire of the fence, a nonlethal electric jolt gave it a zap.

“The elephant withdrew to the forest after the shock,” says Bey, pointing at a wooden post that the bull almost ripped out of the ground in an attempt to get past the barrier. This humble fence—almost invisible to the casual observer—has the power to keep wild elephants away from the eight villages near the forest, including Kekurijan, reducing negative interactions between humans and elephants. It’s a small but significant component of a collaborative effort to both protect elephants and meet the needs of local people in this landscape.

On the other side of the fenced-off hill, the forest in Singlijan Reserve looks like a patchy thicket. Decades ago, it was part of the forest cover in northernmost Assam—stretching from Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary in the east to Behali Reserve Forest in the west. Luxuriant tropical deciduous and subtropical evergreen forests made Sonitpur and Biswanath Assam’s greenest districts. Today, less than 35% of those forested habitats remain intact.

According to Hiten Baishya, WWF-India’s coordinator for the Brahmaputra Landscape in Assam, there was a loss of almost 65% of forest cover in a matter of 30–35 years, owing at least in part to sociopolitical unrest in the area.

“The speed at which the forests disappeared was tremendous, leaving far fewer places for wide-ranging creatures like elephants to roam,” Baishya explains. Elephants ventured into human-dominated areas when denuded forests failed to match their significant food and resource needs.

Hiten Baishya, WWF-India’s coordinator for the Brahmaputra Landscape in Assam, surveys the hills of Arunachal Pradesh.

The remnant of a tree from Sonitpur’s forested past stands in an area now cleared for agriculture and livestock.

Push and pull

An estimated 40% of Indian elephants and nearly 10% of the total population of wild Asian elephants reside within a 15,500 sq. mi. area in the northeastern states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Nitin Sekar, WWF-India’s national lead for elephant conservation, explains what’s behind human-elephant conflict in Assam: Elephants move out of remaining forest patches and cross into human-dominated areas due to two factors he describes as “push” and “pull.”

With deforestation reducing their habitat by half within a short period of time, elephants have been left with few options but to enter villages and tea plantations bordering forests. This is the push factor. The pull factor is when elephants are drawn to food that’s more appealing than their forest fare—rice grains in agricultural fields or vegetables and legumes in kitchen gardens.

In Assam, elephants seem to have keen timing. Individuals and herds that don’t generally spend much time in cultivated areas year-round suddenly appear in the floodplains around harvesttime as the paddy is ripening. They feast on crops from September to December, before returning to forested areas farther north.

And they continuously learn new ways to fend for themselves—ways that sometimes lead to dangerous interactions with humans. They forage through village farms at night and shelter in nearby tea gardens during the day.

In recent years, human-elephant conflict has become more severe. Crops have been destroyed and people killed, which has led to elephants being killed in retaliation. The states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh witnessed 812 human and 314 elephant fatalities between 2011 and 2021, according to WWF-India. (Government figures indicate that, on average, around 500 people and 100 elephants are killed each year in India because of human-elephant conflict.)

Anil Bey’s village is one of many facing the challenge of coexisting with elephants. In the nearby village of Jalukbari, resident Anil Baruah pages through the entries of his worn-out diary, sharing recollections that the panic villagers experienced in the past was such that they sometimes took it out on the Forest Department staff tasked with elephant conservation.

Bey notes that before he took on the role of maintaining the elephant-proof wire fence (constructed in consultation with conservationists from WWF-India and the Assam Forest Department), residents were used to waking up to the sound of elephants devouring their crops or the ruckus of villagers or Forest Department staff scaring elephants away with noise deterrents like firecrackers.

Electrified fencing requires year-round maintenance to remain effective.

Anil Bey travels the fence lines on foot or by bicycle, checking the wire’s voltage and clearing any obstructions.

Setting boundaries

Sometime in 2010, Hiten Baishya and David Smith, a WWF-India senior project officer, noticed that villagers had constructed dangerous electric fences—often hooked up to major power lines—at elephant crossing points near villages. While these protected crops and properties, they were lethal for elephants, people, and other wildlife.

Elephant Collaring

Illustration of elephant with collar and man with antenna

By November 2020, Arjun Kamdar, a wildlife biologist with WWF-India, and his team had spent months scouting elephants that visited the vast, multiple tea gardens in Assam’s Sonitpur district. Their goal was to attach a GPS collar to a select individual in order to collect valuable information on elephant movements. The team of veterinary experts and Assam Forest Department officers was finally able to dart a female. While she was still awake—but tranquilized, her attention deflected by a blindfold—they attached the collar around her neck. Kamdar dubbed her “Tara” after Tarajuli tea garden, where she was collared.

Radio collaring isn’t easy. It takes five to seven people several hours to find and tranquilize an elephant. Kamdar, who is currently monitoring the collared elephant, believes tagging technology is the key to unlocking the mystery of an elephant’s whereabouts during the lean season, when it leaves the harvested fields for parts unknown. “Where are the elephants for nine months?” Kamdar asks. The GPS collar could provide an answer.

In Sonitpur, WWF-India is hoping to fit five elephants total with GPS-enabled radio collars that can relay more information on what habitats or corridors they prefer, how they travel, and whether environmental changes are altering their migration patterns.

The team also has plans to attach an accelerometer to the collars to understand the activity of an elephant at any given time, whether it’s drinking, sleeping, or walking. According to Hiten Baishya, WWF-India’s coordinator for the Brahmaputra Landscape, mining location-specific data from GPS-tagged animals could help the Forest Department determine where to extend protection across their range. And it could shed light on what elephants are feeding on, helping to determine which types of vegetation need restoration. It could also provide villagers with early warning of elephant presence and help reduce human-elephant conflict.

What if, Baishya and Smith wondered, these fences were replaced with voltage-regulated, nonlethal electric fences powered by solar panels—an inexpensive tool already being used in another WWF landscape? “Sunlight,” explains Smith, “charges the system battery, which produces regulated pulses that run through the wire of the fencing system.” Unlike lethal electric fences, the new fence technology would deter elephants by delivering a brief electric shock that wouldn’t jeopardize their lives.

By 2015, after securing community buy-in, Baishya and Smith helped villagers form a close-knit community response team consisting of affected villagers and provided them the materials and technical guidance to install a solar fence. And since electric fences need regular maintenance to ensure their effectiveness, the villagers and the Forest Department elected Anil Bey as the fence caretaker in 2016. Bey received a portion of the lump sum collected from villagers for the upkeep of the fence until the Forest Department fixed his stipend for this task at 4,000 rupees a month.

The fence, of course, is only as good as its maintenance—a continual task for which Bey was trained through WWF-India. Bey explains that electricity runs through the fence in the evenings during the harvest season—September to January—when elephant break-ins are on the rise, as well as at night during the lean season, when elephants are less likely to raid crops and damage property.

Bey’s quick checks and fixes include lightly pinching the wire with a voltmeter to check the current flow; clearing undergrowth that might touch the wire and drain power; and ensuring the fence components—solar panels, batteries, and energizers—are not defective, damaged, or removed.

His involvement has helped reduce human-elephant conflict, allowing tea garden workers and villagers to live in peace. “There was a time,” he says, “when they wouldn’t stop crying hysterically over elephant encounters.”

Community management of solar fences in Biswanath district led to a 70% reduction in elephant-related damage in the adjacent tea gardens. And there are almost no elephant sightings in the villages anymore. In fact, Anil Baruah almost misses the sense of unity he experienced during the chaotic elephant encounters of the past.

Around 60 miles away, community cohesion over maintaining another 13-mile solar fence remains strong in the eight villages of Sonitpur district, despite incidents of human-elephant conflict coming to a halt in the past two to three years.

Tulsi Upadhyaya, who belongs to one such village, Sonai Miri Gaon, is the head of the Hasti Manab Suraksha Committee—the Elephant and People Protection Committee—overseeing the financial contribution of the villagers toward fence maintenance. “Everyone understands the need for fences in order to live in close proximity with elephants,” he says. “Each household contributes 300–500 rupees into the committee’s coffers at least once in three years. And a reliable resident is voted to guard over the fence.”

Workers wade waist-deep through tea plants at Tarajuli tea estate, filling baskets with plucked leaves. Nearby, volunteers watch for elephants traveling through the area, making sure they don’t wander too close.

On patrol

Parvindar Sona, a garden supervisor at Tarajuli tea estate, which abuts Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary, is accustomed to hearing a loud rumble as he saunters along the migration route used by elephants passing through the tea estate. “The trumpeting sound ringing in the air is a deliberate signal by the elephants asking us to mark their presence,” Sona says.

Over time, Sona learned to spin a wooden stick in a way that frightens elephants away—a technique, he proudly notes, that he developed on his own. In 2005, when he saved the life of a forest officer by using this tactic, he was enlisted as an Anti Depredation Squad (ADS) leader by WWF-India.

Since 2015, in collaboration with WWF-India, the Forest Department has formed 60 ADS teams in Sonitpur alone. The ADS volunteers make up response teams that help protect their villages from elephants while also ensuring elephants are unharmed. In a holistic partnership, they act as a direct link between the Forest Department and the local community, keeping watch over the tea gardens from high-mounted machans (treehouses) and assisting Forest Department officials in safely and systematically driving away wild elephant herds.

Sona is the first point of contact for any recent elephant sightings or damage in the Tarajuli tea estate area. He steers the animals away from tea garden premises and back into the forest, thereby preventing people from terrorizing elephants by pelting them with stones. Another technique he uses is to explode firecrackers inside a pipe. The sound that surges through the air scares the pachyderms away from villages without harming them.

Many residents of Tarajuli tea estate and nearby villages have stories of encountering a lone bull known as Lachit from Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary. Typically, Lachit enters the tea estate from the sanctuary before moving farther eastward to other nearby villages and estates.

It’s Sona’s job to relay information on Lachit’s movements to Ajay Sharma, another ADS member who remains on alert if the tusker inches toward his village to the east. During one incident, fear gripped tea plantation workers when they saw the elephant swinging at their tiffin boxes (lunchboxes) with his trunk, and the tea plantation owner asked Sharma to intervene. He exploded firecrackers and encouraged Lachit to move down the sloping tea gardens to a drainage channel, where he offered the elephant some bananas that he had brought from his kitchen garden.

The big picture

Electric fences and the work done by ADS team members are just a few examples from an arsenal of approaches that, when implemented in an integrated and context-specific manner, can help reduce human-elephant conflict and prevent human and elephant deaths.

Habitat loss, which results in human-elephant conflict, is the biggest threat to Asian elephants in all 13 elephant range countries in Asia, says Nilanga Jayasinghe, a WWF wildlife conservation manager focused on Asian species. “Even in countries like India, long-held tolerance for revered animals like elephants may erode in the face of increasing negative interactions,” she says.

“What’s needed,” she continues, “is an integrated approach, including sound prevention (such as regularly maintained electric fences), mitigation measures (such as alternative livelihoods), and response interventions (where ADS teams respond in a timely and effective manner)—all underpinned by policies that enable people to manage human-elephant conflict and benefit from living with wildlife. Robust monitoring to gauge hotspots and to ensure that interventions are effective is also key.”

Jayasinghe emphasizes that to make a difference, interventions must go hand in hand with wide stakeholder engagement—involving communities, the government, and businesses (such as tea gardens, in this case); addressing the human dynamics among various stakeholders attempting to manage conflict; and working on the root causes of conflict (like habitat loss). In other words, holistically addressing conflict is essential for sustainable change.

WWF-India’s elephant work in the Brahmaputra Landscape exemplifies this type of broad approach. In addition to collaborating with multiple stakeholders on human-elephant conflict management, their efforts extend to protecting elephant corridors and reserves and preventing train-elephant collisions.

Rajkumari Sharma points toward damage done to her hut after an elephant encounter.

Prasanna Kalita, a member of the Assam Forest Department, demonstrates the use of firecrackers to steer elephants away from populated areas.

Full circle

One common argument for conserving elephants is that they are a keystone species—that is, they play ecological roles that other species cannot. For instance, they disperse (through their dung) a lot of seeds and create habitat conditions that are crucial for other species’ survival: “Asian elephants are responsible for 70% of the seed dispersal of Dillenia indicia [elephant apple],” says Nitin Sekar.

But he also points out that the inherent value of elephant life goes far beyond their ecological role. “Elephants are deeply intelligent animals with vibrant social relationships,” he says. “They learn, they play, they love, and they even seem to grieve. These creatures experience full lives, and they enrich our lives. If we can find a way to protect both human and elephant well-being, shouldn’t we?”

In spite of the conflicts that occur, others share this outlook. Several years ago in Sonitpur, Rajkumari Sharma, mother of ADS member Ajay Sharma, leaped out of bed a little after midnight as the notorious Lachit rammed his head through the wall of her mud hut, cracking its structure. She ran out, and when she sneaked back in a little later to quickly retrieve some important documents from under the bed, she found the elephant snacking on rice that had been sealed in plastic bags.

And that wasn’t the first time she’d dealt with these giant creatures. In fact, she’s lost track of the number of times her fragile hut has been flattened by elephants. But she has a stoic take on the matter. “I have no right to be angry at elephants. If humans can migrate to cities in search of food, who am I to be mad at elephants when they cross our paths for the same purpose,” she says, reverently calling Lachit Ganesh baba—the Hindu elephant-headed god who removes obstacles.

Today, she knows that Lachit will pass by again, but also that she won’t lose her house. What has changed is that two years ago, her son joined the ADS and received training from WWF-India, in collaboration with the Forest Department. That has made a world of difference to her—and to her neighbors.

Illustration of elephant crossing train tracks

Preventing Elephant-Train Collisions

India’s extensive web of railway tracks cuts across elephant migration routes, leading to elephant deaths. In 2017, for example, a passenger train ploughed into a herd of four female elephants near Rangapara railway station in Assam’s Sonitpur district.

Now, just a mile away, a camera trap by a cracked wall facing the railway track records activity around the track. With the 2017 crash still alive in everyone’s memory, design consultant Tejaswini Nagesh is using the still images and video to come up with solutions that help elephants cross safely.

“The idea is to make rail crossings easier for elephants to safely travel,” Nagesh explains. “For instance, if there are steep embankments on any side of the track, these can be flattened.” (Steep embankments slow elephants down, and video footage reveals that individuals seem to wait at the top, on the tracks, until family members have fully descended on the other side of the slope.)

Another solution would be installing LED fog lights to combat heavy fog. If an elephant were to cross a railroad track, the fog light would allow the driver to see the elephant and slow or stop the train. “Fog lights can be installed in areas with high probabilities of accidents,” says Nagesh, who designs innovations that are locally affordable.

Between 2010 and 2021, three elephant-train collisions resulted in eight elephant deaths in Sonitpur district. To mitigate collisions, Nagesh collaborates with both the Railway and Forest Departments to raise awareness of the role they can play in reducing collisions. “The railway authorities are reducing the speed of trains to 30 kilometers [19 miles] per hour over vulnerable sections based on our study,” says Tejaswini.

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