DhakaTribune
Wednesday November 22, 2017 03:17 AM

Elephants vs Humans: The threat to Bangladesh’s natural habitats as Rohingya influx continues

Elephants vs Humans: The threat to Bangladesh’s natural habitats as Rohingya influx continues
According to a recent IUCN survey, there are a total of 12 elephant corridors in the country: five in Cox's Bazar North Forest Division, three in Cox's Bazar South Forest Division, and four in Chittagong South Forest DivisionCollected

At least six people, Rohingya refugees, were trampled to death between September 17 and October 14 in Cox's Bazar alone

The human-elephant conflicts, mainly resulting from anthropogenic causes, have now become a regular phenomenon in the country, with such incidents spiking recently, researchers said.

According to the Forest Department, as many as 66 elephants have been killed with 236 humans losing their lives in human-elephant conflicts in the last 14 years.

At least six people, Rohingya refugees, were trampled to death between September 17 and October 14 in Cox’s Bazar alone, once again drawing attention to the growing number of fatalities.

An estimate by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reads that some 760 out of 920 conflicts occurred centring crop damage from January 2014 to May 2016 in Rangunia, Khurusia, Jaldi and Chunati areas of Chittagong, and in Bandarban.

The human-elephant conflicts have now become a very common phenomenon in the country mostly due to anthropogenic causes.

Wildlife researchers apprehend that the construction of temporary camps for Rohingya people, by blocking the passages of wild elephants, may trigger the risk of elephant-human conflicts further in the Cox’s Bazar region.

Talking to the Dhaka Tribune, Md Ali Kabir, divisional forest officer of Cox’s Bazar South Forest Division, said that the makeshift Rohingya shelters, set up blocking the elephant routes, increased the risk of the human- elephant conflicts.

“Every year 10-12 people die in human-elephant conflicts in the Cox’s Bazar region. As many as 35 people have died in human-elephant conflicts during the period of 2010-2015,” said the divisional forest officer, adding that they had already asked the authorities concerned to take the elephants corridors into consideration before setting up any camp for Rohingya people.

Expressing grave concern over the rising elephant-human conflict, renowned wildlife biologist Dr AHM Raihan Sarker told the Dhaka Tribune: “As much as 4,000 acres of hills and protected forest areas adjacent to Teknaf Wildlife Sanctuary were destroyed while 2,000 acres of forestland have been acquired for setting up temporary shelters for Rohingya people.”

“The latest survey conducted by the IUCN revealed that Teknaf Wildlife Sanctuary is the home to 60-70 Asian elephants. However, camps were set up blocking the elephant routes. To mitigate the elephant-human conflicts, the Rohingya people should be relocated to a designated spot like Bhasan Char,” said Dr Sarker, also associate professor of Institute of Forestry & Environmental Sciences (IFES) at Chittagong University.

Speaking to the Dhaka Tribune, Md Jahidul Kabir, conservator of forests (wildlife and nature conservation circle), said that the establishment of any human settlement blocking elephant routes posed a great risk for human-elephant conflicts.

In his research paper titled “Elephant Habitat and Human-Elephant Conflict: A case Study in Chunati Wildlife Sanctuary, Bangladesh”, Jahidul pointed out that habitat preservation was the main challenge for elephant conservation and for human-elephant conflict mitigation.

“Asian elephants are forest-dwelling animals which are often called the ‘engineers’ of the forest as they play a significant role in maintaining the ecosystems they inhabit. They are an indicator of good forest health. As a large herbivorous mammal, elephants require abundant foraging material and water for drinking and bathing. They prefer a mosaic of habitat with patches of forest, scrub forest, banana groves, forest clearings, intermittent open spaces, succulent grasslands, and savanna,” said Jahidul, adding that the existence of the Asian elephants was at a grave risk mainly due to frequent habitat loss and fragmentation, food scarcity, encroachment, human-elephant conflicts and hunting and poaching.

A study shows that human settlements, agricultural lands, roads and highways, brick fields, army cantonments, village markets were constructed within or near the elephant movement routes and corridors. This further created human-elephant conflicts and resulted in human casualties, elephant deaths and damages to crops and properties. As elephants always follow their fixed routes and corridors during movement, construction of infrastructure have largely affected their mobility.

According to a publication titled Status of Asian Elephants in Bangladesh, elephants belong to two species: Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) and African elephant (Loxodonta africana).

The IUCN Red List of Bangladesh categorised Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) as “critically endangered” in Bangladesh since the species of wild animal is now at risk of extinction.

As per a survey conducted by the IUCN during 2013-2016, three types of elephants are found in Bangladesh: resident, migratory and captive. The survey also found 268 resident wild elephants, 93 migratory elephants and 96 captive elephants in Bangladesh.

Almost a century ago, elephants were a very common sight in the forest of Bangladesh. The scientists reported existence of 500 elephants in the forest of Bangladesh back in 1950s. However, a recent study has put the number of Asian elephants in Bangladesh 228-327.

The research publication also pointed out that elephants come into conflict with humans because of the competition for space in the same habitat. When elephants invade crops and settlements, humans defend their property by scaring them away with fire, guns and bombs. Consequently, both elephants and people are killed and injured in such conflicts.

According to an IUCN publication titled “Human-Elephant Conflict Mitigation Measures: Lessons from Bangladesh”, the conflict between humans and resident elephants is confined to some parts of the country like Chittagong, Chittagong Hill Tracts and Cox’s Bazar.

On the other hand, conflict between humans and migratory elephants occur in Sherpur, Jamalpur and Mymensingh areas of Bangladesh.

According to the recent IUCN survey, there are a total of 12 elephant corridors in the country; five corridors are located in Cox’s Bazar North Forest Division, three in Cox’s Bazar South Forest Division while four in Chittagong South Forest Division.

The survey revealed that the present condition of the corridors is not suitable for elephant movement due to human interception. If this situation continues, the corridors will be blocked gradually, resulting in the elephants being packetised and losing their genetic viability which would ultimately lead to extinction.

A corridor is a passage used by elephants to go from one habitat patch to another. Elephant corridors are of great importance for the survival of elephant populations to maintain genetic viability of an isolated population.

On the other hand, elephant routes are the paths that elephants use on a regular basis for foraging and day-to-day movement. When elephant routes get damaged because of human intervention, human-elephant conflicts arise within that region.

An IUCN publication titled “Human-Elephant Conflict Mitigation Measures: Lessons from Bangladesh” divided the technologies to reduce the risk of human-elephant conflicts into three broad categories.

The first category includes cultivation of non-preferred crops by farmers, bio-fencing, solar electric fencing, chili rope, watch tower and setting up early warning system.

The second category is improving elephant habitats through establishing salt lick and plantation for elephants.

The third category is organising communities living in elephant ranges into maintaining small groups which can be termed as Elephant Response Teams.

On October 10, the parliamentary standing committee on forest and environment revealed a report that the Rohingya people who fled from Myanmar and took shelter in Bangladesh destroyed forest resources in Cox’s Bazar area worth Tk151 crore.

Terming the environmental damage as an irreparable loss, Hasan Mahmud, chief of the Jatiya Sangsad body, regretted that millions of tons of woods were being used by the Rohingya people for their cooking purpose each day.

“The Rohingya people living in the makeshift camps are collecting the fuel from the forests and taking a huge toll on the environment. Only the Department of Forest has submitted an account of over Tk1.5 billion loss. The total environmental damage would be larger,” Hasan said.

On October 14, four Rohingya people were trampled to death by a wild elephant when it was crossing through route in Cox’s Bazar blocked by temporary Rohingya camps.

On September 17, two Rohingya refugees were trampled to death and five others injured as a wild elephant was crossing through a region where refugee camps were set up in Ukhia upazila of Cox’s Bazar.

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