Elephants bearing brunt of unrestrained development

As many as 43 elephants were killed in nearly three years

Bangladesh has seen an alarming rise in elephant deaths recently, with as many as five elephants being killed in the last 10 days. 

The Asian Elephant is nearing extinction in the South Asian country as development continues unrestrained, shrinking the elephant corridors, leading to the mammals wandering off to local land in search of food and ending up electrocuted or shot. 

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), there are nearly 300 Asian elephants living in the country’s forests, with two-thirds of them in Cox's Bazar and the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). 

In the last two years and eleven months, 43 wild elephants have died, among which 13 were electrocuted and shot.

A total of 90 elephants were killed in Bangladesh between 2001 and 2017 and around 28 elephants were brutally killed in just 20 months from January 2020 to August 2021. Among them, twenty-three of them were killed in Cox’s Bazar alone.

The alarming statistics are, however, not surprising to experts as conflicts between humans and wild animals are not new to the region. 

Moreover, without any concrete and exemplary animal cruelty laws in place, most perpetrators get away with committing brutality against the elephants. 

In less than two weeks, five elephants were found dead in Chittagong’s Banshkhali and Satkania, Sherpur’s Sreevardi and Jhenaigati and Cox's Bazar’s Chakaria.

Four out of the five deaths were due to humans attacking the otherwise harmless animals, according to the Forest Department. 

Experts believe that unless steps are taken to protect elephant habitats, the animals will be at increased risk of being wiped out. 

Humans encroaching on elephant land

Jahangirnagar Zoology Professor Mohammad Mostafa Feroz says it is humans who have encroached on elephant land and not the other way around. 

“Whenever an elephant dies, we say it entered human habitats. No! It's us who have gobbled their forests. The language is very misleading," he said. 

“However, the past few days have been the most critical period I've ever seen for elephants in Bangladesh. It has surpassed the severity of all the earlier circumstances,” he added. 

Currently, loss of habitat and fragmentation are the biggest threats to Asian elephants. According to the Forest Department, the multifaceted growth and destruction of sanctuaries, especially in locations such as Cox’s Bazar have caused the elephant corridors to shrink rapidly. 

A 2018 IUCN study found that the corridor elephants used for moving through Cox’s Bazar, Chittagong and the CHT were occupied most of the time by various development projects, including those of roads and railways.

 Such developments have pushed an average of 70% of elephants outside protected zones, according to the Forest Department. 

Only last week, the Korean EPZ authority wrote to several ministries asking them to remove a few wild elephants “invading” the EPZ area. The presence of wild animals has reportedly led to workers living in fear. 

"When the EPZ authorities call an official meeting to have elephants removed, you can understand what the situation is in the rest of the country,” says Mohammad Mostafa Feroz.

“The same thing happened when the Rohingya refugees arrived. The elephants used that corridor from Cox's Bazar's Rezu Khal to reach Teknaf forest. Humans gobbled those up for settlement,” he added. 

The professor says that encroachment on elephant land has given rise to conflict and the entire ecosystem of the forest has collapsed due to man-made activities. 

"Elephants are very vengeful animals; if you take away their homes they'll come back and make sure to take back what was theirs," he said.

In 1999, the 2,492-acre area of the port city was handed over to Korean EPZ Corporation (BD) Ltd, a subsidiary of Youngone, following a 1995 agreement between Bangladesh and South Korea.

In 2009, the Department of Environment allowed Youngone to use 48% of the area for the setting up of factories and associated facilities, with the rest given over to gardening and lakes. 

It is said that the green facilities are allegedly attracting the elephants to the EPZ area and the authorities want them gone.

Forest Department’s failure behind elephant deaths?

Wildlife activist and Save the Nature Bangladesh President Moazzem Hossain blames mismanagement of the reserved forest for commercial profit by the Forest Department for these catastrophes.

"These elephants need food. The forest department has failed to protect the forest. How else are people living and farming inside reserve forests?” he said. 

“Also, they have planted the most useless trees inside thousands of hectares under the SUFAL project. Elephants cannot consume any part of these eucalyptus, akashmoni, and different sorts of timber trees and thus, they're coming near farmland forcibly for food," he added. 

Meanwhile, the forest authorities blame the law enforcers for the rampant use of electric lines and guns in the reserve forests. 

“You should ask the law enforcers how these people get electricity lines through a reserve forest. How can a person move freely with a gun to kill elephants in the first place?” says Wildlife Protection Unit Conservator Molla Rezaul Karim.

Laws remain unimplemented, brutality continues

The Forest Department has filed cases in all four of the recent elephant killings, but like the ones before, these are yet to see the light of conviction.

According to Bangladesh's Wildlife Act, killing an elephant is a non-bailable offence with a sentence of a minimum of two years and a maximum of seven years and a minimum fine of Tk1 lakh to a maximum of Tk10 lakh.

The law also provides for imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 years and with a fine of a maximum of Tk15 lakh in case of a repeated offence. 

However, the laws remain unimplemented and brutality against elephants continues. 

On August 31, 2021, miscreants in Ramu upazila electrocuted an Asian elephant and later chopped up the injured mammal into pieces and tried to bury it in the mud.

On November 6 last year, a baby elephant was shot dead in Khutakhali forest in Chakaria. Ten days later, a 30-year-old female elephant was killed in a similar manner in the Jowarianala forest of Ramu.

According to the Chittagong forest division, from 2019 to 2021, 43 elephants died in Chittagong but only 14 cases have been filed. 

However, all these cases have remained pending and no one has yet been convicted. 

The most recent cases have been reported from Chittagong Division and Sherpur, which are important harbours for elephant habitats.

In Sherpur, the Garo Pahar is an archetypal habitat for wild elephants coming in from Meghalaya, whereas the Chittagong belt is a part of the international elephant corridor route shared with Myanmar and India.

Autopsy reports have shown that the two elephants killed in Sherpur were electrocuted as farmers had built electric fences all-around their fields with generators, killing the animals instantly.

According to a source at the Forest Office, the generators are set up mostly as means of revenge since 80 people have been killed by elephants in Sherpur since 1995.

Most elephants generally enter the Garo Pahar in search of food, especially in the dry season and fall prey to these traps. 

Experts believe that unless humans are prevented from taking over wildlands and steps are taken to protect elephants, the mammals, subjected to brutality, will inevitably become extinct.