How the Rohingya people have done the impossible
Ukhiya and Teknaf subdistricts of Cox’s Bazar are widely known for their lush green coastal forests as well as natural habitats for many wildlife species including birds and Asian elephants. About 35-45 Asian elephants are living in the forest of the southern part of Cox's Bazar, according to a joint survey of IUCN and UNHCR. Their migratory routes run through the present Rohingya refugee camp. It eventually led to a rise of human-elephant conflict in this region.
To describe the present condition of this forest, Dr Raihan Sarker, an associate professor at Chittagong University’s Institute of Forestry and Environmental Science said, “Before the Rohingya population, the forest condition was bad. Now it’s severely bad”. A sudden increase in population and their need for firewood for cooking from the forest created problems for the Asian elephants in finding food, resting sites which eventually led those to travel through the camp settlement in search of food.
In October 2017, four refugees were killed nearby and up until 2019, 14 people from the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh have been killed by sporadic elephant trampling. According to a survey of IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), there are about 12 elephant corridors in the country. Among them, five corridors are in Cox's Bazar North Forest Division, three in Cox's Bazar South Forest Division, and four in Chittagong South Forest Division. Generally, Asian elephants are migratory in nature but the present condition of the corridors is not suitable for migration due to the construction of a refugee camp on the edge of the elephant sanctuary.
Before August 2016, around 300,000 refugees lived in Bangladesh. The natural habitat of wildlife got disrupted by the illegal wood consumption of the local community and refugees even before the last refugee influx of 2017. The situation got worse when Bangladesh welcomed more than 70,000 Rohingya in Cox's Bazar, who were migrated due to the ethnic cleansing in the Rakhine State of Myanmar in 2017.
Refugees cleared the forest land in Cox's Bazar and built their makeshift tents, within less than four months the whole area mushroomed into the most densely populated refugee camp in the world. Moreover, the continuous deforestation is alarming for the coastal resilience of the region (Imtiaz, 2018). As loss of vegetation increases chances of soil erosion, promotes landslides and disrupts biodiversity while affecting the overall climate change adaptation and mitigation systems.
To solve this conflict caused due to the shrinking forest area and a blocked migration path and foster “safe co-existence” between animals and sprawling refugee settlements, IUCN along with UNHCR adopted an initiative after an extensive joint survey. The success story of this locally-led adaptation initiative was presented at the session ´Disaster Management: Modelling and Initiatives in Diverse Setting’ in the Global Gobeshona Conference, by Ehsanul Haque (UNHCR).
As part of the plan, they took various initiatives to incorporate local people in solving this problem, such as, the formation of 52 Elephant Response team, Training and motivating ERT team, 99 watchtowers and strengthening it to protect watcher, logistic supports. They provided hands-on training to the volunteers of the Elephant Response team by professionals so that they could handle any emergency. Each camp has its own watchtower.
The volunteers always keep in touch with the watchmen stationed at the towers. If any elephant gets spotted, they gather and try to drive it away by surrounding it. They keep one way open for the elephant to go out. At the same time, they alert the people using loudspeakers and whistles so that the refugees can know not to come out of their shelters.
Dummy elephants made by the refugees by using their old clothes were used to create awareness among the refugees. It promoted the sense that elephants are not our enemy, rather they are our friends. These interventions taught the refugees how to manage the crowd during emergencies and how to deter the elephant. Since the intervention, no harm has been recorded. Bio protection testing is still ongoing. In this process, thorny plants are planted to prevent elephant’s entry into the campsites.
To reduce the dependency on forest and deforestation, SAFE Plus — a joint effort among FAO, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the World Food Program (WFP) is launched. It addresses environmental degradation through the distribution of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and stoves, reforestation, and improved livelihood opportunities. More than 850 Acres of degraded land have been managed for mixed vegetation. They have planted around 50 acres of such land and are maintaining those Planting sites. Communities are effectively engaged in these initiatives. Roadsides and institution plantations are also taken under this project.
Elephants have an equal right to live in their territory. These initiatives are not only for saving humans from elephants, but also for saving elephants from humans. As Cox’s Bazar is located in a fragile and sensitive geographic location, long-term locally-driven conflict mitigation measures and plans should be adopted.
Tahmida Sarker Muna is currently doing her bachelor in Bangladesh University of Professionals in the department of Disaster and Human Security Management, her research interest lies in Climate Change, Water security, Locally led Adaptation, Geographic Information System and Remote Sensing. Can be reached at [email protected]
Mahir Tazwar is currently doing his bachelor in Bangladesh University of Professionals in the department of Disaster and Human Security Management, his research interest lies in Climate Change, Water security, Impact assessment, Geographic Information System and Remote Sensing. Can be reached at [email protected]