The influx of the displaced Rohingya has a dealt a double blow to the wild elephant population inhabiting Bangladesh’s Chittagong region.
Shortage of food and destruction of habitat forced the elephants to venture out, leading to clashes with humans. Five elephants have been killed between November 21 last year and January 22 – three of them from electrocution and landmine-related injuries.
Conservationists say elephants are known as ecosystem’s engineers and gardeners since they play a vital role in forest enhancement by disbursing seeds and creating an environment for germination.
Elephant dung plays a crucial role in nutrient cycling by providing nutrients to the soil that is ultimately used by the flora. It is also a good source of food for many insects, experts say.
Since the latest spell of Rohingya crisis, Myanmar security forces planted landmines and erected barbed wire fence along its border with Bangladesh, obstructing the trans-boundary migratory routes of the giant mammals.
On the other hand, shelters set up for the Rohingya – which led to the destruction of 4,000 acres of forestland – also blocked the wild elephants’ routes. The Rohingya are destroying forest resources to meet their daily demand of firewood of 800 tons.
Obstruction of the passages and destruction of forests have forced elephants to seek alternative routes and triggered crop-raiding incidents.
Nearly 690,000 Rohingya escaped to Bangladesh after Myanmar security forces launched a brutal ‘clearance operation’ targeting the minority in last August. Another 100,000 Rohingya had crossed the border earlier following violence in the Rakhine state in October 2016.
The presence of the huge number of people and encroachment of forests has made the wild elephants more desperate in their search for food and water. Between September 17 last year and January 19, seven Rohingya were trampled to death by wild elephants in Ukhiya and Balukhali refugee camps.
But as many as five wild elephants have also been killed in the last three months.
“Unnatural death of an adult female elephant is a great loss since she is a repository of traditional knowledge, including the migration routes,” wildlife biologist Dr AHM Raihan Sarker told the Dhaka Tribune.
He said the wild elephants turned violent as they were pushed to the limit.
“The trans-boundary corridors (Balukhali-Naikhyangchhari-Myanmar and Balukhali-Ghundhum-Myanmar) turned dangerous for the migratory elephants as Myanmar security forces planted landmines along the borders,” he noted.
“Besides, routes used by the elephant have been blocked to make space for refugee camps,” he added.
Elephants consume equivalent to 1.5% of their body weight every day and usually the quantity of fodder ranges from 135kg to 300kg for adults, the expert said. The wild elephants invade crop fields as they are an easy source of food.
“It is natural for the farmers to protect their crop from raiding animals. But it is the responsibility of the forest officials to keep a strict vigil to avert any casualty of wild animals,” he said.
He suggested adopting an action plan urgently to save the mammals.
Ishtiaq Uddin Ahmed, a former country representative of the IUCN Bangladesh, said elephants were among protected animals under the Wildlife Act, adding that the forest department should investigate the repeated incidents of death of the wild elephants.
Eminent wildlife conservationist Reza Khan cited a study which showed that the elephants naturally browse on at least 50 species of plants and eat fruits of over a dozen trees.
Deforestation and changing patterns in forestry created a severe shortage of food for elephants and other animals.
He said many people had encroached on forest lands and occupied routes used by elephants. The illegal land occupiers sometimes use electrical fences and poison-laced food items to deter elephants raiding their crops or dwellings, the former IUCN member said, demanding punishment for the offenders.
“Rampaging wild elephants entering human settlements should be tranquillized and moved to remote areas where there are existing elephant populations,” Khan told the Dhaka Tribune. “To reduce human-elephant conflicts, the government must ensure sufficient supply of food and water inside the forest.”
When contacted, Md Jahidul Kabir, conservator of forests (wildlife and nature conservation circle), said they were going to undertake a special project in consultation with the IUCN.
Wildlife biologist Raihan said wild elephants played a significant role in protecting natural forests, adding: “The conservation of elephants should be a mandatory task to ensure their survivability.”
Dr Anisuzzaman Khan, biodiversity researcher and chief adviser to Isabela Foundation, said, “People all over the world keep a close eye on the state of tigers and elephants. Infrastructural development of a country becomes meaningless and the country suffers from an image deficit if tigers or elephants meet unnatural death.”