The death of at least 18 elephants in northern Assam's Nameri national park since early July this year has sent forest and wildlife authorities of the north-east on a wild-goose chase. The reason: nobody knows what or who killed these pachyderms. The first death was reported as early as July 3, but it was not before park rangers and wildlife enthusiasts stumbled upon several carcasses a month later in the 200-sq km park that the enormity of the entire issue became evident.
The many theories doing the rounds about the cause of the deaths have only added to the confusion. Initially, park officials blamed the deaths on an outbreak of anthrax, a killer disease which claimed at least 150 elephants in the area between 1914 and '15. Then, H.P. Phukan, the Nameri park in-charge, announced that two of the elephants died of liver fluke—caused by a parasite which affects all grazing animals. But he wasn't sure why the rest of the beasts perished. Experts from Guwahati's Veterinary College have now been engaged to reach a conclusion. The state has even sent an sos to the Centre to depute experts to help them work out a solution.
Park authorities haven't even ruled out the possibility of encroachers poisoning the elephants with diathene, a pesticide used in the adjoining tea gardens. In fact, increasing encroachments into natural elephant habitats in the northeast in the past decade has resulted in a rising conflict between man and animal. Encroachers have cleared large tracts of forests in Sonitpur district in northern Assam to set up houses and cultivate land. The upshot: wild elephants have claimed around 400 human lives in Assam in the last five years.
According to the 1997 census, Assam has over 5,500 wild elephants spread over 2,437 sq km of wildlife protected areas including reserve forests, sanctuaries and national parks. "This," says a senior forest official, "is not enough for such a large population of elephants." Adds a retired chief conservator of forests: "Fragmentation of traditional migration corridors due to large-scale deforestation and human encroachment has resulted in the elephants being denied their rightful place. As a result, there is increasing conflict between man and the beast." Official statistics of the forest department point to the thinning forest cover in Assam—409 sq km of forest cover was lost in the state between 1985 and 1991 alone.
The forest authorities' problems have been compounded by the ban on capture of wild elephants since 1977 after elephants were upgraded to Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Act, 1972—animals coming under this group are designated as endangered species and hence are not allowed to be captured. The rules are so strict that the Centre's permission is needed even to kill or capture a rogue elephant. Forest officials in Assam have repeatedly requested the Centre to allow limited capture of elephants so that they can be used in tourism and other forest department work. The authorities are still waiting for a response from New Delhi.
Before the ban, almost 300 to 400 elephants, mainly calves, used to be captured in Assam every year by a traditional method called mela shikar. Since 1977, however, the ban has led to increasing depredations by wild elephants throughout Assam. In fact, two major airports—Guwahati's Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi international airport and the Tezpur Air Force Station—routinely grapple with the elephant menace. Officials cite a number of instances when herds of wild elephants in search of food have strayed into the airbase area. Tea gardens in Sonitpur district in northern Assam and upper Assam's Jorhat district have recorded increasing elephant attacks in recent years.
Afforestation and greater awareness among the villagers, say wildlife experts, could help solve the problem. Says a former chief conservator of forests: "People have to be made aware that encroachment on traditional migration corridors has to be stopped and simultaneously deforestation has to be arrested." Until that is done, the conflict between man and animal will continue—and more elephants will die.