To study the movement of elephant herds and possibly bring down the rising man-animal conflict in South Bengal, the state’s forest and wildlife department will, in a first, use radio collars on tuskers in the region. Because of the considerable population of elephants in West Midnapore, the department has chosen the district to initiate the pilot project.
Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden, West Bengal, Ravi Kant Sinha said, “This will be the first time radio collars are used on elephants in the state. The project was supposed to have been initiated ten days ago, but it was temporarily put on hold because of the search for the tiger which had recently surfaced in Lalgarh, the first sighting in the area in a century. Once that situation is under control, we will begin the collaring programme,’’ said Sinha.
The population of elephants has been on the rise in West Bengal, which is good news for the state, but this has also led to an increase in man-elephant conflict. There are 874 elephants in West Bengal currently – 194 in South Bengal and 680 in North Bengal.
Under the programme, a dominant female elephant will be identified and then separated from her herd. “After she is tranquilised, we will put a radio collar on her. She will then be released back to her herd. The process is tricky as it is always easier to catch a lone male tusker than a female elephant. The female usually decides the movement of the herd. The radio will send a signal to a satellite which will enable us to track the movement of the herd. We will also be able to study the family groups and clan behaviour of different herds. All of this will help us bring down the man-elephant conflict,” said Sinha.
Information gathered will help the forest department chalk out routes taken by elephant herds. As a result, they will be able to alert villages before a herd moves in that direction, he added. “This is also tricky because the forest department has not carried out a project like this in 20 years. Elephants would regularly be isolated from their herds over two decades ago, captured and used for commercial purposes. But after strictures brought in by the Wildlife Protection Act, this was stopped. Only once we see results of the pilot and study the findings will we extend the project to North Bengal,’’ Sinha further said.
According to historical records, South Bengal had dense sal forests before 1900 and was home to a large number of elephant herds. But as the forests denuded, the herds shifted to neighbouring Jharkhand. However, as the forest cover was increased, the herds started returning to South Bengal around 1987. Prior to that, there had been only one elephant sighting in the region, in 1976, when a herd of 42 elephants migrated from Dalma, Jharkhand, to Sindri, Purulia. “The increase in forest cover due to afforestation drives of the forest department, and the subsequent increase of the elephant population in Bengal are both success stories for the forest and wildlife department. Ironically, this has thrown up the challenge of the conflict, because alongside these developments, human populations have also increased,” said Sinha.
In 2015-16 in Bankura, the forest department assessed 1,598 hectares of crop damage and 1,677 houses destroyed by elephants. In Midnapore, elephants damaged over 500 hectares of crop land. That year, 108 people were killed by elephants, of which 71 were in south Bengal.
“Since the damage has been extensive, we are launching a separate project of monitoring the elephant corridors between Jharkhand and Bengal. There are two such corridors which we are monitoring. There is a smaller corridor to Odisha, but there isn’t that much elephant traffic here,’’ said Sinha. Forest officials have been mobilised to keep the corridor “as free as possible’’ for elephant movement and awareness programmes have been carried out in villages. “There are some studies which have recommended that the corridor be cleared of human settlements altogether. But this is an extreme measure. How can we tell farmers here to give up their land,” he asked.
* Radio collars are expensive and cost Rs 10-12 lakh each
* The Bangalore-based Indian Institute of Science has donated two radio collars to the West Bengal forest department. It has also offered to supply radio collars to the department free of charge for the project, which will be carried out in phases.