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NabarunGuha
Date of Publish: 2015-10-07

Barriers For a Better Living

 

WWF has successfully engaged locals in a village in Assam to erect a one-of-a-kind low-cost power fencing to curb human-elephant conflict

 Nabarun Guha

Assam has an estimated 16 per cent of the world’s total number of Asian elephants. And with the specie fast dwindling in population, the north-eastern State has become one of the global hotspots for elephant conservation.

However, not much result-oriented effort has been directed towards preserving the elephant habitats of the State, leading the animals to often venture into human habitats in search of food, causing hundreds of deaths – of both elephants and men, and also loss of property.

In fact, the man-elephant conflict has been one of the most perennial problems of the State, leading the Forest department to erect power fences in some villages to curb the 'jumbo' menace. However, such fences have not been able to fully check the entry of elephants into the living areas.

And herein comes an apparent good news. A village in the State’s Sonitpur district has been able to successfully curb elephants from entering it for the last three months by erecting a one-of-a-kind power fence. The fence costs much less than those used by the Forest Department and is also reportedly much more effective in checking human-elephant conflict (HEC).

The experiment has proven successful in the village Hachura Nepali Basti, which has been suffering from HEC for a long time. The villagers have put up the low cost power fences with help from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Hiten Baishya, Coordinator, Elephant Conservation, WWF-India, says, “While the power fences installed by the Department of Environment and Forest cost between Rs two and three lakhs, those erected by the villagers come for Rs 15,000 to Rs. 20,000.”  He says a two km long fence has been erected in the village on June 30 this year.  “The village is located in a critical location, leading to many instances of human-elephant conflict  every year. It is adjacent to an abandoned industrial area where the raiding elephant take shelter during day time and also use the place as a refuge during the raiding season," he explains.

On identifying the problem, the WWF mobilised the villagers to agree to replace the old fences with the low-cost power fences. “We formed a committee in the village. Each household contributed some amount of money to the committee to purchase wires and insulators for the fence. They also provided bamboo posts and manpower to erect it. The people actively participated and contributed to the entire exercise," he says.

Both Baishya and villagers say the fence has been able to stop elephants from entering the village. “There have been only two minor damage inflicted on the fence by a loner elephant in the last three months,” says Baishya.

Dil Bahadur Chetry, a village resident,says, "Our village was one of the worst affected. We couldn’t even sleep properly at night. The raiding elephants would eat everything, from coconut, betel nut to the gourds like rangalauand paanilau. Trampling our crops in the fields was a regular occurrence while they would sometimes destroy our houses too. We have 70 households in the village and in the first part of the year itself, six or seven houses were destroyed by elephants.” He says the nearest forest beat,Amrabari, is 10 kms from the village. “So, forest people seldom came on time whenever the elephants attacked our village. They gave us crackers to scare away the elephants but it didn't work,” he says. With the low-cost power fence in place, he claims, “We are having no problem in catching a good night's sleep.”

Affordability of the fences aside, there are other reasons why they should be more preferred than the conventional power fences, states Baishya.  "These fences are also safer than the others for both humans and elephants. Also, as the villagers put their own resources in erecting these fences, they have a sense of ownership over them and so look after them too. Conventional fences constructed by the Forest Department are permanent structures but these low-cost power fences are temporary which can be dismantled during off season and used the next year. This makes the whole thing more endurable," he states.

Baishya, however, counts a few disadvantages of the new power fences. “Firstly, strict vigil has to be maintained because these fences can be stolen easily. Also, people can unknowingly damage the fence by trying to take their cattle on the other side of it.” The fences certainly are a much better option, he underlines, “than the illegal power fences which villagers construct with inverters and domestic power. Those fences can be fatal for not just elephants but also for villagers and the night patrolling forest staff."

After the success of these power fence in Hachura Nepali Basti, WWF-India has taken the concept to toDikuta Line in neighbouring Bishwanath Chariali. The locals of these places too have acknowledged this method as useful as they can now sleep at night without having to worry about their life and property.The news obviously comes as a relief to many in the district since it has borne the maximum brunt of HEC in the last decade, with 202 deaths in the last 11 years.

Narayan Mahanta, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Sonitpur West Division, however, cautions, "The power fences work as a psychological barrier for elephants. But elephants are very intelligent creatures and are blessed with photographic memory. Sooner or later, they might devise ways of penetrating these fences. So it is not necessary that what has worked in this village will work in other places as well.’ Mahanta says, “The method to curb man-elephant conflict is worked out by looking at the age, group, sex and structure of an elephant. Their behavioural pattern has changed over the years. Earlier, they used to come mostly in herds of 30-50 but now they come in small groups of 4 to 5. From my experience, I can tell you that these small groups cause more havoc."

The issue certainly needs more brainstorming between the stake-holders  to arrive at a permanent solution, particularly because it is believed that not more than 30,000 Asian elephants are left in the wild. Also because the number of deaths due to human –elephant conflict in Assam is on the rise. As per the State Government data, 715 people have been killed from elephant attacks from 2001 to 2013. And during this period, hundreds of elephants have become victims of speeding trains and electric cables.

The cost calculation required for erecting  2 km single strand low cost power fence is as follows

Resources

Cost

Wire (100 kg)

Rs 7500

200 nos of Insulator

Rs 1400

200 nos of bamboo posts (contributed by villagers)

 

Solar panel (20 watt)

Rs 1500

Battery (30 amp tubular solar battery)

Rs 2000

Energizer (provided by WWF India)

Rs 1500

Lightening diverter

Rs 1000

Earthing kit (locally made)

Rs 500

Manpower to erect the fence (contributed by villagers)

 

Total

Rs 15,400

 

(Nabarun Guha is an independent journalist based in Guwahati. He can be reached at nabarunguha.29@gmail.com )

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