The Village that Moved

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 36 No. 12, December 2016

By Pranav Capila

Khoi Terang stands in the middle of the jungle, squinting solemnly into my camera lens. The broken pieces of the bamboo fence at his feet are all that remain of the house he once lived in. Scattered around us, undigested by the thick undergrowth, is similar debris from other houses: splintered memories of the hamlet named after Khoi's father, Ram Terang. 

As we walk around the village that once was, Khoi stops and points to a series of large circular indentations on the jungle floor. Elephant footprints. He looks down at them, and at the jungle all around us. And then he smiles. 

He smiles because we are not standing amidst the desperate ruins of his village. Ram Terang, or New Ram Terang as it is now referred to, flourishes six kilometres uphill from this spot. These are remnants of a life Khoi once lived: a life of great poverty, and terrible hardship, and constant terror. 

Sympathy for the Devil

Any interaction between humans and wild animals that has negative effects on human socio-economic or cultural life, or on the conservation of animals or their environment, is termed as human-wildlife conflict.

People and animals have been butting heads for millennia, perhaps since man began to walk upright and think himself more than an animal. The Natrinai, a compendium of classical Tamil poetry dating from the Sangam era (100 BCE to 200 CE), has a few among its 400 poems that describe such interactions:

    In the handsome mountain Hamlet
    Notice the tusker and all of a sudden
    A riotous din breaks loose
    With some bowmen shooting arrows
    And some men beating drums
    While some use slings fitted with stones
    And all of them shouting together
    – Natrinai (108)
    A trap with stones set up with cunning
    for the wild boar that eats up millet crop
    A trap in which the mighty tiger
    of a comely colour gets badly entangled
    – Natrinai (119)

It is interesting to note that the animals are not demonised or painted as villains here. Their presence and the human response to them are almost matter of fact; there is an implicit measure of sympathy, indeed, for the "mighty tiger of a comely colour" that gets caught in the "cunning" trap.

Nor is such an outlook unique to the Natrinai. From the Vedic Shanti Mantra that wishes "peace upon the Earth, the sky, the water, the trees"; to Kautilya's Arthashastra, which requires a king to "safeguard agriculture when it is stressed by [...] animal herds", but also to "protect elephant forests"; to the enjoinder in the Mahabharata to "not cut down the forest with its tigers, nor banish the tigers from the forest" (Udyogaparvan, 29) – ancient Indian literature reveals that conservation, far from being a left liberal antagonism, was once embraced in mainstream thought.

But while human-wildlife conflict may be historical, its acceleration in recent years has severely frayed that olden tolerance. It is no longer, shall we say, quite seen as a fit subject for whimsical poetry.

Big cats kill domestic cattle and occasionally acquire a taste for humans. Wild buffaloes, deer, bears, boars, rhinos and others raid and trample crops, causing loss of livelihood. But one animal towers above them all in destructive capacity – and no surprise, given its size and intellect – the largest land animal in India, the Asian elephant.

Over a thousand Indians die every year in encounters with large mammals, and while the mortality data is fuzzy for many species, we know that nearly half of these deaths are caused by elephants – over 450 annually by the latest estimates; more in one year than tigers might kill in twenty.

Elephants also destroy crops and property worth millions of rupees: 

Rs. 3,39.5 million in 2012-13 (the official compensation figure; actual losses may be as much as seven times higher), with a further Rs. 107.3 million paid in ex gratia for loss of human life (not including figures for Tamil Nadu).

If conflict with elephants in particular causes so much grief in India, this is why. But the knife cuts both ways: consider the 100 elephants killed by human greed, indifference and retribution last year (train hits, poaching for ivory, poisonings and electrocutions), and the nearly 1,500 similarly killed in the last 15 years. Consider, too, that wild elephant populations are said to have declined by 50 per cent in just the last 60 to 75 years, and that the present-day distribution of Asian elephants is but a fraction, about 3.5 per cent, of their former range. Consider this last number well, for of the many ways that humans kill elephants, the taking of wild lands is the most effective.

It is also the root of human-elephant conflict.

Study after scientific study underscores the causal link between the loss, degradation and fragmentation of habitat, and conflict. And we have steadily encroached on lands vital to the elephant’s survival, cutting down forests, supplanting forage with crops, laying roads and railways and building settlements on centuries-old migratory paths.

So while we may feel entitled to recast elephants as villains rather than divine beings, the evidence as to their recent aggressions is plain: it is our own actions that have been the trigger to theirs. 

The Remaking of Ram Terang

What happens to a village on the migratory path of an elephant herd? Sleep withers during the harvest season, when conflict reaches its peak. Farmers who have worked tirelessly during the day are forced to guard their crops by night. They dig trenches and erect fences, but the elephants, brilliant collaborative problem solvers, are not deterred. Each night becomes an ordeal of burst crackers and drumbeats and the mad intercutting terror and fury of humans and elephants chasing or being chased. Success provides but a temporary respite; tomorrow the rock must be rolled up the hill again.

Stress levels rise. Finally, some night someone gets careless. Or is too old, or too tired to run fast enough. Some night someone loses their life.

A house in Old Ram Terang in ruins after it was damaged by elephants on their migration. Photo Courtesy: DR. Sandeep Tiwari / WTI

Elephants passing through the Kalapahar-Daigurung corridor. Photo Courtesy: DR. Sandeep Tiwari / WTI

The elephants may alter their behaviour but do not stop using high risk areas of their home ranges. But the farmers do give up: in places where conflict is especially severe they sometimes abandon their farms and seek other ways to make ends meet.

Some years ago the villagers of Ram Terang teetered on a similar edge of despair. Their hamlet, all of 19 houses nestled in the autonomous tribal Karbi Anglong Hills in Assam, lay right in the middle of an ancient elephant migratory route, today a vital habitat linkage or 'corridor' connecting Kaziranga National Park with the Nambor-Daigurung Wildlife Sanctuary.

"Whatever we cultivated, the elephants raided," says Khoi, the hereditary village headman. "Our kitchen gardens, our bamboo, and of course, our paddy. They always came when the paddy crop ripened."

As the elephants arrived during their annual migration, the drama would begin: the nightly raids and rebuffs, the trumpeting and shouts, the flaming torches, the terror. Someone would be injured, a politician would occasionally arrive bearing promises and lies, but nothing would change. With the next crop cycle, as the paddy ripened, the story would repeat.

"For us," Khoi says, "things became really desperate some 10 years ago when a woman fleeing with her child was killed. We are a small community and that really hit us hard."

Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) began working on conflict mitigation in the area in 2009-10. With assistance from the Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund (JTEF), aid was arranged for the village, an electric fence strategically placed, a bio-fence using chillies experimented with. A sociologist was also placed in the village and an Elephant Cup football tournament organised to ameliorate the local outlook towards elephant conservation.

These were, however, just band-aids – temporary measures meant to alleviate certain aspects related to conflict, and building towards the more lasting solution: relocation.

"When WTI first broached the subject, I was dismissive," Khoi declares. "It was unthinkable that we should give up our land and move elsewhere." 

"Of course they didn't want to listen!" Dilip Deori interjects. "I mean, wouldn't you be sceptical if some outsider told you that you would be better off leaving your home?" Dilip is Manager and Project Lead of WTI's Karbi Anglong Conservation Project and has worked with the people of Ram Terang since the project's inception. In 2010 WTI began the slow march towards a consensus for voluntary relocation, working in partnership with the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council, the Assam Forest Department, UK-based NGO Elephant Family and IUCN Netherlands. "We conducted an assessment of the community's living conditions and their dependence on the forest," Dilip says. "These are extremely poor people – below ‘Below Poverty Line’, you might say. They are subsistence farmers and have a traditional bond with the forest; they won't live far away from it."

Community mobilisers such as Borsali Teron and Yuri Pator, whom I meet at the WTI field camp in Chowkihola a few kilometres away, played an important role in turning the tide of opinion. "Ultimately, the villagers accepted because it was clear everything was being taken care of," says Yuri. "They received legal patta land, permanent dwellings, better facilities and sustainable livelihoods. They were living hand-to-mouth earlier, farming, working as daily wage labourers, selling firewood, barely getting by."

A pond being preprared for a community fishery in New Ram Terang. Photo Courtesy: Dilip Deori / WTI
Above Community paddy fields provide the villagers of Ram Terang a measure of self-sufficiency. Photo Courtesy: Dilip Deori / WTI

Land for the new village was acquired at the end of 2012. In 2013 the traditional king of Karbi Anglong laid the foundation stone for New Ram Terang. One by one the houses were constructed, until finally, in November 2015, WTI Executive Director Vivek Menon and Elephant Family CEO Ruth Powys handed a ceremonial bunch of keys to a gaon burha, a village elder, as Karbi leaders applauded. The villagers all moved into their new homes in March this year. 

The 19 green-roofed red brick houses of New Ram Terang lie six kilometres uphill from the old village, out of the elephants' migratory path. "We are finally free of conflict," says Khoi. "We have peace of mind and that has been the main thing. But beyond that, step by step, our lives are improving."

The loud drumming of rain on the roofs of New Ram Terang announces that improvement – but the change from thatch to tin, from mud to brick, is just one aspect of this transformation. With community paddy fields, citrus plantations and a pond for a community fishery, the villagers now have a measure of self-sufficiency. There is a primary school that their children can attend and infrastructure for the village's electrification is currently being installed. 

"Our goal, when we started down this path with Elephant Family, was to create a model village," says Dilip. "And we are getting there, piece by piece."

Meanwhile, at the site where Old Ram Terang once stood, the elephants now have clear passage through the Kalapahar-Daigurung elephant corridor.

How Linkages Save Lives

India has 1,10,000 sq. km. of elephant habitat in 32 existing and proposed Elephant Reserves. If that seems like an impressive amount of territory, consider that Elephant Reserves include areas of human use and habitation – in fact unless they lie within existing Reserve Forests or the Protected Area network, Elephant Reserves are not legally protected habitats in themselves.

Only 27 per cent of Elephant Reserves are part of the PA network; 30 per cent are completely outside the purview of the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change. So a large chunk of the country's elephant habitat is unprotected, susceptible to encroachment or already in use by humans. And while elephant populations are largely concentrated in protected forests, the animals require free movement between these areas to maintain genetic flow and offset seasonal variations in the availability of forage and water.


The foundation stone for New Ram Terang was laid by the 40th King of Karbi Anglong, the Hon'ble Recho Harsing Ronghang, on May 7, 2013. Photo Courtesy: DR. Nekib / WTI

Securing elephant corridors achieves precisely this, while keeping humans out of harm's way. What's more, these benefits accrue to all the other wild species whose survival depends on elephants. There are 100 mapped elephant corridors across India and WTI, in partnership with Elephant Family, World Land Trust, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and IUCN Netherlands, last year set up the Asian Elephant Alliance to raise funds for their securement. 

This is a watershed moment for the 60 million-year-old Proboscidean order, for the 250,000-year-old family of Asian elephants, accorded the status of India's National Heritage Animal as recently as 2010. Amidst the gloom of lost forests, human overpopulation and frayed tempers, corridors provide a glimmer of possibility.

It is from the taking of land that the problem stems, and it is in the securing of it – small but significant portions of it – that the way forward lies. 


Author: Pranav Capila, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 12, December 2016.

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