Climate & Environment
Electrocution of male elephant highlights human-wildlife conflictEvery year, Nepal loses wild elephants to retaliation. But affected people say they live in fear of the animals.
Chandan Kumar Mandal
On Friday night, a male elephant raided a wheat farm in Saptari. But before it could feed on the wheat, it received a strong electric shock and collapsed.
According to Laxman Safi, a ranger at the Division Forest Office, Saptari, the elephant died on the spot at around 10:15 PM at Amaha, Khadak Municipality.
“The farmer had placed a high-voltage electric wire around the wheat field. The field lies north of the East-West highway and adjacent to the jungle where a herd of elephants has been seen roaming,” Safi, told the Post from Saptari. “The area is known for the movement of elephants. The elephant wouldn’t have seen the electric wire at night and died a tragic death.”
People of Khadak Municipality say they don’t kill the elephants intentionally even as they suffer from their menace round the year.
“Elephant menace goes on around the year in many wards of the municipality. Wild elephants damage crops and destroy people’s homes,” said Hemayu Haque, mayor of the municipality. “But people do not intentionally want to kill elephants irrespective of the loss. What has happened is merely an accident.”
According to the forest ranger, a herd of six elephants has been spotted in the area lately. Although farmers in other parts of the district have been installing electric fencing for some time, this was the first time that an elephant had died.
“Elephants always follow their routes. They had been in the jungle all day,” said Safi. “It must have been hungry as it strayed outside. In other areas, farmers install electric fencing just to give a jolt to the intruders, but in this case, a live wire with high voltage was used.”
Within one-and-a-half months, two elephants have been electrocuted in Saptari district alone. Earlier, an elephant had died when it was scratching against an electricity pole and happened to touch a high-intensity transmission line on November 22 in Kanchanrup Municipality.
The electrocution of the male elephant, aged 20-22 years, on Friday is one example of human-elephant conflict, a major challenge for conservationists. Illegal installation of electric fences by farmers is turning out to be lethal for elephants in the country.
“We have been living in terror for several years,” said Haque.
“We can not call this electric fencing. These are the intentionally-placed death traps for our elephants,” Ashok Kumar Ram, chief conservation officer with Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve, told the Post. “Within a span of a few months, we have lost three elephants, including one in Jhapa. This is a worrying sign for the country.”
According to elephant researchers like Ram, the country, which has just a small number of wild elephants, loses 2-3 elephants every year in retaliatory acts by local communities.
Such an annual death rate, irrespective of however small it might appear, is alarming for the country where the number of illegal poaching cases of elephants stands at zero.
“These elephants can not move freely. They are chased away whenever they are seen. Locals place electric fencing to keep them away from their farms and houses. They are blocked everywhere,” said Ram. “Also, there is no food for elephants who need around 200kg of food every day. Where would they go? Even this elephant carried scars of bullet and spear wounds. Despite all these struggles, they are trying to co-exist with humans.”
Asiatic elephants usually traverse long distances in search of food. They travel across farmlands and human settlements while foraging along the way. As a measure to stop elephants from raiding crops, locals in eastern Nepal, which experiences elephants raiding not only from elephants on the Nepali side but also from the Indian side, have installed electric fences.
Besides, Nepali authorities also installed a 17 km solar-powered electric fence in 2015 in the north-eastern part of Jhapa district to protect farms against transboundary herds of wild elephants that annually enter Nepal from India.
A study assessing its effectiveness found that the number of human-elephant conflict incidents had sharply been reduced by 96.13 percent after the installation of the fences.
However, such measures have turned lethal for elephants in the country, where its number is estimated to be around 200.
According to Haribhadra Acharya, spokesperson for the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, human-elephant conflicts have the highest frequency when it comes to cases of human-wildlife conflict.
“Elephants require large areas to roam freely, and that is when they are attacked. Most of these attacks take place outside the protected areas. Elephants are not poached, because of strong religious beliefs,” said Acharya, also an ecologist with the department. “But outside the park, they are electrocuted. Every year, a few elephants are lost in retaliatory acts. These are illegal fences and the general public should be aware of its consequences on wild elephants.”
However, the Department of National Park and Wildlife Conservation does not have data on the number of elephants killed by such fencing as its annual reports maintain data only on dead wildlife inside the park.
“These deaths take place outside the protected area and reporting of such deaths is weak,” said Acharya. “But the death of elephants is a big loss for the country.”
Elephants are one of the species protected by the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act, 1973. Killing the animal can result in a fine of Rs500,000 to Rs1,000,000 or five to fifteen years of imprisonment or both, said Acharya.
These illegally planted electrical fences for warding off elephants have also turned killer for locals. There are reports of locals accidentally dying after being trapped in the same electric fences.
The expansion of human settlements and growing development projects pose threats to wildlife habitat, including elephants. Nepal’s elephant population is trapped between human settlements and mega-development projects as they keep losing their habitat and crucial corridors.
Even losing one elephant means a massive loss in such a critical situation, both Acharya and Ram agree. The country has been already in the midst of deciding the fate of one wild elephant for the last few weeks. The pressure has been building on authorities to kill a rogue makhna, a tuskless male elephant because of a genetic disorder, in eastern Nepal lately.
“The latest report estimates the [wild] elephant population between 200-227 in the country. We have been struggling hard to save the one elephant Makuna, but elephants continue to die at the hands of locals,” said Ram. “The government needs to come up with a separate and dedicated programme for protecting our elephants. Otherwise, elephants will march towards extinction in the years to come.”