When man and elephant collideMaintenance of electric fences is key to finding a lasting solution to human-elephant conflict in Bahundangi village, Jhapa
Siddhartha B. Bajracharya
Crop raiding by elephants is widespread in Nepal and elsewhere in Asia. Bahundangi and some other villages in Jhapa district are among the worse-affected areas in the country. Human elephant conflict in Jhapa has seriously affected residents’ livelihood. In 2012 and 2013, more than 17 people were killed and 19 people were seriously injured in the worst human-elephant conflict. However, the search for effective measures to deal with human-elephant conflict remains one of the most significant challenges for elephant management. Human-elephant conflict is a result of habitat loss and fragmentation. When elephants and humans interact, conflicts arise due to crop raiding, injuries and deaths of human caused by elephants, and the killing of elephants by humans for reasons other than ivory and habitat degradation.
Wild elephant herds comprising of 100 to 150 animals usually travel to Jhapa, Nepal from India by crossing the Mechi River during the dusk and return by dawn. In addition, there is a small residential population in a nearby community forest. The pachyderms generally come to feed on crops, particularly rice and maize, in Bahundangi village. Wild elephants may prefer to feed on crops rather than wild forage because of their higher nutritive content and palatability. Elephant crop-raiding fueled resentment against the animals, thereby worsening the situation. In the last four years, more than 21 people from Jhapa have lost their lives due to the conflict with elephants and more than 24 people have been injured. As a result of elephant crop-raiding, many families from Bahundangi and surrounding areas have had their grain stores and houses demolished, besides facing injuries and deaths. In the last four years, the Government of Nepal released more than Rs. 7,560,000 as compensation to the victims of such conflicts alone.
Failed human tricks
Human-elephant conflicts can a take a toll on both human lives and properties as well as elephant populations. Therefore, ways to reduce or resolve such conflicts are vital to the viable conservation of elephants and securing people’s livelihoods. Local communities from Jhapa have been searching for solutions to mitigate human-elephant conflict for more than two decades. Traditional electric fences and watch towers were established for guarding and protecting crops. In the past, sirens, search lights and shotguns were also used as deterrents. However, these measures were found to be ineffective and crop-raiding continued.
Electric fences are perceived to be the best solution for human-elephant conflict but they are never the panacea as initially believed to be. Electric fence needs careful planning, is costly to construct, and requires commitment to maintenance. Regardless of the ineffectiveness of conventional electric fences and other ways to keep elephants away, a majority of local farmers in Bahundangi still believe that electric fences would control the human-elephant conflict. The elephant is an intelligent animal and it can easily navigate the conventional design of vertical electric fencing by mainly kicking the posts, even though it is electrically protected.
A new fence
The good news is that the District Forest Office (DFO) in Jhapa in collaboration with National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) with the financial assistance from the World Bank through the Regional International Development Association has started installing a straight line offset fence between elephants and agriculture fields. This 18 km Offset Fence construction, which is different from conventional electric fence, is customised to effectively protect agriculture fields, and intelligently and actively deter the elephants. The Offset Fence is designed to lean out, so that the base of the posts is out of reach of an elephants and kicks are deflected, thereby, avoiding damage to the posts. All posts in this Offset Fence are with insulated galvanised iron pipes. The energiser used in this system is imported from Germany and carries international Safety Certification markings. Fenzgard India, the promoter of this technology, is installing this new technology in the Offset
The Offset fence is designed to create an electrical circuit when touched by an elephant. A component called a power energiser converts power into a brief high voltage pulse. A terminal of the power energiser releases an electrical pulse along a connected bare wire about one time per second. Another terminal is connected to a metal rod implanted in the earth, called a ground or earth rod. An elephant touching both the wire and the earth during a pulse will complete an electrical circuit and will conduct the pulse, causing an electric shock.
Communities at work
The DFO Jhapa in collaboration with NTNC is piloting this innovative technology for the first time in Nepal. The effectiveness of this new fence designed specifically to deter elephant needs to be tested first. It is too early to claim any success of this technology. Nevertheless, the success of this fencing in Jhapa would introduce a new solution to human-elephant conflict in the country. However, the success of the offset fence is governed by many factors. Among them, the most important factor is regular safeguarding of the fence. Failure of electric fence is most strongly related to maintenance issues that include power supply, vegetation growth, potential theft of vital components, and intentional damage to the fence. Active participation of local communities from the affected areas can significantly reduce the problem. The good news is that the local community, together with youth groups in Bahundangi, is actively patrolling elephants to reduce crop raiding and human casualties. To complement the local efforts, a regular awareness generation activity and training on maintenance of fence to local communities has been initiated as part of the project by the DFO Jhapa. As a result, the human casualties have been significantly reduced: there were two human deaths on an average in last two years. The average number of deaths in 2012 and 2013, was reportedly 8.5. This is a clear indication that that the involvement of communities could significantly reduce human-elephant conflict. If Bahundangi community together with the youth groups take the ownership of this new electric fence and shows a willingness to safeguard the fence, this could be a lasting solution to mitigate human-elephant conflict in Jhapa.
Bajracharya is Programme Director at National Trust for Nature Conservation