Dwindling corridors endanger the last of Bangladesh’s wild elephants

Habitat loss, forest degradation and encroachment into forest reserves are driving Asian elephants into human habitats in search of food, increasing human-elephant conflicts.

Elephant_Bangladesh
Bangladesh has 12 identified elephant corridors, although at least one no longer serves that function due to forest degradation and human settlements. Image: CIFOR, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

In the early hours of July 19, a herd of wild elephants came down from the hills to a crop field located in Rangunia, in Bangladesh’s Chattogram district, in search of food.

The elephants soon began damaging crops and banana orchards planted close to the forests as they foraged for food.

Abdul Rashid, 55, a farmer from Mirkhali village in Ragunia, rushed to protect his banana orchard from damage. The elephants trampled him to death.

“Herds of wild elephants are attacking our area every night for food,” said Sheikh Farid Uddin Chowdhury, chairman of Rangunia’s Sarafbhata Union Parishad, the local administrative council with jurisdiction over this area. “Banana orchards and crops are being damaged. If elephant attacks are not prevented, there will be more damage to crops and loss of life too.”

Three people have been confirmed killed in elephant attacks in just the past month, according to Masum Kabir, the Rangunia range officer for the Bangladesh Forest Department.

Bangladesh’s wild Asian elephants (Elephas maximus indicus) are an endangered species that can be found in the forests of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) and the divisions (equivalent to a province or state) of Chattogram, Cox’s Bazar, Mymensingh and Sylhet.

Due to habitat loss, rapid degradation of natural forests and encroachment by people into elephant reserves, the animals are increasingly being forced out of the forests in search of food. Lots of food: an Asian elephant generally consumes more than 150 kilograms (330 pounds) of vegetation and about 140 litres (37 gallons) of water a day.

The government is implementing development projects in elephant corridors and keeping passages for the wildlife to pass through. We must recover the elephant corridors as most of them have already been damaged.

M. Monirul H. Khan, wildlife biologist, Jahangirnagar University

When wild elephants enter human settlements or farms in or near forests in search of food, people try to resist them, intensifying human-elephant conflicts. Farmers install electric wires around their crops to prevent the elephants foraging. The result is that many elephants have been electrocuted, some fatally, contributing to the species’ population decline in Bangladesh.

There were only 268 resident elephants in Bangladesh in 2016, according to a survey by the IUCN, the global wildlife conservation authority. All were in the southeastern forest areas.

In 2021 alone, 34 elephants were killed — more than a tenth of the total population — according to a recent report from the Bangladesh Nature Conservation Alliance (BNCA), a coalition of 33 environmental organisations. The Bangladesh Forest Department says more than 50 elephants were killed across the country in the last five years.

“Elephant habitats have drastically declined in the country and encroachment has increased, resulting in a rapid rise in human-elephant conflicts,” said Ishtiaq Uddin Ahmad, the department’s former chief conservator of forests.

He said sources of food and water must be restored in the forests, through improvement of nature, for the elephants to survive. He also suggested providing compensation to the families of people victimised in elephant attacks, thereby ensuring they don’t cause any harm to the elephants in retribution.

M. Monirul H. Khan, a wildlife biologist, said that even as their habitats shrink, elephants continue to require a massive amount of food.

“Sometimes, people cultivate crops on forest land they have encroached upon. The wild elephants of course invade these crop fields. And the farmers often end up killing elephants to save their crops,” Monirul said.

But the Forest Department hasn’t done enough to rein in human-elephant conflict, he added.

“Elephants are getting trapped in electrified … wires installed by local farmers. The law-enforcing agencies must take action to stop such deaths of elephants,” Monirul said.

Restoring natural forests

Bangladesh is losing large swaths of natural forests every year due to encroachment, deforestation, and construction of infrastructure in forest reserves. Without giving forests the chance to regenerate, it will be hard to conserve wildlife, including elephants, conservationists say.

Ishtiaq, who is also the former country representative for the IUCN in Bangladesh, said the fragmentation of the forests is happening at the same time as their ecosystems are declining. He emphasised the need for recovery of occupied forestland and regeneration of degraded forests to ensure safe habitat for wildlife, including elephants.

“If forestland disappears, where do we plant trees? If concrete structures are built in forests and elephant corridors, how will the elephants move?” Ishtiaq said.

Monirul, also a zoology professor at Jahangirnagar University in Dhaka, said if the elephants’ natural habitats aren’t replenished and secured, it will be hard to protect them simply by enforcing laws. He said local species of trees should be planted in forest reserves to ensure food supply for elephants.

Dwindling elephant corridors

Elephants move from one patch of habitat to another through forested corridors. Any obstacle in their path, including farms and settlements, puts them into conflict with humans, risking the lives of both.

“Elephants never live in a one place, but move from one place to another through the corridors. Their movement must be made free from disruption,” Ishtiaq said.

Experts say elephant ranges in Bangladesh have become confined to small patches, while some corridors have disappeared entirely due to forest degradation, human settlements, forest encroachment for agricultural use, unplanned development projects, and establishment of monoculture forests.

In its 2016 survey, the IUCN identified 12 elephant corridors in Bangladesh. Since then, one of these corridors has already been lost due to the construction of the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, officials say.

Monirul said wild elephant corridors should be conserved in the “real sense.”

“The government is implementing development projects in elephant corridors and keeping passages for the wildlife to pass through. But these have not been scientifically designed,” he said.

Ishtiaq said there was a proposal for Bangladesh and India to sign a protocol to jointly maintain the corridors in the transboundary range between the two countries.

“We must recover the elephant corridors as most of them have already been damaged,” he added.

Mollah Rezaul Karim, forest conservator at the Forest Department’s Wildlife and Nature Conservation Circle, said the department has sent a letter to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change requesting it to officially recognise the remaining 11 elephant corridors by issuing a gazette notice.

New conservation initiatives

The Forest Department has reportedly designed an elephant conservation project, with a budget of 500 million takas ($5.3 million), and sent it to the Planning Commission for approval.

“Once the Planning Commission approves the project, the Forest Department will immediately begin the project work aiming to protect elephants from extinction,” Rezaul said.

Under the project, the department will set up orchards growing crops that the elephants prefer to eat, as well as calamus palm gardens and bamboo gardens, to provide a safe habitat, breeding ground and food security for the wild animals.

It will also form anti-depredation squads and elephant response teams at elephant reserves to prevent human-elephant conflicts. In addition, the plan calls for building elephant-monitoring towers in elephant reserves and an elephant orphanage, forest officials said.

But while these plans are being drawn up, forest encroachment is still going on, Ishtiaq said.

“So wildlife, including elephants, are still at risk,” he added.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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