Tarbar – A Fence To Block A Century-Old Route
A 20 km.-long fence erected by the Nepal government has exacerbated human-elephant conflict in West Bengal. Avijan Saha explains.
Photo: Avijan Saha.
The Mechi river, a tributary of the Mahananda, flows along the boundary of Nepal and India before joining the Mahananda in Kishangarh district of Bihar. The Sankosh rises in northern Bhutan and empties into the Brahmaputra in Assam. The wide stretch of the terai landscape in the foothills of the Himalaya lies between these two rivers and is an ancient migratory route for elephants.
Human-elephant conflict in the Darjeeling terai has a century-old history. O’Malley, who first recorded the movement of a herd of at least 30 elephants into Nepal by crossing rivers Teesta, Mahananda, Balason and Mechi in 1907, wrote: “… south of the district is infested by wild elephants, sweeping through it in large herds or roaming singly (which) are a veritable scourge to the people; and for the last few years, the Tarai has had a melancholy record of persons killed, crops destroyed and villages ruined by them. Indeed, the depredations of these animals in this part of the district have become so serious a menace to life and property that there is a danger of much of the land being thrown out of cultivation and relapsing into jungle.”
O’Malley’s words did not prove prophetic as the habitat was fragmented and conflict did intensify after the Indo-China war in 1962.
The area from Mechi to Sankosh is divided into two elephant distribution zones extending across 1,659 sq. km. of forest, comprising fi ve Protected Areas – Buxa Tiger Reserve, Jaldapara and Gorumara National Parks and Chapramari and Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuaries. A large part of this area lies between the Torsa river in West Bengal and Sankosh under the Cooch Behar division, and is referred to as the Eastern Dooars Elephant Reserve (EDER). The influence zone of the EDER comprising the rest of the area between the Torsa and Mechi rivers includes Jalpaiguri, Kalimpong, Baikunthapur, Darjeeling and Kurseong Forest Division.
Photo: Avijan Saha.
Elephant depredation turned into a serious issue in the Kurseong Forest Division in 1980. A herd of 60 elephants which used to shelter during the daytime in isolated forest patches of Naxalbari, was chased into the nearby Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary. In 2005, the Forest Department reported that something like 70 elephants from Mahananda were causing extensive damage on the outskirts of the sanctuary and in the bordering villages of Nepal, affecting more than 50,000 people.
Human-elephant confl ict continues unabated in this range.
Kolabari, a small patch of forest on the banks of the Mechi, is now the last refuge for the elephants on the Indian side of the border. A stretch of 18 km. of very fertile agricultural land in the Jhapa and Bahundangi districts of Nepal draws elephants each year, with perhaps over 100 gravitating towards Kolabari during the maize (May-July) and paddy (October-December) cultivating seasons. Livestock grazing and fuelwood collection adds to the immense anthropogenic pressure. Disturbing and torturing these gentle giants, whose natural habitat has been intruded upon, has become routine. Not surprisingly, elephant and human casualties have risen over the past five years. In one instance, a man named Gohanu Chikbaraik was killed by a herd of maljurian tuskers on March 2, 2015, and on May 17, 2015, a juvenile tusker was shot dead by a chorra (hand-made bullet).
In 2016, the Nepal government erected a 20-km.-long fence called tarbar from upper to lower Nepal to protect their cultivated land. The 137 elephants that gathered at Kolabari were forced to scatter into neighbouring Indian villages. Though the herd was not able to cross the tarbar, one tusker tore down a part of the fencing. Effectively, the Nepal government in a bid to stop these elephants from entering their territory have blocked a century-old migration route that will further impact their natural behaviour and jeopardise their future.
Photo: Avijan Saha.
This is a conflict situation that needs immediate resolution between India and Nepal. Some kind of joint-action plan must be formulated and implemented. It’s trans-boundary issue that can be sorted out as there are good people on both sides of the border. All that needed is the will to act.
Author: Avijan Saha, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVII No. 4, April 2017.