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Lok Sabha Elections 2024: Man-elephant conflict in blind spots of parties vying for supremacy in West Bengal's Jangal Mahal

Villagers said they would vote on May 25 when the Medinipur Lok Sabha seat goes to the polls but had little hope about the government finding a permanent solution to their perpetual fear of elephant attacks they have to live with.
Last Updated : 18 May 2024, 08:53 IST
Last Updated : 18 May 2024, 08:53 IST

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Salboni, West Bengal: Sixty-something Parikala Mahato trembled in fear as she tried to recount the horrors of the attack of a stray tusker in the Nayagram-Murakata forest that borders her village Metala.

Although Parikala barely managed to escape the attack, her neighbour Urmila Mahato wasn't as lucky.

Urmila, crushed under the feet of the rogue pachyderm on May 15, was the latest victim of an elephant attack in the Medinipur forest range where deaths and destruction from instances of man-animal conflict continue to take place at regular intervals.

"Three of us were returning home after collecting Kendu leaves from the forest. There was a faint sound of rustling of leaves from behind. I only saw the beast from the corner of my eye, then heard Urmila's scream and ran for my life," Parikala said in disjointed sentences before breaking down.

"We had no idea that an elephant was roaming in the vicinity. No one told us," Kalpana Mahato, the third member of the ill-fated group said.

Located on the edges of a forest some 22 km from Medinipur town with no metalled road in about the last five, Metala is home to a handful of Kurmi-Mahatos, a scheduled caste community who barely make ends meet from forest produce like Kendu and Sal leaves.

Villagers said they would vote on May 25 when the Medinipur Lok Sabha seat goes to the polls but had little hope about the government finding a permanent solution to their perpetual fear of elephant attacks they have to live with.

Dhanapati Mahato, the victim's younger son and a daily wager, said he heard that the family would be given compensation of Rs 5 lakh, and some money by the state to conduct his mother's last rites, although he wasn't sure of it.

"I lost my mother. How can money compensate for that loss?" he asked, stressing on the family's dire need for a government job.

"I will vote since everybody else in this village will. But I don't think my vote will help end our woes. The circumstances here are quite hopeless. The government must find a way to restrict elephant movement from Jharkhand to this side in Bengal. Even electrical fences around human habitations are not being put up," he said.

The villagers of Metala revealed how an elephant herd raided a neighouring settlement some months ago and destroyed huts.

They grudged having perpetually remained in the blind spot of political parties who allegedly never lent an ear to their woes.

"Who should we raise our concerns with? No candidate has ever set foot in our village. Not even before the elections. We have never seen our representatives we have voted for year after year. Who will listen to our anguishes?" Sachin Mahato, a village elder, rued.

Some 7 km away in Murakata village, 40-year-old Debkumar Ghorai recounted how a bull impaled his mother, Shila Ghorai, with its horn when she had gone to the adjacent forest in the early hours of March 26 last year.

"She was alive till we took her to the hospital. But her wounds were so severe, she succumbed," he said, fighting his tears.

Besides receiving ex gratia, Ghorai now has the casual job of a forest 'volunteer', earning Rs 12,000 a month, as part of the solatium package.

A father of two school-going children who keep straying into the forest-covered neighbourhood while playing outdoors, Ghorai said that he keeps his fingers crossed against a repeat of the tragedy that struck his family.

"Not just human lives, instances of elephant herds raiding farmlands and crop godowns have also increased manifold, causing financial losses to farmers in this region," he said, advocating for the need to put up steel wire fences around villages to deter both humans and animals from straying into each other's territory.

Rakesh Singha Dev, a primary school teacher in Salboni, said incidents of man-animal conflict in the Medinipur-Jhargram belt have shot up in recent times on account of the unbridled expansion of human footprint in forest areas and significant growth of elephant population, estimated to be at two-three times the count recorded in the last elephant census that took place in 2017.

"Unofficial estimates put human casualties on account of elephant attacks in the Jangal Mahal region at 25-30 a year," Dev claimed.

"The corresponding figure for the pachyderms stands at around 10, for a variety of reasons, including electrocution, poisoning and railway track accidents," he added.

Dev explained that the forests of Jangal Mahal are 'mono-culture' in character where only a single variety of trees like Sal and Eucalyptus grow, and largely prove to be deficient as food sources for large animals.

An adult elephant requires around 1 quintal of food and some 150 litre of water daily to sustain itself, he said.

"Elephants are a highly intelligent species and have learned from survival experiences that they can make do with less food if they consume man-grown crops and vegetables which have higher nutrient value than what is available in forests. Hence, there is a greater tendency among the animals to raid farmlands and villages even if that means taking greater risks," he added.

Deepak M, the Divisional Forest Officer of Medinipur range, said that both human and elephant deaths have sharply reduced in West Bengal in the last five years on account of the state's twin focus on increased monitoring of herd movements inside forests and awareness campaigns among locals on how to stay away from their route.

"Currently there are some 220 elephants in the Medinipur range. We are using technology such as drone monitoring as well as local sources to keep track of the herds. Villagers are constantly alerted in the eventuality of the animals coming close to human habitats," he said.

Asserting that 'awareness is the key' to reducing fatalities, the DFO said that the only sustainable solution to the conflict is 'man learning to live together with the animals'.

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Published 18 May 2024, 08:53 IST

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