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Nepal’s Elephants Threaten The Farmers Who Used To Worship Them

Sick of dealing with dangerous marauding elephants, farmers in Mechinagar are changing their crops and focusing on livestock, but conservationists warn that pivoting won’t solve the problem for good.

Photo of Nepalese farmer Motilal Bhujel crouching in an elephant watchtower.

Motilal Bhujel crouches in an elephant watchtower.

Mayamitu Neupane/GPJ Nepal
Mayamitu Neupane

JHAPA— Villagers in eastern Jhapa, on the border with India, used to perform puja for elephants and leave them bananas, regarding them as avatars of the god Ganesh. But that was before droves of them began rampaging their villages. Now, half a century later, after deaths, injuries and extensive crop damage, the mood has shifted.“

Half my life has been spent keeping elephant watch,” says Motilal Bhujel, 56, a farmer in Bahundangi village, in the municipality of Mechinagar. In the last decade, according to the division forest office, 58 people have been killed and 79 injured in Jhapa district; at least 16 elephants — classified as endangered in Nepal — have also lost their lives. As human-elephant conflict has escalated in recent years, villagers say they have tried many tactics to deter the animals: burning haystacks, banging on steel plates, laying down rope slathered in grease and chile powder. Increasingly, they are changing what they grow — forgoing rice in favor of tea, betelnut and lemongrass, for instance — to keep rampaging elephants away.

Residents of Mechinagar say that human-elephant conflict began in the early 1970s but has intensified recently. Five years ago, two to four elephants would encroach on rice and maize fields between June and November, around harvest season; now, as many as 60 enter settlements well into February.

Local laws stipulate compensation of 1 million Nepali rupees ($7,625) for each life lost in an elephant attack outside a forested area; compensation for property damage ranges from 10,000 to 30,000 rupees ($76 to $229 ). The division forest office says it has dispensed more than 23 million rupees ($175,392) to compensate for lives lost to elephant attacks and 4.3 million rupees ($32,790) to those severely injured. In the past decade, 3,737 Jhapa residents have also received cumulative compensation of 1.85 million rupees ($14,107) for damage to houses, grain storage units and farm fields.

The great crop strategy

Many farmers with large tracts of land have switched to crops that wild elephants ostensibly dislike; every year, there are more tea plantations in Mechinagar for this reason, says Binod Ranjitkar, 52, who transitioned to the crop three decades ago due to repeated elephant raids. In Bahundangi alone, he adds, there are four tea processing mills.

Elephants do enter tea estates, but they uproot a few plants rather than trampling over fields en masse, says Shambhu Karki, 50. “I used to keep watch over ripe rice fields all night, but was still unable to bring in the harvest,” he says. Although tea requires a higher investment and can take at least two years to generate revenue, he says, farmers don’t worry about extensive damage from marauding elephants.

Bhujel began planting tea in his rice fields a decade ago. Basking in the sun one winter morning, he relates a past encounter with an elephant — near the very fences he had helped erect to keep them away. “I fell on the ground, my phone fell from my hand. I was trembling so much, I could not pick it up to call for help.” The elephant lumbered away, and Bhujel scrambled toward the relative safety of an elephant watchtower. “My hands were shaking so much, I could not even dial my son,” he says. “I remained anxious for several days.” After planting tea in fields where he had originally grown rice, he no longer goes out to watch for elephants at night.

Dambar Ranjitkar, who started growing lemons on his half-acre of land, says elephants don’t venture near the fruit trees. He is happy with his decision: Lemons are less labor-intensive than rice or maize, do not require planting every year, and fetch a good price.

Others have pivoted to animal husbandry. Santosh Subedi, for instance, began rearing two cows in 2015; today, this has expanded into a commercial enterprise of over 60 cows. “I have spent a long time chasing away elephants,” he says, speaking of the days when he would cultivate rice. “When I went at night to keep watch, my family — worried for my safety — were also unable to sleep.”

It's made smaller subsistence farmers more vulnerable.

The cow sheds are bright and well-staffed, so elephants don’t enter. “They eat the fodder, damage the shed and eat the grass planted for cows — but this is only a fraction of the loss incurred when rice fields are destroyed. Even if I am not completely free from invading elephants, I haven’t needed to go to the Mechi riverbank at night.”

Wild elephants are said to move back and forth between Nepal and the Indian states of Assam and West Bengal, usually by crossing the Mechi river, which forms part of the boundary between the two countries.

Fewer people now go to the riverbank to throw firecrackers at approaching elephants, says Arjun Kumar Karki, chair of Mechinagar ward four, which encompasses Bahundangi. More than half of the population has pivoted to cash crops and livestock, he says, noting that there are 98 such commercial enterprises in his jurisdiction.

This has, however, made smaller subsistence farmers more vulnerable. “What to do?” says Padam Rai, a local grower. “You can’t buy rice and eat it, so you have to spend the whole night chasing elephants.” Three years ago, when elephants destroyed the rice stocked in his dhikuti — a local system of food grain storage — he was forced to work on someone else’s land to make ends meet.

Image showing a farmer in Bahundangi carrying crops in a basket she holds on her back.

Farmers in Bahundangi are changing what they grow to deter elephants from entering their fields.

Mayamitu Neupane/GPJ Nepal

Technology, environment and co-existence 

In 2015, with support from the World Bank, Nepali authorities erected a solar-powered offset fence to thwart wild elephants. The non-lethal fence, 15 kilometers (9 miles) of which were installed at a cost of 12 million rupees (91,500 dollars), is no longer functional, says division forest office chief Jiwan Kumar Pathak. “We have the finances, but the overseers do not have the technical capacity to maintain it,” he says. “It is a new technology, which is creating difficulty.”

At the end of the day, elephants and humans have to coexist

Environmentalists don’t think this approach will work, even with the right technical expertise. “It is not elephants who have entered the settlements,” says Nabin Gopal Baidya, a local conservationist. “The settlements have encroached on the elephants’ migratory paths.” The Charkose Jhadi, Nepal’s largest and most dense forest and an ancient route for elephants, is being swallowed by population growth. “This problem will not be solved by blocking the elephants’ path. Nor is it possible to remove the humans.”

Pathak, the division forest office chief, insists that people will need to grow food that doesn’t attract elephants. “The state has to help them find the market for these new crops.” Not everyone is convinced this strategy will keep the elephants at bay. “If planting crops disliked by elephants were a solution, then they would not cross the tea estates of West Bengal to arrive here,” says Shankar Luitel, a specialist in human-elephant conflict who has previously collaborated with the forest office, noting that in the short term, “even if we plant tea, it is not possible for every farmer to plant tea.” In a different attempt to mitigate the conflict, the forest division plans to plant bamboo sprouts, bananas, millet and mangoes — foods that elephants prefer — along elephant routes within forests so they do not upend human settlements in search of food.

“At the end of the day, elephants and humans have to coexist,” Luitel adds. “I don’t know how that will happen. The solution is not with the farmers; the state has to show us the way.” He can imagine it, though. “It may come to be, 50 years from now, that those who plant crops disliked by elephants will begin to put food for them in front of their homes,” he says. “And elephants will eat the food and march right along their path.”

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