Nagrijuli (Assam): “It is our lifeline. But for this solar-powered fence, the life and livelihood of over 10000 people living across eleven villages in our area would have been perennially in peril as it was before this 18-kilometre-long fencing came into being,” says Bhim Bahadur Chetri overlooking, across the fence, the now-barren bed of Bornadi River that flows down from Bhutan hills to rejuvenate land and life in Nagrijuli area in Assam’s Baksa district.
Chetri, a senior and leading resident of Pub Guabari village just summed up the prevailing sense of relief and security that have restored the life and livelihoods of thousands of villagers from 11 villages in this area.
This area used to be a dreaded hotspot of human-elephant conflict before February 5, 2021, the landmark day when solar-powered fencing was formally inaugurated in presence of a huge gathering at Nagrijuli Police Station.
Herds of wild elephants that migrate from Bhutan hills along the Bornadi River course and bank in the search of fodder and water used to stray into these villages by the river and create havoc among the villagers. Death of an average of four to five persons annually on being trampled by wild elephants was a regular affair in the absence of the solar-powered fence.
The food stocks of households and crops were damaged by these elephants making life a nightmare for the villagers. An eerie silence descended on these villages after dusk as venturing out in the darkness was fraught with the extreme danger of coming face-to-face with invading pachyderms on the prowl.
“We used to feel extremely helpless because wild elephants would often raid our village causing severe damage to our lives and property. Aaranyak team appeared in our area as a messiah, who has restored our life by erecting the solar-powered fencing that is now managed by villagers with Aaranyak’s due technical support,” said Nirmal Hajong, a villager who operates the solar fence power unit in Pub Guabari village besides keeping a close watch on the state of the fence.
“Those were terrible nights when we were immensely stressed out of fear for our lives. My husband and other men from our village used to remain busy after sunset chasing away wild elephants from our villages leaving the women and children behind at home. We have started living life normally in peace after the fencing was installed,” said Sarbojoni Hajong, a village housewife.
Aaranyak which has set up the solar-powered fencing with support from Elephant Family Foundation (India), has installed 10 solar lights at various vantage locations across conflict-affected villages to facilitate elephant sighting from a safe distance at night so as to aid the conservation of elephants as well as safeguard people’s life.
“The participation of the local villagers was overwhelming. We couldn’t have completed the fencing without their tireless efforts. To ensure the fencing’s longevity, they have also contributed concrete posts willingly at their cost,” Aaranyak’s senior official Anjan Barua said.
The fencing was formally inaugurated on February 5, 2021, and handed over to the community in presence of Ranjit Basumatary, then Executive Member of the BTAD, Emmanual Mushahary, then MLA and several other dignitaries.
Five fencing maintenance committees were formed in these villages, and a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed and the fencing was handed over to them, according to Dr Bibhuti Prasad Lahkar, senior conservation scientist of Aaranyak.
More than 10000 people are directly benefited by the fencing, while more than 15000 people are indirectly benefited by it. The fencing also protects a school in Bimalanagar village.
“We conducted a study on the movement of elephants prior to the installation of the fencing. Here, the herds of elephants migrate through the banks along the course of the Bornadi River. Aaranyak still looks after the maintenance and now the socioeconomic status of the villagers has improved significantly as they now can reap their crops in peace,” Barua said.
“Six to seven people were killed by elephants before the fence was installed each year; crops were devoured and damaged, as well as 300-400 houses were damaged. The fencing has prevented human fatalities, and now our crops and homes are also secured. We have also eliminated the use of electric fencing to scare away elephants,” Girish Basumatary, Vice President of a Solar Fence Maintenance Committee of Pub Guabari village stated.
Baksa district has been one of the worst-affected villages of human-elephant conflict (HEC). In view of the gravity of the situation in the Nagrijuli area, Aaranyak, one of India’s foremost biodiversity conservation organisations, has formulated a scientific strategy to mitigate the conflict.
Researchers from the organisation headed by renowned Asian elephant conservationist Dr Bibhuti Prasad Lahkar examined human-elephant conflicts in HEC hotspots of Baksa. The Aaranyak team was shocked to know that villagers used illegal electric fencing to protect their crops, lives, and property from wild elephants.
Such electric fencing posed a threat to the lives of not only wild elephants but also to villages and their livestock. In view of these scenarios, the NGO with support from the Elephant Family Foundation (India), in collaboration with the Assam Forest Department and after having several meetings with the villagers started installing an 18 km long solar-powered fence covering severely affected villages of the district — No.1 Dongargaon, Pub Guabari, Hastinapur, Mahendranagar, No.1 Bogorikhuti, Orongajuli, No 2. Dongargaon, Jaipur, Piplani, Bimalanagar, No.2 Bogorikhuti from February 2020. Despite several obstacles, including COVID-19 and a flood, the fencing installation was finally completed on January 28, 2021.
Due to encroachment on migration corridors and deforestation, wild elephants venture into human settlements for fodder. People’s attempt to drive them away makes the huge animals panicky, resulting in conflicts.
The Asian elephant is an endangered species and now living under severe stress due to anthropogenic pressures. Assam’s forests are a quality habitat for Asian elephants. According to the 2017 census, Assam has 5719 wild elephants, the second highest population in India after Karnataka.
A brilliant and gentle creature, elephants need a huge area to migrate for food and water. Shrinking and fragmentation of elephant habitats are causing human-elephant conflicts in Assam.