The forest villages of Madhya Pradesh have new inhabitants – wild elephants – who have migrated from neighbouring Chhattisgarh where their natural habitat is disappearing fast due to extensive mining activities, say environmentalists. Human-elephant conflict is on the rise.
Anuppur, Madhya Pradesh
On August 25, folk singer Gaya Prasad Kewat along with his wife and three-year-old grandson were in deep slumber in their home on the edge of the forest in Belgam village. Sometime, in the middle of the night a herd of elephants, which was passing through the area, trampled the family to death.
The mother of the three-year-old, who lived three kms away from where the incident took place, was inconsolable. “I did not know about the elephants’ movement in the area. If I had known, I would not have left my son there,” she told Gaon Connection.
The death of three members of the Kewat family in Anuppur district of Madhya Pradesh, about 550 kilometres from the state capital Bhopal, has sent ripples of fear through the local villages.
“It was horrible. When I passed by the following morning, there was no house standing (of the Kewats). And, it was a shock to see the three of them dead,” Sugreev Kumar, a neighbour, told Gaon Connection. “We are so scared that we do not even want to leave our homes in daylight to go and work on our fields,” he added.
The forests of Madhya Pradesh are not traditionally elephant-land. People are not used to seeing elephants in the forests. But, since a few years ago, elephants have been entering into the state from across the border from Chhattisgarh into the forests of Madhya Pradesh.
Since January 1, 2020, ten people have lost their lives in elephant-human encounters in Madhya Pradesh.
“On April 2 last year, in Anuppur alone, three people lost their lives to an elephant attack. Ten days later, on 12 April, one more person died in north Seoni,” coordinating officer at the office of the Chief Wildlife Warden, Madhya Pradesh, told Gaon Connection.
“So far, this year, six people have died in elephant encounters. Three were from Anuppur and three from Sidhi. No elephants have been killed,” he said.
According to forest officials and local villagers, elephants entering Madhya Pradesh is a recent phenomenon. The Kanha Tiger Reserve, Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, and Sanjay National Park are located on the border between Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
“Elephants began migrating from Odisha and Jharkhand to Chhattisgarh in the 1980s,” said the coordinating officer. And from Chhattisgarh, they have started entering Madhya Pradesh.
“A herd of forty elephants that travelled from Chhattisgarh in 2018, strayed into the Bandhavgarh forests in Madhya Pradesh and stayed on and did not go back from where they came,” the official continued.
“Elephants require anything up to five thousand square kilometres of pristine forest. They wander twenty to twenty five kilometres per day,” coordinating officer at the office of the Chief Wildlife Warden, Madhya Pradesh, explained. “As a result, they occasionally enter residential areas near Bandhavgarh National Park that covers seven hundred square kilometres,” he said.
According to Ajay Dubey, a Bhopal-based wildlife expert, bamboo, crops, and water create a natural attraction for elephants in the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve. “Forest dwellers in Madhya Pradesh, however, are unaccustomed to elephants. And, that is why elephant-human conflict is on the rise here,” he told Gaon Connection.
The happenings on the other side of the border in the state of Chhattisgarh are catalysing the movement of elephants into Madhya Pradesh.
According to the Mineral Resources Department of the Chhattisgarh government, about 5.6 million tonnes of coal are stored in the state, which represents 16 per cent of all coal deposits in India.
Twelve coalfields located in north Chhattisgarh, including Raigarh, Surguja, Koriya, and Korba districts, account for approximately 44,483 million tonnes of coal.
The state’s iron ore reserves total 4,031 million tonnes, accounting for around 19 per cent of India’s total iron ore reserves. Kondagaav, Narayanpur, Jagdalpur, and Dantewada in south Chhattisgarh, are the primary locations for iron ore extraction.
While there is a wealth of minerals to be had in this area, it is also a natural habitat for elephants, leopards and lions (over 350 species of animals).
At least 4,900 hectares of forest in Chhattisgarh’s northern state have been diverted for iron ore mining, according to the state’s forest department, affecting elephant corridors.
“Traditionally, elephants roamed freely in Hasdeo Arnaya Chetra. Since mining began, the forests have been fragmented,” Alok Shukla, convenor of Chattisgarh Bachao Andolan, told Gaon Connection.
Territory where elephants traditionally roamed, has shrunk, he said. “The environment here is in jeopardy because the government is more preoccupied with the commercial worth of minerals, than the rich biodiversity above ground,” he said.
In 2019, the newly elected Congress government in Chhattisgarh announced the establishment of the Lemru Elephant Reserve in Hasdeo Aranya Chetra. A 400-square-kilometre area was proposed for this elephant reserve that fell within Surajpur, Korba and Sarguja.
But the Adani group operates a large coal mine in this very region in Hasdeo Aranaya Chetra. The coal mined here is supplied to Rajasthan government’s Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited. An AdaniWatch report titled Adani and the Elephants of the Hasdeo Aranya Forest, published in 2020, suggests that over 100,000 trees were cut in Hasdeo Aranya Chetra when mining operations began there.
These concerns have also been raised by the Wildlife Trust of India, a leading Indian nature conservation organisation. According to its report titled Right of Passage, Elephant Corridors of India, the fragmented nature of the Indian landscape, with people everywhere, has increased encounters between elephants and humans, which have claimed the lives of approximately 400-450 people and 100 elephants, each year in the country.
In Chhattisgarh, according to the government figures, 204 humans and 45 elephants lost their lives between 2018 and 2020. A total of 66,582 crop losses were reported, there were 5,047 damage to homes, and 3,151 property destruction cases were recorded.
This month, till September 19 alone, according to data provided by the Chhattisgarh forest department, 11 individuals were killed by elephants.
This conflict is rising in the neighbouring Madhya Pradesh too.
“My constituency has seen three incidents where elephants strayed into human inhabitation, and damaged crops and property, since I was elected in 2018,” Sunil Saraf, a Congress MLA from the Kotma constituency of Madhya Pradesh, told Gaon Connection. “There appears to be a failure on the part of the forest department, the sub-divisional magistrate and the local administration,” he added.
According to the wildlife expert Ajay Dubey, “There is no coordination mechanism between forest officials of different states and they do not check the elephant movement across their state borders.
In the recent case of a human-elephant encounter in Belgam village where three villagers were killed, there was no significant monitoring when elephants crossed over to the Bandhavgarh forest and the adjacent forests in Madhya Pradesh.
The people living in and around the forests in Anuppur now fear for their lives. They complain that the recent incident was a failure to coordinate and communicate on the part of forest officials and village panchayat members.
“I received information on the elephants’ movements during the night of the incident. A few villagers were informed by telephone,” Rajbhan Singh, Belgam’s sarpanch, told Gaon Connection. However, a majority of villagers said they had heard nothing.