September 4, 2006

Elephants and Villagers Battle in Jungles of Bangladesh

By Nizam Ahmed

UKHIA, Bangladesh -- Deep in the forests of southeastern Bangladesh, a battle rages between herds of endangered elephants and villagers whose livelihoods depend on felling trees that provide the elephants' habitat.

Every year, about 30 people and five elephants die in this struggle in the hills where humans are encroaching on the forests to rebuild their lowland villages washed away by seasonal floods.

"Sometimes we win. Sometimes the elephants win. This is an ongoing battle," said Abdus Shukur, a 45-year-old father of three.

The migration of humans displaced by natural disasters has added to the damaging pace of deforestation in southeastern Bangladesh, near the border with India and Myanmar. Elephants are being squeezed into an increasingly small part of the forest, greatly raising the risk of confrontation.

The new residents chop down trees to rebuild their villages and log the forests to earn money. They also clear forest areas for their homes and to create adjacent farmland for cultivation.

The encroachment has led to sometimes nightly battles between villagers and elephants that come in search of food.

Last May, elephants stormed the village of Kalirchhara, killing three people, including a child, and injuring 10 others.

"I woke up at night hearing a sudden noise, opened the door and saw a few elephants ramming my hut," Shukur said. "Within minutes, the shanty collapsed and we ran for our lives."

A series of severe floods in recent years have left thousands of people homeless and many flood survivors have moved to high ground in the Ukhia province, 430 km (270 miles) from the capital Dhaka.

Elephants are an endangered species in Bangladesh and killing them is a punishable offence.

So the vigilante squads of villagers try to keep the wild elephants away from their wooden shacks by waving flaming torches and blowing trumpets.

Sometimes they fire shots in the air to keep the animals at bay.


Despite the human deaths, the elephants are generally the losers as humans, especially poachers who kill the animals for ivory and their hides, get the better of them.

Asian elephants, which are smaller than their African cousins, are found in Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.

Many of these countries also face dwindling elephant numbers because of deforestation.

The threats against elephants in Asia are more varied than in Africa, whose population has also declined in past decades from poaching and shrinking habitat.

Trappers are another threat, catching the animals and training them to work in the logging and tourist industries.

Unlike African elephants, Asian elephants can be domesticated.

But sometimes these tamed elephants are overworked in the logging industry or abused by owners.

Nobody knows how many wild elephants are left in Asia, but conservationists suspect the number is between 35,000 to 50,000, compared to 150,000 two decades ago.

In Bangladesh, the wild elephant population has also halved to 400 from 20 years ago. And their numbers keep dropping.

"I am afraid the next generations won't be able to find elephants even in the zoos unless they are protected both in the wild and in captivity," Professor Ainun Nishat, the Bangladesh representative of the Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature, told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Mohammad Nurul Islam)