Human-elephant conflict: Bengal considers South African birth control route

Kolkata, In the wake of the escalating human-elephant conflict (HEC) in West Bengal, the state is considering a hugely successful South African birth control route to regulate the growing pachyderm population.

"We are seriously considering the proposal to start immuno-contraception in north Bengal where the numbers have gone up since 1980s from around 150 to over 500," principal chief conservator of forests and head of forest force N.C. Bahuguna told IANS.

"The birth control measure involves darting a female that makes her infertile for a year. The process can thereafter be repeated," Bahuguna said, adding that concrete plans will be chalked out by the year-end.

Immuno-contraception uses the body's immune response system to prevent pregnancy and has been applied to stabilise the elephant population in South African wildlife reserves.

In 2011-2012, 67 people were killed by elephants in Bengal, as per official estimates. In the last 10 years, over 50 elephants have been mowed down by speeding trains. Fragmentation of habitat, including construction activities, and increase in number of the pachyderms in northern West Bengal have exacerbated the HEC in the last decade, Bahuguna said.

On an average, 75 people are crushed to death in trampling incidents every year.

In July, a tribal woman was trampled to death by an elephant in a forest in Jalpaiguri district, in north Bengal, while two elephants were mowed down by a speeding train in Buxa Tiger Reserve in Alipurduar district, also in the north.

North Bengal harbours over 500 of the animals while there are over 100 in the southern part of the state.

"We will need to consult experts from South Africa and involve various stakeholders as well. This will take a lot of planning since elephants are Schedule 1 animals (protected under the Wildlife Protection Act)," Pradeep Vyas, additional principal chief conservator of forests (Wildlife), told IANS.

Of West Bengal's 11, 879 sq km of forest area, more than a third - over 4,200 sq km - is a designated elephant habitat.

The primary location for the animals in north Bengal is the Terai-Dooars area - Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling and Alipurduar districts - and Bankura, Purulia, West Midnapore in the southwest .

According to Bahuguna, there are at least 700 elephants present in the state due to several inter-state and inter-country elephant corridors that pass through north and south Bengal.

Developmental activities, particularly railroad construction and infrastructure expansion, have severely interrupted these connecting stretches or passages through forests, he said. "The state ranks second in deaths of elephants caused by development activities in the railway sector, which is about 28 percent of total deaths of elephants recorded in India caused due to collisions with trains," Kalyan Das, conservator of forests (Wildlife), told IANS. Moreover, the conflicts are of a different nature in north and south Bengal, which further complicates matters.

"South Bengal forests receive seasonal visitors from Jharkhand, Bihar and Odisha. Earlier these migratory elephants used to return after a few months, but now they are staying back for most of the year due to habitat destruction in their native states," Bahuguna pointed out.

In the northern districts, the concern is because of the spurt in numbers of residential elephants in tandem with the fact that the natural corridors (around 14) have been disturbed due to mushrooming infrastructure.

Renowned animal conservationist Belinda Wright said the proposal should be thoroughly backed by data and technical support.

"It needs a lot of thinking and planning because elephants are endangered. Proper trials and studies should first be conducted," Wright stated.

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