A recent study on human-elephant conflict in north Bengal points out that elephants raided villages where brewing of haaria or rice beer was prevalent.

In the study, scientists from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) recorded 380 crop-raiding incidents by elephants in north Bengal between 2017 to 2019 and found that 75% of the localities raided by the animals had haaria breweries.

Details of the study have recently been published in a paper titled ‘Elephants in the neighbourhood: patterns of crop-raiding by Asian elephants within a fragmented landscape of Eastern India’.

Human-elephant conflict most acute in W.B., Odisha, Assam

Elephants are attracted to the fermented drink and enter the villages to consume haaria, Dipanjan Naha, the lead author of the paper said. Consumption of rice beer by elephants have been documented across the elephant distribution range and a combination of crops and beer distilleries leads to conflicts.

Since most of these beer distilleries were concentrated at the edge of forests and in the periphery of protected areas, the scientists suggested that they should be “relocated from the vicinity of villages to avoid frequent visitation by elephants and reduce the current extent of human-elephant conflict”.

Located in the foothills of eastern Himalayas, north Bengal is wellknown for the severity of human-wildlife conflicts with nearly 500 fatal elephant attacks in the last 15 years. The region with its highly fragmented forests and protected areas, interspersed with tea plantations and open fields, accounts for 12 to 13% of all cases of human-elephant conflict in the country.

Specific times, seasons

“Crop depredation showed a distinct nocturnal pattern (between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.) and a majority of the incidents were recorded in the monsoon and post-monsoon seasons,” Mr Naha said.

Human deaths in elephant attacks decline in three forest divisions

Crop-raiding events had major distinct peaks, with 45% of the incidents recorded in winter between November to February, followed by 43% between July to October and remaining 12 % between March to June, the study revealed.

Another interesting aspect recorded in the study is the proximity of the crop depredation sites from the nearest forest patches. The researchers found that the average distance of a field raided by elephants was 1.6km from the nearest forest patch. Thirty-five per cent of the villages were located within 500m of a forest patch whereas 63% of the incidents occurred within 1.5km.

In terms of the composition of the elephant herds raiding the crops, the study found that over half (57%) of the crop-raiding events involved mixed groups (adult females, sub-adult females, bulls and calves), whereas 43% of the incidents involved lone bulls (sub-adult to adult males).

Drunken attacks

Mr. Naha said an earlier study in 2019 revealed that alcoholism in villagers was a major trigger for fatal elephant attacks in this region, with intoxicated people reported to have harassed and chased elephants from villages and crop fields, provoking attacks.

The other contributors to the paper include Sambandam Sathyakumar, Suraj Kumar Dash and Abhisek Chettri and Akashdeep Roy.

“The results of the study will help wildlife managers prioritise mitigation measures such as prohibition of alcohol production within villages, changing crop composition, fencing agriculture fields, implement early warning systems around protected areas and training local people on how to prevent conflicts,” said Prof. Sathyakumar, Professor at WII, and co-author of the study.

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