Titled “Hell is Here,” the photo is as jarring as they come: two elephants, one a baby, fleeing a jeering mob with murderous intentions, the juvenile pachyderm partially engulfed in flames. The mother elephant is in the lead, her ears angled forward, visibly distressed as she tries to get her baby away from the danger.
“Behind her, her calf screams in confusion and fear as the fire licks at her feet,” writes Sanctuary Asia magazine, which recognized the West Bengal state photographer Biplab Hazra with its Photographer of the Year prize. “Flaming tar balls and crackers fly through the air to a soundtrack of human laughter and shouts.”
The photograph captures the pernicious hostility that some locals in the Indian state of West Bengal have expressed toward Asian elephants in their communities. With the human population soaring, in a nation with more than a billion people, human-elephant conflicts are on the rise, and these elephants also are facing a gauntlet of human-caused threats. The population of wild elephants in India is increasing or stable according to some researchers, and elephant populations are dispersing at the same time that human development and settlement intrude on forested areas. At times, elephants kill people, and those tragedies stoke fear and often trigger retribution. This makes it all the more critical that we find ways to mitigate these conflicts, so that the members of both species don’t lash out, in anger or in defense, and try to kill.
Here are the initial elements of our plan, spurred by the haunting image of the elephants afire:
- Humane Society International/India has launched a tip-line for people to report cases of illegal actions targeting elephants, from flaming tar balls to high voltage wires and shooting. The focus of the pilot program is concentrated in habitat corridors in the districts of Bankura and Jhargram, where the people in the now infamous photos attacked the elephants.
- HSI/India has also written to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, asking its leaders to develop a protocol for news reporting of human-wildlife conflict across the country.
- We are also offering a reward of up to 10,000 Indian rupees for information leading to the identification, arrest and conviction of the persons responsible for such illegal activities. People are urged to report such activities at +918899117773.
- HSI is urging the chief secretary of the West Bengal government to issue directions for the development, training, and implementation of crowd control protocols in areas affected by human-wildlife conflicts. It has also sent a legal notice to the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests, the Forest Department, and local and state police in West Bengal calling on them to work to prevent human-elephant conflicts.
The Asian elephant is a protected species under Indian law, which permits the erection of solar-powered fencing to ward off wild animals from agricultural estates with a mild jolt. HSI supports the limited use of electric fencing in certain human-animal conflict situations, but only as long as the fence is professionally installed, maintained, monitored, and the voltage is low enough to prevent harm to wildlife.
West Bengal did contemplate the use of immunocontraception as a technique to stabilize the population of elephants in the long run but that effort was shot down by the Supreme Court of India without understanding the intent or the technique. HSI is fighting to vacate this stay so the technique can be researched further and be available as an option for wildlife managers.
It is estimated that 70 percent of the world’s Asian elephants live in India. They are an integral part of the ecosystem and rural economies (since they are a draw for wildlife watchers who will pay for the opportunity to see these creatures in their native habitats). Finding effective ways to allow human and elephant communities to co-exist is a priority for us. But as our HSI/India director N. G. Jayasimha points out, illegal encroachment and other non-forestry activities seriously threaten the population of elephants and increase the potential for human-elephant conflict. While the fate of those two elephants set on fire by a mob remains unknown, we hope the tip-line and reward will encourage people to report and fight illegal activities against elephants, preventing such cruel incidents from ever taking place.