Death is uncertain. That you will perhaps die at the hands of an elephant more so. I usually sleep on long flights. The WeChat message on my phone when I was aboard a plane from Vienna to Delhi didn’t allow me that simple pleasure. A friend had been killed by an elephant in Gelephu. He left behind four children and a widow. I am certain that the elephant will not fend for them.
Humans and elephants have a long and complex relationship. However, the recent episode of elephants roaming in Gelephu town and disrupting life is not normal. That elephants end up killing humans is not acceptable. Many are now starting to blame the success of conservation in Bhutan for this sad episode. This is misguided and not true.
Elephants are long-lived animals. They have a strong fidelity to natal sites and feeding grounds. What is now part of the enlarged Gelephu town used to be elephant grounds. Within a span of about a decade, the elephant has lost much of its habitat to humans. At the current rate of expansion, one can only expect more elephant-human conflict.
A closer examination of satellite images reveals wild spaces that can be used by the elephants. There is an opportunity to step in and do some proactive town planning.
We can look at this unfortunate recent incident as an urgent reason to work out a long-term solution, converting this challenge into an opportunity. The National Land Commission, Gelephu Thromde, Department of Forests and Park Services, and the landowners need to come together and solve this issue. Here is what I think we can do.
We could create a movement corridor for elephants in Gelephu town. Few of us already discussed this matter a few months ago. Analyzing current land-use maps, we can spatially plan a safe passage for the elephants that will avoid humans and settlements. This might even require relocating few landholdings that may be in the way. Other areas may need to be fenced to avoid the elephants and also to guide their movement. But this is the only way to avoid repeated incidents in the future. Bold, visionary decisions may have to be taken. If we can indeed create this movement corridor, it might even be possible to set up observation platforms at strategic locations so that we could actually celebrate these endangered large mammals as they move through our town. We may be able to create Gelephu into an elephant-friendly town. This will be unprecedented, unique, and good for humans as well as elephants and other wildlife. Visitors can come to see this green infrastructure that is good for the town and could boost tourism. This is a solution that might work, at least for Gelephu town. The alternative is too grim – we will inevitably encounter more elephants destroying property and lives as these large animals try to move through a region that was once called Hattisar.
Contributed by Tshering Tempa (PhD)
The author is a conservationist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org