NEW RAM TERANG, Assam, India—Khoi Terang was 10 years old when his family moved to a patch of land beside a forest in India’s far northeast. He helped his family collect hay, mud, and bamboo to build their new home. The village would be named Ram Terang, after Khoi’s father, who was the village leader. Residents cleared forest to grow rice and other crops. No other villages were nearby and school was far away, but the paddies provided plenty to eat and life was peaceful.
One sunny afternoon about three years after establishing Ram Terang, villagers working in the fields encountered a large male elephant. India is home to about 60 percent of the world’s Asian elephants, estimated at 26,000 to 28,000, and according to a 2012 census, 5,620 of those are in Assam. With the state’s human population growing by nearly 20 percent a year for two decades, conflict was inevitable and not just in Ram Terang.
The animal’s presence took the villagers by surprise, but they only had to yell and hurl stones at it to chase it away. It had perhaps lost its way, Khoi and others thought. But a few days later, Khoi woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of screaming. He stumbled outside to discover that an elephant had ripped the thatch roof off of one of the huts. The young couple who lived there stood by, terrified. Khoi watched as the woman, who had rushed from her home without her baby, tried to reenter the house, now in shambles, to retrieve the child. Before she could reach her, the woman was furiously attacked by the elephant, which tore open her abdomen with its tusk, then lifted and dropped her to the ground.
“It’s a night I cannot forget,” Khoi recalls, his voice quivering. “The baby cried all night while the elephant slept right outside the house it had destroyed. In the morning villagers sneaked in and managed to safely get [the child] out. The mother was buried there.”
Things only got worse. The following year, about seven houses in Ram Terang were crushed by a small herd of elephants. That’s the last year Khoi, now about 40, remembers having enough food to eat. The herd grew larger. The animals came often, destroying the crops and eating everything they could. Children were afraid to go to school; men felt unsafe returning from work after dark. With no crops, whatever little money could be earned was used to buy food. “Where was the money to complete our education so we could seek well-paying jobs? We had to find ways to feed ourselves first,” Khoi says. Soon, there was little left to lose. The people of Ram Terang came to accept a life of conflict, difficulty, and poverty.
Ram Terang was built in a hurry after ethnic tension in Golaghat, a neighboring district, forced the villagers to leave when Khoi was a child. The villagers didn’t realize they were building in a wildlife corridor elephants have used for centuries to travel between habitats. The village was near Kaziranga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site about 55 miles away, and between a forested hill and the Nambor-Doigurung Wildlife Sanctuary. Around 1,800 elephants migrate seasonally among these environs in search of food when flooding from the Brahmaputra River drenches the park. Moving to higher ground to reach forests and sanctuaries, the animals travel along what conservationists have since identified as the Kalapahar-Doigurung elephant corridor, the area where Ram Terang was built.
“They usually come in a large herd, at least 50 of them,” says Ram Terang, who is about 80. “We are scared, but the elephant is like God: He listens. We don’t hurl abuses at him because he understands. When we shine a light at him, he stares angrily for a while and then runs away. He never intends to hurt us.” Still, elephants killed 733 humans in Assam between 2003 and 2014. From 2001 to 2014 in Assam, 225 elephants were killed by poaching, poisoning, electrocution, and trains, according to the forest department.
Now, after six years of preparation by the wildlife conservation NGOs the Wildlife Trust of India, the International Union for Conservation of Nature NL, Elephant Family, and Japan Tiger and Elephant Fund, Khoi and his fellow villagers have moved once again, to the village of New Ram Terang. Nineteen redbrick houses with plaster walls and green tin roofs were built—an improvement over the homes in the old village. A care center for mothers and small children and a primary school will be built in the village, and older children will be closer to their existing schools. Behind each home are a bathroom and a toilet, amenities lacking in Ram Terang. Connection to the electric grid and a number of wells are planned, and residents have had their first experience with water filters and pressure cookers. Meanwhile, to keep elephants out, an electric fence powered by solar energy has been installed.
In the interest of reducing human-elephant conflict, WTI has secured elephant corridors in the states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Meghalaya through voluntary relocation, land purchase, and community participation. The Asian Elephant Alliance, which WTI formed in 2015 with five other wildlife conservation NGOs, aims to protect 100 elephant corridors in India in the next decade.
For the wildlife advocates, relocating the village provided an opportunity to reduce pressure on Asian elephants, whose population fell more than 20 percent between 1997 and 2004. For the villagers, the move gave them the chance for the first time to enjoy the basics of modern life. Standing in his father’s two-bedroom home in New Ram Terang in March, Khoi says, “We’re really happy with the facilities that we’ve been provided. It feels like the days of hardship will soon be behind us. At least our children will lead better lives.”
“Convincing them was the most difficult part,” says Dilip Deori, assistant manager for WTI’s National Elephant Corridor Project. Despite the annual troubles with elephants, village residents did not want to leave what had been their home for about 30 years. Holding the twin priorities of conserving elephants and developing New Ram Terang, WTI and the local district council and forest department chalked out boundaries to secure the corridor as protected land for wildlife and floated the idea of relocation to the villagers.
Some political parties objected, feeling that the needs of elephants were being considered over those of people such as Khoi. It took several meetings to assure everyone of the long-term benefits of relocation. The prospect of improved health care and education, electricity, and sanitation—and the promise that the project wouldn’t end with relocation but would continue until the villagers were self-sufficient and all the facilities had been provided—won the opponents over. Deori spent countless meetings over two and a half years coming up with a plan for the village and its facilities.
Wearing a faded white sweater and a thin loincloth as he sat outside his home in the old village in February, Ram Terang recounted chilly winters and monsoon floods. Though the government provided the village with monthly subsidized rations of 35 kilograms of rice per family and 40 liters of kerosene, compensation for the elephants’ damage to crops was nonexistent. The only means by which to chase away the elephants was a solar-powered flashlight WTI gave the village four years ago. With no toilets, relieving oneself outside at night required courage. “Life wasn’t easy,” Ram said. “We realized that relocation was an opportunity to change things for the better.”
Deori was adamant that locals be hired for the construction to the extent possible and found a few skilled men in Ram Terang. Davidson Ingti, 20, was one of them. He left school at 13 because his family couldn’t afford to pay for education and began to assist his father, a carpenter. On good days, he earned about $4.50 (300 Indian rupees), but there were plenty of days without work. The New Ram Terang project, he says, paid well. Building the window frames of one house, which took about three days, earned him $98. (India’s per capita income is around $119 per month.) He proudly mentions his work in sculpting the Jambili Athon, a wooden emblem that is the cultural symbol of the Karbi ethnic group, now standing at the entrance of the new village. Last year, WTI sent him to a training school, where he spent two months learning how to drive. He hasn’t found time to get a driver’s license yet but is hopeful that he can soon use the skill to supplement his income.
The elephant and us, we’re the same. Neither of us has enough food to eat.
Mina Timungpi, a homemaker in New Ram Terang
Completing the project took longer than expected. Deori spent nights camping at the relocation site to try to meet deadlines that kept getting pushed. The remote location made it difficult to get workers and ensure timely procurement of raw materials. It didn’t help that the district is known for unpredictable work shutdowns and curfews imposed by militant groups and various unions, which further stalled construction. Deori felt discouraged at times, but the villagers, who were eager to start their lives afresh, encouraged him and his team to keep going. After the 19 families moved into their new homes in March, Deori said by phone, “They all look happy today.”
A small thatched-hut village was hardly the only factor contributing to Assam’s increasing incidence of human-elephant conflict. Stone quarries and rubber plantations have led to biodiversity loss and groundwater depletion. Tea plantations have converted unprotected forests into farmland, reducing further the amount of habitat available to elephants in Assam. With forest cover thusly fragmented, the animals must wander through human habitation zones in search of forage.
Tasked with managing such incidents from the area’s forest department headquarters in Silonijan, about 12 miles from New Ram Terang, is Forest Range Officer Bibison Tokbi. He leads a staff of 28 scattered across six field offices and three forest gates. Tokbi is responsible for more than 100 villages, and some nights he will receive calls from as many as four of them, all seeking help. Equipped with only a jeep and a truck, both more than 15 years old, and small firecrackers or flashlights to keep elephants away, Tokbi’s men will venture out in the dark to help troubled villagers.
In the forest office closest to Ram Terang, four miles away, the forest guard and deputy ranger assigned there developed health problems preventing them from performing their duties and have not been replaced. “People are often disappointed with us for not providing enough help or arriving on time, but we can only do more if we’re not shorthanded and ill equipped by the [local government],” Tokbi says, dejected.
Though elephants are accorded the highest degree of wildlife protection under Indian law, and state governments such as those in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have come up with projects and plans to handle the conflict, numerous reports indicate that overall the government has failed to implement effective long-term strategies, instead either targeting problem elephants or applying short-term solutions. Project Elephant, a program operating in 16 states, including Assam, to protect elephants and address human-elephant conflict, launched in 1992. A 2010 government evaluation stated, however, that the project had “not been able to grow and take a leadership role in elephant conservation.” The report, Gajah: Securing the Future for Elephants in India, made several recommendations, but implementation has been slow.
Smugglers and militant groups active in Assam further complicate efforts to develop rural communities and to stem human-wildlife conflict. Tokbi's work to enforce forest protections has earned him death threats, and Abhijit Rabha, principal chief conservator of forests in Karbi Anglong, the district of Assam where Ram Terang is located, was abducted by militants while inspecting a remote forest area in 2012. He was released unharmed five days later, and though the incident didn’t break his spirit, it made other officers more cautious. “The armed groups do not wish for development among the people in the areas where they operate—so they can continue to subdue them,” Rabha says. Tokbi says that most officers in India’s forest department are afraid of being posted to the remote region; Deori adds that during the six years of construction of New Ram Terang, few forest officials were willing to visit the site. “It’s a location that everybody wants to steer clear from,” he says.
A week after the relocation, the new village is abuzz. Children play games with twigs and rubber balls. Colorful blankets and clothes hang to dry from ropes tied to trees. Some of the older children have skipped school to help their parents in their new homes—putting up bamboo fencing, setting up kitchens, wiping the walls clean, and making baskets for the collection of firewood. The spaces between houses are occupied by grazing cows, wandering puppies, and groups of chickens. Cacti and large ornamental stones decorate the fronts of most of the homes.
Excited children lead the way from the dusty gravel road to Ram Terang’s house. He shares its two bedrooms and living room with Khoi, Khoi’s wife, Mina Timungpi, and their five children. Ram sits on the edge of a narrow wooden bench in the living room and sips a cup of tea. He doesn’t miss their old home, he says, but regrets that his wife, who died of malaria a few years ago, couldn’t experience the new life with him.
The relocation, however, does not mean the end of the villagers’ troubles with elephants. Even in Golaghat, encounters with elephants were not unheard of. Asian elephants can travel 10 miles or more in a day, and “the elephants in the Karbi Anglong landscape need their right of passage through pockets of human habitation,” says Vivek Menon, executive director and CEO of WTI.
On the night of May 1, villagers in New Ram Terang again faced an elephant in their midst. Weeks of continuous rain meant the solar chargers had been unable to sufficiently power the fence. A problem with the grounding of the electrical system prevented the closing of the gate at nightfall for fear of electrocution. When a herd of elephants passed the area at around 3:30 a.m., one entered through the front gate and damaged a house and a bamboo structure. Rice stores were raided. The villagers chased the animal away using flashlights, and no injury to humans or to the elephant was reported.
Lucy King, head of the Human-Elephant Co-Existence Program at Save the Elephants, wrote in an email that finding ways to live side by side with elephants is a “massive, massive challenge.” King’s Elephants and Bees project places beehive fences around crops to protect them from elephant invasions, but it “is not always the solution for complex situations.”
Deori was on-site days later, repairing the fence and working on electrifying the houses—though the government still had not allotted power to the village. A backup battery is being installed to charge the fence during periods of less sunshine, Menon says, adding that villagers are pooling resources to maintain the fence. Told what had happened, King suggested that storing rice at a central, secure location could cut down on the temptation presented by food inside homes.
Meanwhile, the struggle for survival continues. Khoi and other heads of households in the village are uneducated and mostly unskilled. They perform hard labor for daily wages when work is available, but the most an employer pays is $2.70 per day, which is insufficient to support a family. Setting up shops in the nearby market would require capital the villagers don’t have, and the poor have a hard time getting government loans.
A year from now, each family will be given 1.6 acres to farm. Two fisheries planned for the village will provide protein and money. Timungpi, Khoi's wife, intends to clear a small area outside her house to grow vegetables and nuts that she can sell in the market. Plans are in the works for help with community building, family planning, and supplementing residents’ income over the coming years.
Mrinmili Tirangpi, 25, cradles her two-month-old daughter, Simiyun, in the backyard of their new home. “I just worry about being able to earn enough to feed her as she grows up,” Tirangpi says. Tirangpi has never been to a hospital, and the only checkups she has received are from community workers who visit once a month. Her husband, Jemse, is heading back to the old village; accompanying him are Ingti and his wife and toddler. The homes have been demolished, but they plan to scavenge materials to use in their new house and sell any leftover bamboo and wood in the market. “The money will feed us for the next few days,” Ingti says.
A few houses over, Khoi says his family will skip lunch today. He’ll bicycle to the market in the evening and purchase some rice so the family doesn’t have to go hungry tonight. He hasn’t enough money for vegetables or meat, but Timungpi knows how to forage in the forests for vegetables and herbs from which she can make a meal. “The elephant and us, we’re the same,” she says. “Neither of us has enough food to eat.”