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Danda brigade to fight tuskers

- Ill-equipped and too few in number, forest guards left spying on straying Bundu herd

Bundu, Oct. 9: The elephant herd, which fatally trampled a 60-year-old Bundu resident and disrupted traffic on NH-33 for hours yesterday, laid bare the Achilles heel of the state forest department — a ragtag army of too few men in their late fifties armed with bamboo sticks.

Sirf ek danda hai mere pass. Isse haathi bhagaun? (I just have a stick. You expect me to chase elephants with this?),” a 55-year-old forest guard told The Telegraph at Bundu forest range at Khunti division.

Though man-elephant conflict isn’t new in Jharkhand — a herd damaged 27 homes in Giridih over the weekend — the Bundu incident yesterday was an eye-opener for many reasons. A Tunju villager under the Bundu forest range died, arterial highway traffic was held up and the incident attracted more media attention than usual as the site was near the capital.

Bundu forest guards in the so-called elephant conflict zone, while acknowledging the increasing menace, said when herds returned to Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, they often found their corridors missing due to human activity, which confused and angered them, making them run amok in villages.

The guards also deplored they couldn’t do enough.

“Losses can be minimised, if not fully controlled. On paper, there are vigil teams to keep 24/7 tabs on elephants moving through a corridor till they reach a safe anchor. Reality is different,” a forest guard said.

The reasons for this are starkly visible.

“The state does not have an elephant action plan till date. There’s just a broad outline that elephants have to be kept away from people. There are grand plans on paper but no execution. When the elephant, a large animal, migrates from one division to another, no one is told and no one is prepared,” said well-known wildlife activist D.S. Srivastava, who has headed many state and national advisory teams.

But there is hardly anyone to do the job. The state needs 3,000 forest guards and 1,000 foresters. But 90 per cent of the posts are vacant. The last recruitment took place over 30 years ago.

In the Bundu range that roughly spans 15-20km comprising Jharia, Taimara and Kanchi river bank, there are only three foresters and forest guards against sanctioned posts of five and 15. In adjoining Tamar range — from where the elephants came to Bundu yesterday — there are two each. Appointed in the early 1980s, they are over 55 years old.

In an ideal situation, patrol jeeps, binoculars, airguns, torches and lamps, walkie-talkies and sufficient crackers would be at their disposal to control elephants from straying.

But as a guard said: “If there is a van there is no driver. There is no money for petrol. We move on cycles or foot or our own bikes when we can. Forget air guns, we make do with crackers. And yes, there’s the all-weather stick.”

There are other demotivators. Guards and foresters live in quarters with broken doors, seeping roofs and mossy walls.

“A night before, a portion of the roof fell while I was asleep. I had a lucky escape. There is no electricity. People at the top enjoy all facilities. We face the threats of the wild, but live in abject misery,” said a forester.

The range office is equally shabby with a bucket list of nos. There was no stationery, no electricity, no drinking water facility. “The desk and benches here have been bought recently by our new range officer. He spent from his own pocket,” added the forester.

Khunti DFO K.K. Tripathy conceded there were problems but trotted out the standard “we are helpless” line.

“Not just Khunti, all divisions are manpower-starved with aged staff working in adverse conditions. But the government has to look after these things,” he said.

He added that foresters had a big job on hand. “The herd has reached Burwadih jungles in Tamar connected to Barlanga forest. We have to ensure that it enters Bengal safely.”

With all their limitations, foresters can only hope that the elephants stay cool and amble along.

Srivastava added the clincher. “Elephant or any wild animal for that matter strays when humans encroach on their territory. Resolving man-animal conflict needs concerted efforts from development planners and forest departments.”

Giridih’s jumbo trouble, Page 4