Although wild elephants could be found in most of the forests of the country 100 years back, now they can be seen only in a few locations
A few years ago, a friend and I were roaming in the Lawachara National Park, when we spotted elephant dung beside a seasonal stream.
There were broken tree branches around, clearly indicative of a foraging elephant.
We were very excited and started tracking the animal using its footprint and other signs.
After an hour of hiking, the trail ended and we found ourselves in a tea garden, outside the jungle.
We talked to a labour sardar and discovered that the elephant was a captive one, and belonged to the tea company.
Basically we had been deluding ourselves about spotting a wild elephant in the area.
Although wild elephants could be found in most of the forests of the country 100 years back, now they can be seen only in a few locations.
While non-resident/migratory elephants are seen in Mymensingh, Sylhet, and Chattogram Hill Tracts region, resident wild elephants are only found in south-eastern forests.
Even the last stronghold of Asian elephant in Bangladesh is tumbling.
In June of this year, news of three dead elephants came in three consecutive days.
On June 12, an elephant got electrocuted at Teknaf in Cox's Bazar.
The next day, another was found dead in a stream at Lama, Bandarban.
On June 14, a 16-year-old elephant was found buried under mud in Bashkhali, Chattogram.
As the rain washed the mud away, the decaying corpse was revealed.
The Business Standard asked Monirul H Khan, a wildlife researcher and professor of Zoology at Jahangirnagar University, if this could be considered a notable rise in elephant deaths.
"These elephants were incidentally killed in a row," said Professor Khan. "But the death rate is already high."
Unabated habitat destruction due to deforestation and monoculture plantation, habitat fragmentation, disturbance in elephant corridors and routes due to infrastructure development etc leads to human-elephant conflict.
The conflict, in turn, leads to the death of both the animal and humans every year.
Due to the decimation of natural food sources, elephants often come down to croplands in the plains.
As people want to save their crops, and use various means including setting off firecrackers to drive away the giants, conflict becomes inevitable.
While nature-lovers and wildlife enthusiasts are worried about the wellbeing of remaining elephant population in the country, to local people, elephants are a menace.
"Locals do not like elephants, because the animals occasionally come down to feed on the crops, especially in the winter, and when chased, they destroy houses and kill people," said Himel Das, an architect by profession who lives near Chunati Wildlife Sanctuary at Lohagara Upazila in Chattogram.
"People are helpless against the elephants because they do not have knowledge on how to avoid conflict with these animals," Himel added.
However, the elephants are not to blame, Professor Monirul Khan says.
"Elephant herds graze and browse in one area and move to the next. They travel through the same routes generation after generation. It is humans who have extended their territory into the elephants' one," said the professor. "It is clearly not the fault of the elephants. They need a large area to survive, they cannot be kept in a small area."
Professor Khan added that Asian Elephants live in hill forests, they do not like the plains much.
They come down when there is a food shortage in the hills.
Monoculture of exotic plant species in the forest areas increases food scarcity for elephants.
Only a part of native plant species sustains elephants.
Forest Department compensates elephant attack victims and their families.
It paid a total of Tk31,786,000 in compensation from 2011 to 2019.
A systematic aggression
There is apparently a systematic aggression towards wildlife in general, and elephants in particular.
Take the example of the elephant being electrocuted at Teknaf Wildlife Sanctuary.
The bare electric cables ran through the sanctuary only 5 feet 11 inches above ground. Adult Asian elephants are around eight feet high.
Local sources said, people complained about the low-lying cables to the upazila administration, who conveyed the concern to the distribution company.
But the company failed to take appropriate measures.
According to Forest Department (FD) sources, preparation is ongoing to file a case against local officials of Bangladesh Rural Electrification Board (BREB), the distribution company responsible for the elephant's death.
There is pressure from BREB officials for not filing the case, the same source informed The Business Standard.
Many roads and highways have been constructed in the region, interfering with elephant routes and corridors, Dhaka-Cox's Bazar highway being the most prominent among them.
Construction of a railway from Chattogram to Cox's Bazar is underway, razing tropical hill forests and wildlife sanctuaries – namely Chunati Wildlife Sanctuary, Fasiakhali Wildlife Sanctuary and the Medhakatchapia National Park.
The single-track railway will cross a number of active and seasonal elephant travel routes.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) funded project is eating up the dwindling habitat of our last elephants.
Conservationists and retired FD officials have been vocal against the project with no effect.
Even incumbent officials do not shy away from voicing their concern.
Mihir Kumar Doe, the conservator of forests for the Wildlife and Nature Conservation Circle said, "The project director said they would do afforestation, and build overpass for elephant movements. But I still think elephant habitats will be harmed and their movements will be affected."
Recently, the sprawling Rohingya refugee camps also absorbed elephant habitats and blocked their usual migration paths.
Elephants travel back and forth between Myanmar and Bangladesh following the same routes every year.
Over 5,000 acres of reserved forest was destroyed as around one million Rohingya refugees took shelter at Kutupalong in Cox's Bazar's Ukhiya Upazila.
Apart from clearing forest for the camp, refugees need to cut trees for fuelwood, further shrinking elephant habitats.
At least 15 Rohingya people were killed as migrating elephants ravaged through the camps in the last two years.
UNHCR and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) set up a 'Tusk force' to protect refugees and elephants.
Under the project, watchtowers were installed around the settlement and elephant response teams were set up and trained to mitigate face-offs between humans and elephants.
Among all mammals, elephants' gestation period lasts the longest. Asian giants carry their young for 18 – 22 months before giving birth.
This contributes to making elephants especially vulnerable to extinction. The Asian elephant is globally categorised as 'Endangered' animal by IUCN Red List, while it is categorised as 'Critically Endangered' in Bangladesh.
"Elephants are slow breeders. They are getting killed at a higher rate compared to their reproduction rate. If the killing continues, they will surely go extinct from our country," Professor Monirul Khan warned.
According to a joint survey conducted by IUCN and Forest Department in 2016, there were 268 resident wild elephants, 93 migratory elephants and 96 captive elephants in the country.