Even as the divisional forest officials of Sarpang dzongkhag claimed that almost all the wild elephants were driven out from Gelephu area, local government officials say that animals are still around.

Chief forestry officer (CFO) of divisional forest office in Sarpang, Phub Dhendup, said that with the help of trained domestic elephants, a herd of wild elephants were driven out through its regular route to Phibsoo Wildlife sanctuary about two weeks ago. “Only four elephants are left in Gelephu area,” he said.

CFO Phub Dhendup said that the elephants normally leave Gelephu by end of December or early January to Phibsoo Wildlife sanctuary after the crops exhausted.

Gelephu gup Ugyen Wangchuk said that they haven’t heard of chasing away elephants although the Dzongkhag Tshogdu (DT), in its 5thsession held on December 19 last year, directed the divisional forest office to drive away elephants. “This was one of the DT’s decisions and if they had done so, the local leaders should have been informed,” he said.

Gup Ugyen Wangchuk said there are a total of 38 elephants, mostly spotted in Samtenling gewog. He claimed that wild elephants split into two groups. “A herd of six elephants moved up to the Rai Drangratop, which is also known as Setikharey hilltop,” he said. “However, a majority of the animals are still around the domestic airport area, which has a thick vegetation.”

He said that people in his gewog still live with fear after the wild elephants killed a man in Pemathang on December 3 evening last year.

Gup Ugyen Wangchuk also said elephants have damaged about five kilometres of water pipelines. He said the gewog administration spent Nu 33.5 million to construct a 28-kilometre water supply pipelines from Balukhola source for the people of Gelephu.

In an earlier interview, range officer in Gelephu, Singye Wangchuk, said there are a total of 32 elephants in Gelephu, Samtenling, Sershong and Chuzagang gewogs. Eight are in Pelrithang, three in Dzomlingthang, six in Dechenpelri, another eight in the airport area, six in Chuzagang and one in Sershong.

Sarpang DT’s Thrizin Nima Dorji also said that while passing resolution to chase animals from the human settlements, the DT also requested the forestry officials to take safety measures for the people living around human-elephant conflict areas. The local leaders also recommended taking all possible mitigation measures to drive away the elephants.

Some gups suggested that overgrowths and thick bushes be cleared and set fire to drive away elephants. Some proposed to construct many waterholes and identify salt lick areas.

Managing human-wildlife conflict

Phub Dhendup said all the mitigation measures were being adopted in Sarpang Dzongkhag to address the human elephant conflict. For instance, forestry officials in teams have been patrolling day and night in places frequently encroached by elephants.

Human-Wildlife Conflict (HWC) is prevalent in almost all the dzongkhags especially in southern region, according to the HWC management report 2017 issued by DFO, Sarpang. The report stated that the root cause of problem are being analysed and interventions, such as deploying Quick Response Team in conflict sites and insurance programs for crops as long-term solutions. The interventions outlined in the report are expected to reduce HWC to a manageable level in the affected villages, enhance the livelihoods of our farmers, and offset their losses from elephant damages.

“For many years, elephants have contributed to economic loss and social pressure on farmers of Southern Bhutan where damage to crops and property has occurred. Sarpang is one of the most affected dzongkhags in Bhutan,” the report stated. The report calls for joint efforts including the support from local government and involvement of local communities are crucial in effective management of conflicts.

Today, HWC is one of the significant issues confronting the divisional forest office in Sarpang, local communities and many other stakeholders. Several incidences have been reported to the division about crop raiding and property damage by elephants.

Subsequently, the division has initiated several mitigation interventions to address the conflict. “The greatest challenge faced by the Division is to strike a balance between elephant conservation and safeguarding livelihood of local communities,” the HWC report stated.

Managing HWC takes on many forms. These include the development of community- based insurance/relief schemes, fencing, trenches, deterrents (eg noise, lighting), and legal protocols for dealing with straying wildlife, active management of wildlife, community awareness, conflict hotspot mapping, deploying Quick Response Teams following conflict events, monitoring of results and studying the behavior and monitoring the movements of the GPS radio collared elephants.

“These actions can be grouped into six conflict management elements: policy, prevention, mitigation, understanding the conflict, response and monitoring,” the report stated.

A questionnaire survey was carried out to understand the extent of conflict including spatial and temporal patterns of HWC. In addition to the social survey, presence of elephants was also obtained by Global Positioning System (GPS), which later was used for hotspot mapping.

Rinzin Wangchuk | Gelephu