YK Poudel

Sarpang—Monsoon has just begun. Bushes are growing tall, electric fences have crumbled, and there is an increase in human activities.

The changing landscape visible on Google Earth shows an expansion of development activities, infrastructure development, and urban spaces both within and outside the border. This expansion has led to habitat fragmentation for wildlife species.

Shrinking habitat and foraging space have compelled giant species like elephants to venture closer to human settlements in search of food and shelter. This has led to an increase in human-elephant conflicts (HEC).

Data with forest range office (FRO), Gelephu, under the department of forest and park services (DoFPS) shows that all the gewogs have been impacted by wildlife depredation. Between 2020 and 2024, approximately 473 incidents were reported, with sightings predominantly occurring during nighttime hours.

Gelephu, Samtenling, Shompangkha, and Senggye gewogs are four prominent areas where elephants frequently visit, causing destruction to crops, houses, groceries, and vehicles. Two human deaths were also recorded, one each in 2022 and 2023.

Covering an area of 1,655 square kilometers (km²), Sarpang is home to a population of 49,472 people spread across 12 gewogs, boasting a forest cover of 88 percent.

Insufficient transboundary collaboration and initiatives between Bhutan and neighboring regions have hindered the attainment of a concrete solution to HEC.

According to the National Impact Assessment report of 2021, the main wild culprits responsible for crop loss were wild boar (34 percent), deer (25 percent), monkeys (18 percent), sambar deer (11 percent), and elephants and bears (6 percent).

Despite the challenges posed by HEC, people in affected areas avoid causing harm. When elephants come, villagers halt their movements and mobilise a response team to drive the elephants back into the forest, ensuring the safety of both humans and wildlife.

Thakur Prasad Homagai, 60, from Shompangkha, has lost over 600 areca nut trees.

“In recent years, I’ve stopped growing areca nuts due to the annual damages caused by elephants,” he said. “I tried to plant tak and agar saplings. Elephant depredation has prevented their growth as well.”

Fencing has been erected at various locations and entry points including river, and trenches are made, he added, but the elephants keep on intruding. 

Bhim Maya Subba from Samdrupling shared a story about an elephant attack and damage caused in September last year.

“We spent the night at our neighbour’s house after getting an alert message from a relative,” she said. “A group of 22 elephants demolished my house and destroyed everything.”

As monsoon approaches, she is in constant fear of elephant attacks.

Enhanced transboundary conservation initiatives could balance these issues, she said, helping secure habitats and migratory routes.

Rajiv Thapa from Southern Seedling Nursery said that there was no proper reporting channel. “Even after reporting the incidents, nothing much is done on the damage caused.”

“Installation of signboards at strategic locations and sustainable long-term financing system is crucial to address such issues,” he said.

Elephant conservation

Elephants (Elephas maximus) are found in southern plains and foothills adjoining the Indian borders.

The national elephant survey 2018 estimated 678 elephants in the country, increase from 513 in 2021 – spread across Samtse, Chukha, Dagana, Sarpang, Pemagatshel, and Samdrupjongkhar.

Considered the premier flagship and umbrella species, the three reserves—Royal Manas National Park, Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary (PWS), and Jomotshangkha Wildlife Sanctuary offers 1,600 Km² of protected habitat for elephant.

Culturally, elephants are a revered species across Asia; referred to as ‘meme rinpoche’ by the locals. Once widespread across Asia, elephants are now confined to isolated populations in 13 countries, namely Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Bhutan’s forests, predominantly situated in gentle slopes, are favored habitats for elephants due to their preference for such terrain and their high food requirements between 250 and 300 Kgs and over 200 litres of water a day.

An Asian elephant may require a vast home range covering from 200 to 400 Km² depending on availability of food and water resources in the habitat.

According to data, one habitat can sustain approximately 77 elephants. However, it’s vital to consider various factors such as habitat fragmentation, human-wildlife conflicts, and the overall health of the ecosystem when assessing the carrying capacity for elephant populations in a specific area.


Illegal logging, poaching, encroachment into elephant habitats and migratory routes along the border areas are a major cause of the HEC.

Fragmentation and habitat degradation will have adverse impacts on the elephant population. Between 2000 and 2024, a considerable area of forested land in India was turned into settlement.

Between 2000 and 2024, a considerable area of forested land in India was turned into settlement. With increasing HEC, the residents of major hotspots like Gelephu, Samtenling and Shompangkha gewogs voiced concerns, requesting compensation schemes and insurance schemes to reduce economic loss.

Residents have proposed establishing zoos in affected dzongkhags as a measure to mitigate human-wildlife conflicts or provide an alternative habitat for wild animals. “While, animal species are important for balancing the environment, effective solutions are timely,” said one farmer.

The residents expressed concern that without effective support from policymakers, Bhutan may eventually face a situation where only a few individuals remain in the agriculture sector, posing a significant challenge to food self-sufficiency.

A study from DoFPS reports that previous insurance schemes failed, as it did not cover the compensation for the damage caused by other wild animals.

“Seed money for insurance was Nu 0.5 million, which was taken back from farmers after three-years in 2019. The farmers were not satisfied with the insurance scheme as it was least effective,” the report stated.

The members of quick response teams (QRTs) were not given any incentive or allowance for the risky service.

Thakur Prasad Homagai highlighted the lack of incentives for QRT members, which has resulted in a waning interest among them to participate during incidents. “Whenever, a project is planned proper verification, needs-based study in consultation with the public and agencies involvement is required.”

Gelephu gup Prem Prasad Katel said that it was difficult to trace the actual landowners. “Thick bushes serve as hiding spots for elephants. Moreover, uncleared bushes hinder the effectiveness of electric fences.” 

Gewog thrizin, Kumar Gurung, emphasised the necessity of both compensation schemes and preventive measures to encourage farmers who depend on agriculture. “Farmers suggest conducting studies in areas requiring both chain-link fencing, solar and electric fencing for effective wildlife management.” 

To strengthen transboundary conservation, transboundary Manas conservation areas (TraMCA) and Kanchenjunga landscape development initiative (KLCDI) were initiated. But it failed since elephants were not taken as focal species as well as weak collaborative involvements.


On May 13, the natural resources and environment committee (NREC) of National Council (NC) convened a consultative meeting where compensation policies for human-wildlife conflicts and crop damages were discussed.

Challenges in establishing endowment funds, past failures, and issues with crop insurance schemes were shared by the finance secretary and a comprehensive discussion on the matter was proposed.

Chairperson of NREC, Ugyen Tshering said that the proposed mitigation strategies were electric fences, animal intrusion detection, and habitat restoration. “Between 2021 and 2023, a crop damage of 3,263,604.1 Kgs worth Nu 139,790.92 was recorded,” he said.

Mangmi of Shompangkha gewog, Ash Man Rai, said that electric fences supplemented by a trench proved effective. “No severe elephant incursions were reported at Norbugang, a prone area in 2023.”

Senior forest officer at FRO, Gelephu, Tashi Wangdi, said that the erstwhile Ministry of Agriculture and Forest in 2022 issued a circular directing that dzongkhag should carry out projects related to HEC. “Since then, the FRO in Gelephu had been assisting the local communities in mitigating the risk of property damage and loss of life.”

The prime months of elephant visitation are June (about 150), July (about 200) and August (about 150).

“The FRO and dzongkhag administration constructed electric fencing spanning 27.5km in various locations. Once the project is handed over to the gewog and public, the fences are not cared,” Tashi Wangdi said.

Initially, the crop loss after installation of electric fences was reduced: for example, the elephant depredation, which was 7.7 percent with yield loss of 14,851 Kgs per year reduced to 5.3 percent—a yield loss of 2,340 Kgs.

A QRT had been formed in three prominent gewogs. To drive the elephants, QRTs used devices called BICATS, firecrackers provided by the Royal Bhutan Army, and powerful torches that can reach up to 720 metres.

Between 2020 and 2022, the DoFPS initiated a trial project titled “Paradigm Shift: From human-elephant conflict to human-elephant co-existence”, supported by WWF Bhutan. Over 170-acres of land was cleared to reduce elephant hideouts, along with habitat enrichment through plantation of bamboos and bananas.

Tashi Wangdi highlighted the importance of restoring and establishing waterholes to ensure that wildlife, especially elephants, have access to water during dry seasons. Additionally, salt licks were established in 17 identified locations in Sarpang.

He said that 30 solar animal intrusion detection and repellent system (ANIDERS) devices were installed to prevent elephants from venturing into human settlements. “Initially, the devices were effective in alerting people. However, its effectiveness is reduced in areas with thick bush coverage.” 

Future solutions

The 33rd session of NC has scheduled a review on compensation related policy for human-wildlife-conflict and crop damages.

Tashi Wangdi said that wildlife has shared a long history of co-existence and are a part of the mindfulness city with corridors and networks of connectivity. 

“The dzongkhag administration will implement the ACCESS project funded by the World Bank. USD 50,000 has been outlaid focusing on surveying elephant corridors,” Tashi Wangdi said. “The one-year project will identify the routes elephants use for movement across the dzongkhag, facilitating better management and conservation efforts.” 

Japan Social Development Fund is financing a three-year project titled ‘Securing Livelihood and Wildlife Conservation through reduced human-wildlife-conflict in Sarpang dzongkhag’. The USD 3 million project is expected to enhance livelihood protection of the local communities in Sarpang.

“Restoration of the wildlife habitat and movement corridors of elephants, capacity building of local communities and government officials to reduce HEC and promoting conservation measures are the key focus,” the project details states.

All agencies, he said, especially, Bhutan Power Corporation Limited, DoR, DoA, forestry divisions, policy makers and farmers should share data, stay updated and work together.

The Forest and Nature Conservation Act of Bhutan 1995 protects all animal species. Elephant is listed under Schedule I species.

Article five of the Constitution states that every Bhutanese is a trustee of natural resources and environment.

The Elephant Conservation Action Plan for Bhutan 2018-2028, with a total outlay of Nu 440 million, it is aimed at enhancing coordination among agencies and transboundary partners to effectively conserve elephants. The plan focuses on several key objectives, including preventing habitat loss, reducing HEC, addressing emerging diseases, and combating illegal activities that threaten elephant populations.

The HEC Strategy 2022-2028 has been developed to strengthen coordination, information sharing, and joint patrolling with counterparts across the Indo-Bhutan border.

Globally, with numbers below 50,000, elephant is listed as an endangered species under the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.

This story was supported through a grant from GRID-Arendal and the Vanishing Treasures Programme