The recent tragedy in Gelephu where a herd of elephants trampled a man to death has left many disturbed.
For a country that has been widely acclaimed for balancing conservation and development, the unfortunate incident calls for some serious intervention to address an old problem our people have been living with.
The elephants took away the sole bread earner of a family of four children and wife. For foresters who have been patrolling the areas for months, this incident has come as a huge setback.
As is usually the case with us, many will promptly launch and engage in a blame game. But there is an urgency to understand the issue in depth to intervene with sustainable solutions.
This is not the first time wildlife has invaded human settlements and claimed lives. However, this is the first case where a life was lost so close to a major commercial hub.
Elephant-human conflict in the dzongkhag has a long history and Gelephu has been a home to the elephants. It used to be called Hati Sahar. More than 30 elephants migrate from Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary to Gelephu every fall and return in winter. Records show that the country is home to 678 Asian elephants.
Gelephu residents are aware of how much habitat the endangered pachyderm has lost in recent years to the airport, town expansion and a new distillery. Construction activities have boomed as we encroached further into the elephants’ habitat. The revered and endangered beasts have suffered range loss and population decline due to habitat fragmentation and poaching.
Infrastructure development such as new settlement planning, roads, and agriculture expansion block migratory routes or convert their feeding grounds. A forest study has found such incidences evident in the southern district of Samtse and Sarpang.
The situation would only aggravate along the southern dzongkhags if development planning does not account for the needs of the elephants.
The least local governments could do for now is to caution residents to avoid using the route of elephants. There is a need for residents close to the elephant habitats to be aware of safety measures. These beasts would not attack humans unless provoked but when they trample over crops and homes, people become desperate.
Their cries for help have so far not been heard or addressed adequately. And as is often the case in Bhutan, it takes a death or the involvement of someone influential to prompt authorities into action.
We have for long talked about balancing conservation with livelihood concerns. The rampant human-wildlife conflict reported across the country has raised questions on whether Bhutan is over conserving. Against the plight of farmers who guard their fields for months, some still harbour a belief that it is a privilege to feed the wild.
But this incident is proof that we have not been successful in striking a balance between development and conservation. That we are not living in harmony with nature but living a nurtured construct.