In north Bengal, a hotbed of human-elephant conflict, crop-raiding is more prevalent in areas that are on the boundary of protected areas, close to agricultural fields, forests, plantations, and areas close to water sources such as rivers.
Eighty-eight percent of the crop raids coincided with the harvesting of paddy and maize, two of the most commonly consumed crops in the landscape.
Presence of haaria (local rice beer) breweries in north Bengal also drives conflict because elephants are attracted to the pungent smell of the fermented liquor.
Elephants in north Bengal are more likely to raid crops in areas with a matrix of agriculture, forests, riverine patches, tea plantations and peripheries of protected areas, a study has said.
North Bengal in the foothills of eastern Himalayas supports less than two percent of India’s total elephant population. Still, it accounts for almost 12 percent of all human deaths caused by elephants in the country, according to the Right of Passage report. The region reported nearly five-hundred fatal attacks on humans by elephants in the last 15 years.
Dipanjan Naha of Wildlife Institute of India and team investigated the spread of crop-raids in this conflict hotspot from January 2017 to December 2019, spanning all seasons of the year. The researchers found that 88 percent of the events happened from July to February — coinciding with the harvesting of paddy and maize, which are two of the most commonly consumed crops in the landscape.
In the neighbouring state of Assam, this crop-raiding peak occurs between August and December.
“Both landscapes are fairly similar; it would be abnormal if these similarities were not observed. The raiding patterns coincide with the agricultural patterns of the area. Crop fields provide easy nutrition to elephants and in a fragmented landscape, they supplement their diets as well. When there are no viable crops during the summer, the elephants rely on the food inside the forest areas,” Naha told Mongabay-India.
“Elephants are either browsers or grazers; in grassland ecosystems they prefer to graze while in dense evergreen forests they browse. But, these areas are not large enough to sustain these populations all through the year,” said Naha.
The study site, also called the Dooars, is spread across five districts of north West Bengal state (Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Jalpaiguri, Alipurduar, and Coochbehar) and encompasses an area of 12,700 square km. Two of the primary causes of human-elephant conflict (HEC) in north Bengal are crop-raiding and property damage, according to a 2019 study by Naha. The 2017 census lists the number of elephants in north Bengal as 488.
A total of three national parks and two wildlife sanctuaries are located in the foothills of the Dooars landscape, while four protected areas are above 1,000-metre in the mountains.