Biodiversity and sustainability go hand in hand and Decentralized Renewable Energy (DRE) technologies have become the new medium to achieve it. Organizations across India are using DRE technologies innovatively to mitigate the biodiversity crisis. Here is a story about how a CLEAN member, Aaranyak, is creating a strong impact through its work in the North-East region of India.
The state of Assam, once a stronghold of the Asian elephant population, now finds itself challenged by rapidly increasing human-elephant confrontations. With shrinking habitats for the huge mammal, changing land-use patterns, urbanization, and an increasing human population, the undesirable human-elephant interactions have frequently caused major damages.
Instances such as crop and property damages, loss of human lives, retaliatory killings, and poaching all are exasperating the human-elephant conflict. Almost always, the affected people are poverty-stricken farmers living in remote villages living by the edges of forests. With their lives and crops under constant threat, they get infuriated about elephants and their reverence for them gradually ceases. This negative attitude towards elephants undermines wildlife conservation efforts to safeguard the species.
As per the state government’s estimate, about 750 people and 250 elephants died of unnatural causes in Assam during 2010-2018, due to the human-elephant conflict. In 2019 alone, approximately 75 human and 60 elephant deaths were reported from the state.
Of these unnatural elephant deaths, cases of human-induced elephant deaths, using illegal electric fencing, powered through mains or high-tension sagging wires is constantly rising. There are also instances of human deaths when people have accidentally bumped into these fences. These illegal electric fences are found installed mostly in areas that have a history of crop-raiding and human deaths.
Aaranyak, an environment and biodiversity conservation organization, has been studying human-elephant conflict across Assam for a decade. In 2014, Aaranyak initiated a dialogue with a local community named Subankhata residing in the eastern part of the Manas Tiger Reserve. The purpose was to convince local communities to convert their illegal electric fences into solar-powered electric fences that are non-fatal.
Aaranyak’s persistent engagement with the community paid off. With active participation from the villagers, a 14-kilometer-long fence was erected on the forest edge. This has benefitted about 1,000 households as well as approximately 100-odd elephants that inhabit the area. Six years down the line, the fences are still functional and no incidents of elephant or human deaths have occurred in the area ever since.
In the following years, more such solar-powered fences were installed with improvised techniques. A total of 24.5 km of solar-powered electric fences were erected at two sites in Baksa district and 7.5 km in Nagaon district with support from the United States Fish & Wildlife Service, and Elephant Family India Foundation.
These consolidated efforts by Aaranyak have benefitted approximately 10,000 households in Assam. The fences are erected in a manner that they encompass villages without hampering the passage of elephants, thus fostering coexistence with humans. Earlier, most men used to go out at night during peak crop seasons, to guard their crops against wild elephant herds. The prolonged deprivation of sleep often had a negative impact on their health and social life.
Today, after the installation of solar-powered electric fences, their crops and houses are secure. They now spend peaceful nights and have diverted their energies towards productive activities.