Encounters between Rohingya refugees and elephants are all too frequent in Cox’s Bazar. Although this contact initially led to the tragic losses of some lives, the elephants and the refugees have maintained an uneasy but peaceful coexistence in recent years.
The Ukhiya-Ghumdhum corridor, a stretch about 4.35km long and 1.13km wide, is part of the migration path for one of the last remaining herds of wild Asian elephants. It has also been hosting at least 19 Rohingya refugee camps since 2017.
Elephants frequently use this passage to move from Ukhiya Reserve Forest to Myanmar through Naikhongchari Reserve Forest, and vice versa.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Forest Department, at least 12 Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshis were killed in elephant attacks in the corridor in the six months from August 2017 to January 2018. Locals claim as many as 22 people were killed over the period.
After conducting a survey of the elephant attacks, the Forest Department, UNHCR and IUCN took measures to raise awareness of the issue among the local population. Since then, there have been around 500 encounters between humans and elephants in the area, but none have led to the loss of any lives.
To mitigate the human-elephant conflict in the Rohingya camps and surrounding areas, the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR and IUCN formed an elephant response team in 2018 and trained 884 people as elephant volunteers. They also constructed 99 elephant watch towers inside the Rohingya camps to protect lives and households, and also avoid harm to the elephants.
“This team has successfully tackled more than 500 elephant encounters inside the Rohingya camps without causing any damage to life and property,” Mohammad Sultan Ahmed, senior program officer, human elephant mitigation, IUCN, told Dhaka Tribune recently.
How does the team conduct its activities?
To mark the movement of wild elephants, the volunteers guard from watchtowers at night with powerful torches and searchlights. When they see any elephants, they give signals to other nearby watchtowers.
Trained volunteers then come out with torches and loudspeakers, using them to direct the elephants back into the forest.
Several dummies of big elephants made of bamboo and cloth are used to train the volunteers on how to respond to an elephant.
In some parts of the country, such as Sherpur and other districts, people use fireworks and sharp weapons to make obstacles when encountering wild elephants, which usually results in harm to both the animals and humans.
An official of IUCN told this correspondent: “If a tiger gets angry, it can damage one person at a time. If an elephant gets angry, it can cause much more damage and casualties than a tiger. That’s why we use a safer way to mitigate human-elephant conflicts in the Rohingya camps.”
According to a publication by IUCN, titled ‘Status of Asian elephants in Bangladesh’, published in 2016, there are 268 wild elephants in Bangladesh and almost 40 of them are in the Cox’s Bazar south forest.