West Bengal: Wild elephant attacks and the human dilemma Residents of Ghar Salbani say they are spending days in terror

08, Jul 2021 | Mohammed Ripon Sheikh

In the seventies, Rajesh Khanna starrer Haathi Mere Saathi had created a magical image for many Indians, especially children. The emotional relationship between a human and an elephant, living in the forest, was endearing. However, real life is far removed from the fantasy woven on celluloid. Forest dwelling elephants are wild creatures, as wild as the tiger, in fact, dwell as they do like neighbours in the jungle, the way nature intended.

Now, as urbanisation forces human traffic, and dwellings, closer to the forest areas, it disturbs both the flora and fauna to whom the forest rightfully belongs. A case in point is West Bengal, where elephant human conflict often makes it to the local news. I recently read that the people of Garh Salbani area of Jhargram district of West Bengal were restless because of wild elephants. According to the locals, they have been virtually locked in their houses, as ‘stray’ wild elephants are regularly ‘attacking houses and crops’. The locals have termed this “torture” by stray elephants, and claim that it is increasing by the day. The nights are a bigger threat for the villagers of Jhargram who have to stay alert, even after keeping a lookout in the day time for wild herds.

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I had to see the situation myself, and went to Jhargram in West Midnapore, West Bengal. The distance from Kolkata to Jhargram is 189 km, from Jamshedpur it is 98 kilometers, from Medinipur 40 kilometers, and it is only 48 kilometers from Kharagpur. Jhargram is connected to NH46 Highway, and its red soil is distinctive, the jungle air is fragrant with mahua flowers when in season. There is a diverse tribal population, with Santhals being the best known. The locals are rightfully proud of the natural beauty that surrounds them. The area is bordered by Belpahari and Kankrajhor hills in the North, and the Subarnarekha River in the South. Its northern borders are Purulia and Bankura districts and on the East, there is the Kangsabati River. It shares the state borders with Jharkhand and Orissa and is visited by many tourists. Most come to spend some rejuvenating time in the natural beauty of its forests, see the ancient palaces, temples and listen to the tunes of Santali songs.

But what about the wild elephants?

According to the locals the ‘elephant’ problem seems to haunt them. A road runs through the forest. I walked in and almost felt ‘lost’ in a mesmerising way. The deep forest was full of natural beauty, all I could hear was the call of birds all around, to me it seemed similar to the music the tribals played as soon as evening fell, everything was full of joy.  Yet in the midst of this joy I did see panic in the eyes of the villagers. This panic was the result of elephant attack, which they say can be without warning. The problem is worse in the summer, but has continued this year even during the rains.

Here are a few pictures showcasing how close elephants venture to human habitations and the damage they leave in their wake:

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Ashok Mahato, a resident of Salbani area, says, “Elephants have been spotted in the Salboni area since the 1980s, when they used to stay within the forest and eat herbs and leaves. However now many elephant herds are leaving the forest and entering the village, causing severe damage.” According to Mahato, the elephants are entering the village because they are facing “a famine in the forest.” Elephants have been attacking continuously for almost three months, killing about three people in one week, claimed the villagers. They say many people are not able to leave their homes after dusk, and even those who keep livestock cannot go to the fields for fear of wild elephants.

What happens when someone is killed by a wild elephant?

In case of death due to elephant attack, the administration pays compensation of Rs 5 lakh, a local told me. However, Mahato feels residents of the Salbani area cannot continue like this? “I can’t live in peace, I have asked the administration many times to solve the problem but the problem has not been solved,” he says, adding, “When the stray elephants enter the village, our houses are destroyed, fields and gardens are severely damaged and the administration just gives us forms but not compensation!”

I leave the place with many questions and no answers yet. Who is responsible for this elephant human conflict? They have, after all, existed peacefully for centuries. The road went into the elephant’s forest home, and the elephant took the road to enter human homes.

This report is part of CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship Program, and has been written by researcher Ripon Sheikh, who is travelling around rural Bengal, tracking and documenting social and cultural movements of indigenous people. 

Meet CJP Grassroot Fellow Mohammed Ripon Sheikh

This young man, who has graduated with a B.Sc degree from Burdwan University, loves trivia. Sheikh’s passion to research and seek “unknown information about World History” has earned him many medals and trophies at various University and state-level Quiz championships, and youth festivals. Sheikh is a born orator and a natural community leader. He has the potential to represent his community, state and country at a global level one day. His immediate goal, however, is to find a job so he can support his parents.



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