Bangladesh, once considered a safe haven for wild animals, now is struggling to protect Asian wild elephants amid shrinking habitats and lack of safe corridors for movement of the world's largest land animals.
The remaining 268 elephants have already been listed as a critically endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Elephants in the southeast coast of Cox’s Bazar, Northern Sherpur, north-central Jamalpur and north-eastern Moulvibazar districts and Chittagong hill tracts have seriously been facing manmade disturbance to their habitats and regional and trans-boundary movement, said experts and conservationists on the occasion of World Elephant Day on Thursday.
One-fourth of the country’s elephants are living in the Teknaf and Ukhiya sub-districts of Cox’s Bazar. And, following the arrival of Rohingya refugees in 2017 and subsequent human settlements in Cox’s Bazar, major elephant corridors are destroyed.
Infrastructural development causes shrining of habitats
Pavel Partha, an ecology and biodiversity conservation researcher, told the Anadolu Agency that the elephant corridor along the Myanmar border has been destroyed since the refugee influx, and there have been no measures to address the destruction.
Besides, “our infrastructure development is designed to meet the human interests and purposes," with no regard for issues affecting other living creatures in their natural habitat, he argued.
“Corridors are important as elephants use them for regional movement among forests, and reproduction activities. The corridors and free movement are needed for elephants’ mating, genetic mixing, and healthy generations,” he added.
There is no regular elephant census in the country, which is necessary for the giant creature's survival, he added.
Recently two elephants crossed into Bangladesh through the trans-boundary corridor and got stuck in Teknaf. However, both were rescued and released to habitants.
Raquibul Amin, country representative of IUCN Bangladesh, told Anadolu Agency that a major corridor out of 12 known corridors for elephant movement in Bangladesh has been closed due to the refugees’ settlement.
“About 40 elephants have become confined in the Teknak-Ukhiya forest area due to the blockage of the Ghumdhum corridor connecting habitats in Bangladesh and Myanmar since the 2017 influx,” he added.
The IUCN proposed opening a corridor through the Rohingya refugee settlement to allow elephants to move freely. "We need to have bilateral talks with Myanmar to remove the fence on the border and open the locked corridor for elephants’ movements," he said.
Meanwhile, a recently constructed rail link between Chattogram and Cox’s Bazar has destroyed several such corridors, endangering not only elephants but also many other animals in the region.
Both experts and conservationists advocated for multiple over and underpasses as it disrupts seven to eight regional corridors and routes.
Conflicts between humans and elephants are also a cause of concern. According to forest officials and reports, about 14 elephants were allegedly killed by falling into traps or being electrocuted, while another three were killed in unknown circumstances.
The majority of human-elephant conflicts have occurred when elephants entered villages in search of food and destroyed cropland.
“There have been reports of conflict between humans and elephants. In the coming days, such conflicts in the host community (in Cox's Bazar) will become more common," Raquibul Amin opined, suggesting, "We need to develop an elephant response and early warning system with the objective of lowering human-elephant conflicts."
The IUCN official suggested the capacity building of forest officials, local communities and district agencies to address the human-elephant conflict. “We have to nurture human-elephant coexistence to reduce such conflict,” he emphasized.
It is of utmost importance that the elephants' habitats are protected and special attention is given to preserving the remaining elephant corridors for safe movement of the elephants, the conservationist added.
Forest Department official Mihir Kumar Doe told Anadolu Agency that elephants used to travel along certain paths only. After the 2017 refugees’ influx, the routes from Chattogram via Cox's Bazar to Myanmar remained blocked, confining dozens of elephants in those routes.
“As elephant movement routes got blocked or damaged due to the Rohingya influx and some development work including the rail link across the region, therefore human-elephant conflicts have increased in recent years.”
“However, we have taken initiatives to mitigate those conflicts and set up elephant response teams so that those animals can be returned to their habitat if they accidentally take entry to villages,” he added.
The government has also increased compensation to victims and their families by up to three times, he said.
“The government has already taken a project called a ‘feasibility study of wildlife corridors in Chattogram, Cox’s Bazar and Hill tracts’ to research and identify the corridors of animals including elephants.”
They have conducted the last census in 2016. However, a project is waiting for the government approval in which they can conduct a survey on wild elephants, he said.
They will take conservation methods in line with the project's recommendation, the forest official said, adding that “the government also takes programs of forestation to protect the animal habitats.”