Indian forest rangers urge toilet construction to avoid death by elephants

Wildlife officials in the Indian state of West Bengal have called for the construction of toilets to be accelerated to avoid situations where villagers defecating in the forest spark dangerous aggression by surprised elephants.

A forest elephant in Kerala, India (N.A. Naseer/Creative Commons)

Although fatal human-elephant encounters (HECs) are decreasing over the long term across India, in West Bengal changing migratory patterns are exacerbating an age-old problem. Elephants killed 108 people in the state in 2015-2016, and injured 95 others, while 14 elephants were killed in retaliation.

Range officers are pushing for construction of toilets under the state’s "Nirmal Bangla" programme, which seeks to eradicate water borne diseases by ending the practice of open defecation.

In West Bengal minimising HECs has become an important auxiliary goal of the public health scheme.

"We are working in a concerted manner so that the Nirmal Bangla Scheme is implemented involving Divisional Forest Officers so that all villages close to forests have toilets," Chief Wildlife Warden and Principal Chief Conservator of Forests Pradeep Vyas told Indian news service IANS.

The goal is for all hamlets to be Open Defecation Free zones by October 2, 2019.

"There are several deaths that happen early in the morning when people go out to the fringes of villages to defecate," divisional forest officer R.N. Saha for the the Midnapore district, told IANS. "Out of 18 human deaths (mostly accidental) in 2016 in West Midnapore, four or five can be attributed to open defecation. We are spreading the message among people to avoid this habit and at the same time pushing for toilet construction in all houses."

There is still some way to go to reach the target. In another district, of around a million households, some 412,000 were still without access to toilets, another official told IANS.

India’s elephant population has come under pressure from a loss of forest cover, but since the mid-1980s migratory herds from neighbouring Jharkhand state began migrating south to West Bengal, resulting in a rise in HECs.

"They used to come in small numbers and gradually their numbers increased (30 at a time)," said forest officer R.N. Saha. "Subsequently, their range also expanded. Currently, 130 elephants are roaming in this area. They stay in Bengal for most part the year and go back to Jharkhand only for about a month."

In October 2014 Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a national programme to build toilets to reduce the widespread practice of open defecation.

Image: A forest elephant in Kerala, India (N.A. Naseer/Creative Commons)

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