Fatal elephant attacks on Rohingya refugees push Bangladesh to act

Young boy becomes latest in series of casualties at Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar, which lies on migration route long used by elephants

Bangaldesh has pledged to step up its response to a series of deadly elephant attacks at a refugee camp housing hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees after a 12-year-old boy was trampled to death.

Shamsu Uddin died instantly when an elephant attacked him after he had fallen asleep while guarding paddy fields with friends in Uttar Shilkhali village in the coastal town of Cox’s Bazar.

Three days later, a young girl was critically injured when elephants attacked Nayapara refugee camp, to the south of Cox’s Bazar.

Both attacks occurred outside Kutupalong, temporary home to 700,000 Rohingya refugees. The rising number of fatal elephant attacks – at least a dozen in the six months from October 2017 – tell a wider, tragic story of how deforestation, monsoons and the refugee crisis have left some of the world’s most vulnerable people at the mercy of wild animals.

Crowded together on a bare hillside at the mercy of the approaching rainy season, residents of the sprawling Kutupalong camp – mainly Rohingya muslims who have fled a brutal campaign of violence in Myanmar in August – already live in difficult conditions. But it also sits on several important migration corridors between Myanmar and Bangladesh that elephants have used for centuries.

This year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) began a programme to raise awareness, setting up 56 watchtowers and 30 volunteer elephant response teams to warn residents when elephants enter the camp. As part of the initiative, people are made aware of what they should do if they encounter an elephant.

Rohingya refugees at the Kutupalong refugee camp are trained in how to deal with an elephant encounter
Rohingya refugees at the Kutupalong camp are trained in how to deal with an elephant encounter. Photograph: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images

Since January, the response teams, working with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, have successfully intervened in up to six incidents, all in Kutupalong, the IUCN said.

But the new attacks mean the programme will need to be expanded.

“We were quite surprised to hear a report of an elephant attack in Nayapara,” said Caroline Gluck, a UNHCR spokeswoman n Cox’s Bazar. “We wanted to get the teams up and running, because this is the period we expect elephant attacks.”

The imminent rainy season will bring storms, typhoons and mudslides that humanitarian groups have warned about for months.

The UNHCR is expanding the refugee camp westwards in order to relocate families at risk of landslides and floods, but the move will also put them closer to where most of the elephant populations reside. With harvest season looming, the rains will also bring elephants from the forest closer to human settlements in search of food, said Gluck. “We will have to expand the elephant response teams in there,” she said.

Raquibul Amin, the IUCN’s Bangladesh country representative, said efforts would be tailored accordingly. “Now, we only work in Kutupalong,” said Amin. “We found out that the elephants are mostly on the western side of the Kutupalong camp. But, when we see the incidents in the smaller camps, we will expand our work.”

In February, the IUCN released a report showing the attack sites and recommending a programme of partnership with the UN refugee agency to tackle the problem. It is estimated that there are up to 45 elephants active in the area.

“The elephants are just trying to find a way though the corridor,” said Amin. “Elephants respond to emotions. If you are stressed, they get stressed and people can respond with firecrackers or throwing stones. The response team tries to form a human shield and peacefully lead the elephants back to the forest.

“When there is a population of 700,000, it is a big task. But we will try.”

Asian elephants are a critically endangered species in Bangladesh, numbering just 268, according to the IUCN.

Parts of India face a similar situation, with shrinking habitats bringing wild animals and humans into fatal conflict. An estimated 1,144 people were killed between April 2014 and May last year in elephant and tiger attacks alone, according to India’s Ministry of Environment and Forest.

With the growth of Asian populations creating putting ever greater pressure on resources, conservationists believe the problem is likely to get worse. Experts have recommended that countries create safe passages and sanctuaries for wildlife.

Dinakar Peri is a reporter with the Hindu newspaper, based in Delhi


Karen McVeigh and Dinakar Peri

The GuardianTramp

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