Human-elephant conflict of Jhapa

I came to Jhapa on March 22, 2003, to meet Andrew and Liz before heading to a Peace Corps meeting in nearby Biratnagar. With my school busying giving exams and not enough time in Birganj to begin working on future projects, I decided I would take the long bus trip out east to see greener parts of Nepal, notably Jhapa district.

Drew and Liz are working on a project they call the Human–Elephant Conflict Resolution Program, which is initiative they started to research solutions to the problems in Bhoundegi, Jhapa district. Around 200 elephants cross seasonally into Nepal from Assam, India, and through this village.

Wild elephants eat crops, destroy homes, and are dangerous. One man, Andrew told me, was eaten.

Liz saw a man in her hospital whose ear had been torn off. He was sleeping and an elephant reached into his home and grabbed him by the ear, probably thinking he was food, and threw him around a bit.

Basically, the elephants are trouble.

Andrew read in the Economist about an idea that a man named Fritz Vollrath had tested in Africa where bees were kept near hathi batos.

Andrew previews the newspaper in Birtamod

Andrew scans the Kathmandu Post in the Birtamod bazaar.

When the elephants came, they’d disturb the African bees. The bees would then attack the elephants, stinging eyes, ears, and other sensitive areas. The elephants learned and remembered that bees were living in the area and avoided them, altering their routes.

Brilliant, I thought, but it’s complicated. African bees are larger and their stings are stronger. African bees are also more aggressive than the two bee types found in Nepal: Himalayan and European. Other ideas have been discussed, such as planting hathi bhar, an enormous thorned plant.

Locals were also considering killing all the elephants. One person suggested that the community purchase a camel. His logic was that the camel would fight the elephants and scare them away. He was joking. He must have been.

Andrew and Liz were going with a bee keeper to another village that was having problems with small groups of local elephants. Andrew and Liz were hoping to see some elephants there. I didn’t want to miss the chance to see wild elephants marauding through a village, so I took the back seat and invited myself along.

Around two hours from Birtamod and around 10 km northwest of Itahari, the village of Belbari was tranquil and scenic, worlds away from the dusty cities along the nearby East-West Highway.

We walked from the highway north for about half an hour when wood homes built upon stilts began sporadically appearing and were met by some locals.

An elephant out of place in Kathmandu

An Asian Elephant in front of the Hotel Ambassador in Kathmandu.

Once we had introduced ourselves and meet a few members of the VDC, we went to Kumar Raj’s home, a bee keeper in the area who was our host for the night. He gave us tea and we sat and talked for a while, mostly about the elephant problems of the village and Andrew explained his ideas.

After resting for a while, Kumar Raj took us on a walk through farmlands and past homes damaged by wild elephants. Even though I’ve been around elephants in Nepal before, I’m always surprised at how large they are.

The village children followed us on our walk and played as we stopped and talked. One kid jumped into a single footprint, depressed nearly a foot into the ground.

Later, we watched the Kumar Raj and his son gather fish and vegetables for the evening meal. The hospitality of the Nepali people is great, and so is their compulsion to feed strangers meat.

The family kept a small tank near a public tap stocked with catfish of some sort, but also caught some in the nearby stream by taking a rod and running current into the water, killing small fish as they swam downstream. I’d never seen that before.

We had been told that if the elephants came that they would come from between 7–12 p.m. It was also possible that the elephants could come in the wee hours of the morning as well.

Kumar Raj’s son showed us a long pole, around 15 feet, with a torch attached to the end, ignited and waved at the elephants. Standing 15 feet away from and elephant while waiving burning fire in its face couldn’t be safe.

My excitement was mixing with anxiety.

Andrew climbs a tree for dinner

Andrew picks fruit off a tree for a snack while in Belbari, Jhapa.

After we’d eaten, we sat upstairs on the balcony, looking out onto Kumar Raj’s corn and grass fields. The lights around Kumar Raj’s house didn’t extend far—even the tap just across the street was concealed in darkness.

The family assured us that if a couple elephants stormed up to the house in the middle of the night then we would know it. We sat together, talked about elephants, ate some honey, and tried to stay awake as long as possible. Finally at 11 p.m. we went to sleep.

Then in the middle of the night I woke up to Andrew jumping out of bed. I was awake before Liz, who groggily muttered in the darkness, Hello?

I saw Andrew peering out the window and I heard a rumbling in the distance. The noise steadily came from the far distance and I got out of bed for a moment to listen as well.

It came from the north, the direction the elephants would come. I was too groggy to really be worried, as well as being skeptical that we’d see elephants.

And we didn’t. After anxiously peering out of the window for half an hour, we saw an oxen cart slowing coming into some distant light. Why some farmer was pulling a cart full of hay through the middle of town at 2 a.m. is beyond me.

We all giggled at our own foolishness and slept well through to the morning when we got up, rested but disappointed; we realized that what chance we’d had to see wild elephants was gone.

Over tea, some basic arrangements were made to test the bee theory in Belbari in the subsequent weeks. Before we pushed off for Biratnagar, the family asked us for our addresses, which we all gave, and then reiterated that they didn’t want us to forget them, asking us to promise that we’d return again.

I know that as long as wild elephants are around, Andrew and Liz will be, too.