The elephant whisperer of Nepal
When I arrived in February, Bahundangi in Jhapa seemed like a sleepy little town, but the quiet was often interrupted, not by traffic or noisy construction, but by wild elephants. The village is on the migratory route of generations of wild elephants that have been moving for centuries from Assam, through the lowlands of Bhutan and West Bengal to Nepal in search of food and water.
However, the recent expansion of settlements and conversion of forest to agricultural land and tea estates have fragmented these routes, leading to conflict between elephants and people. Each year, this conflict results in destruction of crops and dwellings, human injury and death, and retaliatory killing of elephants. Bahundangi was particularly affected by this conflict, but things have changed over the years, thanks to a handful of conservationists including Shankar Chettri Luitel.
He is a slender man in his fifties, with a sombre demeanor but a helpful disposition. He had been voluntarily working for over two decades on research and management of human-elephant conflict. Luitel had a wealth of information about the area, the history of human-wildlife contact, but I could not put a finger on why he was so passionate about elephant conservation.
“The first time I got emotionally involved with elephants was when an elephant gave birth on my farm in 2001. That’s how my conservation journey began,” Luitel explained.
Human wellbeing depends on biodiversity. However, activities intended to make our lives better are negatively affecting nature and ecosystems, threatening the future of biodiversity and our very existence. It is thus critical that we find ways for humans and nature to coexist.
This year’s International Day of Biological Diversity celebrates the idea of coexistence with the theme ‘Building a shared future for all life’. This may seem romantic and farfetched, but I realised that it is possible because of this unsung hero: Shankar Chettri Luitel.
It was my PhD research on human-wildlife interaction that took me to Bahundangi, a small town in Nepal's easternmost plains bordering India, a part of the transboundary Kangchenjunga Landscape that spans parts of Bhutan, India, and Nepal.
Despite little or no formal training in wildlife, Luitel got voluntarily involved in numerous studies, activities and plans to manage conflict in the area, where he learned much about biodiversity and conservation.
Read also: How humans can live with wild elephants, Sheren Shrestha and Gokarna Jung Thapa
In time, Luitel was the go-to person for researchers hoping to learn about migrating elephants, their habitat, behaviour, and the socioeconomic impact of human-wild elephant contact. He provided critical insights into planning and managing, and this involvement also helped him learn scientific methods, such as the use of GPS tracking to monitor migratory patterns. He had become a true citizen scientist.
Luitel now has a reputation as an elephant expert, making the community aware of wild elephant whereabouts and movement. Contrary to what I expected, the people here seemed tolerant of wild elephants.
“It wasn’t always like this,” Luitel recalled. “People used to hate elephants, and they hated us too for trying to protect them.”
His advocacy for peaceful measures to manage wild elephants used to be met with fierce resistance, even physical threats. Elephants were the sworn enemy of the locals of Bahundangi because they pillaged crops, destroyed livelihoods, and even injured and killed people.
But over time, Luitel’s relentless efforts started to change people’s perceptions. He tracked their movement, organising patrols, and recording property damage in the village. More importantly, Luitel helped affected families navigate the complicated process of claiming compensation, from writing applications on their behalf to collecting documentary evidence, and travelling to the municipality office to register the claims himself.
Video: SHANKAR CHETTRI LUITEL
He and a few of his colleagues were the reason why the village appeared on the radar of governments, politicians, and researchers. “Bahundangi has produced many PhDs,” says Luitel who has helped researchers develop strategies to reduce risk and diversify the income of farmers by planting cash crops such as bay leaf and tea that the elephants did not raid. “These days, the locals are not as hostile towards elephants and us anymore.”
There is an 18-km long electric fence along the Mechi River, between the forested tracts in India where the elephants come from and the crop fields in Bahundangi. Luitel was involved in building this fence, designed to keep the elephants out.
But Luitel admits that it is only a temporary solution. Eventually, he says, the only way is co-existence. For this, he feels that the government must recognise the struggles of the people of Bahundangi, provide subsidised healthcare and education, and create jobs.
That way locals would not see the wild elephants as a threat to their livelihood, but as leverage to secure services from the government. This would make it easier for them to forgive wild elephants even if they occasionally caused trouble. Furthermore, elephants could be part of ecotourism in the area, which would effectively convert their presence and movement into an income generation opportunity.
Today, Luitel is the only person in Mechi Municipality who can identify all 12 elephants that live on the Nepal side of the border. Based on this knowledge, he is developing information sheets that detail the physical features, habits, and size of each elephant, accompanied by images, for distribution to locals.
The fliers help villagers identify certain elephants that are aggressive, so that they can avoid them and warn others in time. The information also helps future researchers and students learn about the elephants. Luitel’s son is studying for a bachelor’s degree in forestry, and he hopes his education will help in human-elephant coexistence.
It is easy to understand Shankar Chhetri Luitel’s passion for learning to live with wild elephants – he believes that all lives on Earth are equal. He personifies the International Biodiversity Day theme for this year, and he is proof of how one person can bring positive change in the lives of humans and wildlife.
There is a lesson here for all of us, on how each one of us can help solve the mammoth (!) crisis of biodiversity and habitat loss. We can co-exist, and we must.
Biraj Adhikari is a Research Fellow, Ecosystem Services at ICIMOD.
Read more: Nepal’s wild elephants are also on the move, Salik Ram Chaudhary