Elephants face ‘time bomb’ in Bangladesh land clash with Rohingya refugees

Young Rohingya refugees play at Balukhali refugee camp in Ukhia on February 4, 2019. (P / MUNIR UZ ZAMAN)
Updated 07 February 2019

Elephants face ‘time bomb’ in Bangladesh land clash with Rohingya refugees

  • Rohingyas encamped along Bangladesh's borders are blocking a migration path for elephants
  • At least 13 Rohingya refugees had been killed by elephants in the past six months

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh: Standing atop an elephant watch-tower on the outskirts of the sprawling Rohingya refugee settlement in southeast Bangladesh, Nur Islam takes great pride in keeping his people safe.
Dressed in a uniform of blue T-shirt, navy trousers and a neon yellow vest, Islam is one of 570 Rohingya on the Elephant Response Team, known locally as the tusk force, who are on duty every night to look out for elephants coming into the camps.
After about 730,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar into Bangladesh 18 months ago and set up camp, they realized they were not only at risk from monsoons and cyclones but also elephants, as they were blocking a migration path, with 13 people killed in six months.
Raquibul Amin, Bangladesh representative for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), said as a quick fix in February 2018 they built 95 towers and trained a team to watch, raise the alarm and guide elephants out of camps.
He said in the past year the all-male response team, who are paid to work, had steered elephants away from the former nature reserve on at least 50 occasions with no more fatalities.
But now 18 months into the crisis, Amin said it was becoming important to find a longer-term solution as the elephants were confined to a shrinking forest area, and needed an alternative corridor to move freely to find food or conflicts could resume.
“They are in a time bomb, a slow paced time bomb where not a very bright future is waiting for them,” Amin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka.
“It should be OK for some time but they are now in a small area and will start inbreeding ... and food could be an issue.”
Islam, 32, said he had been involved in stopping about 18 elephant incursions into some of the camps located from 40 km (25 miles) south of the beachside town of Cox’s Bazar that now make up the world’s largest refugee settlement.

Route to freedom
More than 900,000 mainly Muslim Rohingya now live in the camps after the 2017 exodus, which followed an offensive by Myanmar’s military that the United Nations has described as “ethnic cleansing.”
With the influx, swathes of forest were cut down to make space and build shelters, threatening biodiversity, including the endangered Asian elephant. Its numbers have shrunk to about 50,000 globally, due largely to habitat loss, according to WWF.
The IUCN estimates there are about 268 surviving elephants in Bangladesh, of which about 15 percent, or 35-45, live around the sprawling Rohingya camp area.
Kutupalong, the largest refugee camp, was well known as a corridor for elephants moving between Myanmar and Bangladesh in winter to find food and shelter, breaking obstacles in their way which led to human conflicts.
Islam, who arrived in Cox’s Bazar with his wife and two children, said he was not scared of elephants, although others were, so he stepped forward to be on the elephant team.
The project, a joint venture between IUCN and the UN refugee agency UNHCR, received so many applicants that they held a 100-meter running race to choose the fittest candidates.
Islam said his job was to keep watch at night and if he saw an elephant to call team members on duty in other watch-towers who would come to help drive the elephant out of the camp using megaphones and a high-powered search light.
“It’s a good job because we help our people,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation via an interpreter before climbing up the rickety, 20-feet (6 m) bamboo tower overlooking a labyrinth of mud and bamboo shelters as well as the adjacent forest.
“This will also help the elephant to survive. All this land was forest before but now it has been torn down and the elephant deserves to be conserved.”
Amin said it was the response team’s job to also educate the Rohingya about elephants through awareness campaigns and children’s programs.
They are also trying to encourage local Bangladeshi farmers to grow crops that elephants do not like, such as green chillies and tobacco, to stop the animals encroaching on their land in search of food and creating more human conflict.
“We need to spread the message that the elephant is not an enemy and deserves space as, like the Rohingya, it has lost access to its own land,” Amin said.
He said it was unclear what impact restricting the elephants’ movement would have in the longer term, or whether it would be possible to provide a new corridor.
This, he said, would involve moving about 100,000 people to new shelters, eating into the forest.
The team wants to gather more data to understand the elephants’ migratory patterns, he said, and there are plans to collar and follow five of the animals in the area this year.
“It may happen that the elephants understand the loss and become more violent or desperate to move again,” he said.
“Maybe we can find an alternative route for the elephants to cross ... through the camps and to the corridor.” (Additional reporting by Naimul Karim)


Indians demonstrate against ‘divisive’ citizenship bill

Updated 11 December 2019

Indians demonstrate against ‘divisive’ citizenship bill

  • The bill, which goes to the upper house on Wednesday, would ensure citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis and Buddhists from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, but exclude Muslims

NEW DELHI: Protests erupted across various parts of India on Tuesday, a day after the lower house of Parliament passed the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) which makes religion the basis for granting Indian citizenship to minorities from neighboring countries. 

The bill, which goes to the upper house on Wednesday, would ensure citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis and Buddhists from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, but exclude Muslims.

“After the CAB, we are going to bring in the National Register of Citizens (NRC),” Home Minister Amit Shah said after the passage of the bill. 

The fear among a large section of Indians is that by bringing in the CAB and the NRC — a process to identify illegal immigrants — the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is trying to target Muslim minorities. 

They insist that the new bill protects all other communities except Muslims, who constitute around 14 percent of India’s total population.

The opposition Congress Party said that the bill was a move to “destroy the foundation” of India.

“The CAB is an attack on the Indian constitution. Anyone who supports it is attacking and attempting to destroy the foundation of our nation,” party leader Rahul Gandhi posted in a tweet.

Priyanka Gandhi, Rahul’s sister and a prominent opposition leader, called the bill “India’s tryst with bigotry.”

However, BJP spokesperson Sudesh Verma said: “The opposition is communalizing the bill. 

The CAB saves minorities who owe their origin to India from being prosecuted on grounds of religious status. The same is not the case with Muslims since they have not been prosecuted because of their religion.”

Eight northeastern states observed a day-long strike against the CAB. 

“Once the bill is implemented, the native tribal people will become permanent minorities in their own state,” Animesh Debbarma, a tribal leader who organized the strike in the state of Tripura said.

“The bill is against our fundamental rights and it is an attack on our constitution and secularism,” he told Arab News.

In Assam, some places saw violence with a vehicle belonging to the BJP state president vandalized.

In New Delhi, different civil society groups and individuals gathered close to the Indian Parliament and expressed their outrage at the “open and blatant attack” on what they called the “idea” of India.

“The CAB is not only against Muslim minorities but against all the minorities — be it Tamils or Nepali Gurkhas — and is a blatant attempt to polarize the society in the name of religion and turn India into a majoritarian Hindu state,” Nadeem Khan, head of United Against Hate, a campaign to connect people from different faiths, said.

Rallies and protests were also organized in Pune, Ahmadabad, Allahabad, Patna and Lucknow.

On Tuesday, more than 600 academics, activists, lawyers and writers called the bill “divisive, discriminatory, unconstitutional” in an open letter, and urged the government to withdraw the proposed law.

They said that the CAB, along with the NRC, “will bring untold suffering to people across the country. It will damage fundamentally and irreparably, the nature of the Indian republic.”

Delhi-based activist and a prominent human rights campaigner, Harsh Mander, said: “I feel the CAB is the most dangerous bill that has ever been brought by the Indian Parliament. We need a mass civil disobedience movement to oppose this legislation.”

Meanwhile, the international community is also watching the domestic debate on the CAB. 

Describing the initiative as a “dangerous turn in the wrong direction,”  a federal US commission on international religious freedom has sought US sanctions against Shah and other Indian leaders if the bill with the “religious criterion” is passed.

EU ambassador to India, Ugo Astuto, in a press conference in New Delhi on Monday said that he hopes: “The spirit of equality enshrined in the Indian constitution will be upheld by the Parliament.”