An elephant walks through Kutupalong camp in the morning, in between the huts it easily dwarfs, while all around is the worried muttering of the camp inhabitants uncertain as to what to do. A crowd of Rohingya men and boys follow it at a distance, trying to shoo it away while others crouch on the roofs to watch.
Later in the video, people are screaming and running out of its path, some holding sticks, while the elephant desperately tries to maneuver its way out of the maze of huts. It tears through a hut, turning its bamboo walls and roof into rubble, along with 19 others. At least 30 were injured and a child killed in this incident in February. This was not the first fatality of a humanitarian crisis that has led to a clash of humans and wildlife in the refugee camps of Cox's Bazar.
In the last year, there have been at least 12 deaths as a result of coming into contact with elephants in the Kutupalong camp and adjacent forests. The camp, which houses at least 585,000 Rohingya refugees who fled ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, forms part of the elephants' core habitat. The last such incident of death due to an elephant in the camp happened in late March.
The Asian elephant has been labelled critically endangered in Bangladesh as their number is down to 268 due to destruction of their natural habitat in the hilly areas of Chittagong, Cox's Bazar and the CHT, among others. An estimated 35 to 45 Asian elephants currently move around the site of the camp in Ukhiya of Cox's Bazar, which falls within a corridor, or traditional migratory route, between Bangladesh and Myanmar (via Ghumdum) in which they regularly move in search of food and shelter.
“Behaviourally, elephants always follow their traditional routes and corridors for regular movement. If they find any obstacles within it, they try to break it,” said the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global conservation agency, in a report which surveyed elephant movement in the area. With the danger posed to both the refugees and the elephants in the densely packed camps, IUCN Bangladesh and UNHCR are working together to address human-elephant conflict in the camps. IUCN is replicating mitigation methods fine-tuned in other areas of Bangladesh where elephants are concentrated, such as Sherpur, in the Rohingya camps.
“The refugees are already in an unfamiliar environment, and were unnerved on seeing elephants so near their homes,” says Raquibul Amin, country representative of IUCN. Through talks with the refugees, his team learnt that the refugees had sometimes encountered wild elephants in their fields but never so close, back in Myanmar. “Their fear is understandable.”
Most of the elephants approach the camp from the eastern edge trying to get to the corridor, which the IUCN predicts may become more frequent now as the monsoon season approaches. Further on, the main transit camp, where refugees who cross the border initially stay before moving on to the camps, blocks the mouth of the corridor, says Amin.
In the beginning of April, a live demonstration by IUCN used mock-up elephants (bamboo structures with a colourful 'skin') to train its elephant response teams (ERTs). IUCN employed the artist Shadhin who worked with Rohingya women to stitch together the coverings out of old clothing. An experienced team was brought in from Sherpur for the training. Demonstrations are also being shown around the camps to show the refugees how to avoid conflict with wild elephants, much to the delight of the children in the grim camps.
25 ERTs, each made up of 10 Rohingya volunteers, have undergone training to corral elephants straying into the camp. The teams have already led away elephants from the camp three times successfully, using whistles and human chains. They work in shifts at night, when the elephants are usually on the move. 50 bamboo watchtowers, up in the trees, are also being built around the edges of the camp, where the ERTs will be on the lookout.
“Our main goal was to demystify the elephant—to show that it is not an enemy but part of the landscape here,” says Amin. A long-term goal is to create a bond between the camp inhabitants and the elephants. Just like the locals, who have become used to the elephants moving about on their crop lands at certain times of the year, the refugees will adapt to their presence over time. “Coexistence is needed.”
But this is only a temporary measure to address the larger environmental problem, says Amin. “This is a band-aid on the wound, it only stops the bleeding for a time.” What is needed is long-term planning so that the elephants can migrate safely without the camps being in the way. Otherwise, if a group of elephants comes together to forage for food, the refugees would be caught unawares, he warns.
Though registered camps and unplanned settlements of Rohingya refugees have existed in the area since the 1990s, these only occupied around 695 acres previously. “By now, the camps occupy a total of 5,500 acres of government-owned reserved forest land,” says Md Ali Kabir, officer of Cox's Bazar South Forest Division.
Since August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya have crossed the border into Bangladesh. At the peak of the influx, the need of the hour was providing the Rohingya refugees a place to take shelter wherever possible. Accordingly, the existing refugee camps were expanded and new ones carved out of uninhabited stretches of reserved forest land and protected areas nearby within Ukhiya.
The change since then is striking. Satellite images of Cox's Bazar from May (before the influx) and September last year reveal the drastic change the landscape has undergone—from forests and greenery to barren land dotted with tents. Forests and hillocks have been cleared to make way for the settlements and the rest stripped bare by refugees foraging for firewood.
“They need to be provided with alternative cooking fuel to save what remains of the forests,” says Kabir. UN agencies and NGOs are also pressing for the distribution of more alternative fuel such as compressed rice husk briquettes and improved cooking stoves to the refugees. Government plans to provide gas supply to the camps are moving slowly, with only 3000 families getting it for now.
Preliminary findings of the Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment, a study conducted jointly by UNDP, UN Women, and the Ministry of Environment and Forests, emphasised water scarcity as a critical issue. Due to the initial unplanned manner in which the camps grew, shallow tubewells were dug in large numbers by various organisations. Excessive water pulled up means that many have dried up and the underground aquifer could soon run dry.
The hills have already turned barren, trees cut down to the stumps. Long-term, the soil will not be able to retain water to replenish groundwater reserves. Sandy hillsides bare of trees are also at prime risk of landslides come the monsoon. “The huts and latrines are built on the sides of the hills in such a way that once the rains come, surface water will be contaminated by overflowing latrines uphill,” says Arif M. Faisal, one of the authors of the study.
It is not that occupation of forest land or deforestation hadn't taken place before. Even earlier camps such as the four camps in Teknaf are all situated on wildlife sanctuary land. Three national parks, two game reserves, and three ecologically critical areas are in the vicinity of the refugee camps. But the recent influx is un precedented. The study predicts that 26,000 hectares of forest within a 10km radius of the camps will be gone in a year.
Yet, long-term measures to replant trees in the area are not being taken. “There is no scope for reforestation in the vicinity of the camps due to the settlements. So far, we have not been able to do anything,” says Kabir. Social forestry programmes are also on hold. “As forest cover is reduced, and in some areas, completely removed, the impact on the area's biodiversity is enormous,” says Kabir, “but that's the price you pay when you decide to shelter a million refugees.”
“When the refugees started coming last year, in the hundreds of thousands in a mere two weeks, the environment was of least priority,” said Amin. But the environmental footprint of six lakh refugees concentrated in such a small area has enormous long-term implications for the well-being of the ecosystem they depend on.