An 18-km-long solar fence erected along the India-Bhutan border helps mitigate human-elephant conflict, protecting over 10,000 people residing in 11 villages in Assam's Baksa district by keeping away wild pachyderms coming from the Himalayan kingdom.
The barrier, erected on the Indian bank of River Bornadi, which marks the international border, has led to a dip in incidents of wild pachyderms straying into villages and a reduction in deaths due to man-elephant conflict.
"The elephants earlier caused large-scale devastation, destroying our farmlands and food stocks. Around six to seven people used to be trampled to death on average annually by these pachyderms coming from Bhutan in search of food.
"We led our lives in fear and spent sleepless nights when these giants visited the villages. People used to stay indoors after dusk fearing an encounter with the pachyderms," Bhim Bahadur Chetri, a resident of Pub Guabari village, told PTI.
It became a matter of grave concern and conservationists, wildlife experts and administration, after considerable deliberation, decided to install a solar fence that released weak electric shocks upon contact not leading to the deaths of elephants. The solar fence was erected by bio-diversity organisation 'Aranyak' with funding from the Elephant Foundation of India in February 2021. Besides the forest department, which facilitated the entire process, villagers are also stakeholders in the project.
A forest official said shrinking elephant habitats was the major cause for the pachyderms straying into outlying human settlements for food, leading to their conflict with humans.
Senior office-bearer of Aranyak, Anjan Barua, said that villagers earlier used to erect electrical fences to keep away elephants but these posed a grave threat to the lives of not only the pachyderms but also humans and their livestock in the area.
A scientific study was carried out on the movement of elephants before the commencement of the fencing process, eminent conservation scientist Bibhuti Prasad Lahkar said.
A highly intelligent and gentle creature, elephants need a huge area to migrate for food and water, he said.
"After considerable research and study of the area and the problems, we evolved a strategy to mitigate the issue so that both animals and humans could co-exist," he said.
"It was decided that local villagers will be involved. Their participation was overwhelming. They also made financial contributions by constructing concrete posts to ensure the longevity of the fence," Barua pointed out.
Solar lights were installed at various vantage locations across the conflict-affected villages to facilitate elephant sighting from a safe distance at night, he added.
The villages protected by the solar fence include Dongargaon, Pub Guabari, Hastinapur, Mahendranagar, Bogorikhuti no.1, Orongajuli, Dongargaon, Jaipur, Piplani, Bimalanagar and Bogorikhuti no. 2.
Five fence maintenance committees were formed in these villages and a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the stakeholders following which its maintenance was handed over to the villagers.
"The situation has improved considerably over the last two years and now we can reap our crops in peace," Nirmal Hajong, who operates the solar power unit in Pub Guabari village, said.
Assam's forests are among the prime habitats of the Asian elephant, an endangered species now living in severe stress due to anthropogenic pressures.
According to the last census conducted in 2017, Assam has 5,719 wild elephants, the second highest in India after Karnataka.