For Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution, elephants pose a new threat

  • Twelve people have been killed by elephants in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh.
  • Fleeing military operations in Myanmar, the refugees have settled in elephant corridors.
  • Training is underway to help the refugees negotiate their encounters with the endangered animals safely.

When the tarpaulin she was sleeping under started rustling furiously in the darkness, Mustaba Khatun thought it was thieves cutting their way into her shelter on the edges of Bangladesh’s Kutupalong-Balukhali refugee camp, where the city of bamboo and plastic meets the forest.

“We thought someone had come to take our supplies so we rushed outside and that’s when we saw the elephant. Then it charged at us,” she recalled of the night in September 2017, only weeks after she fled a Myanmar military operation that killed an estimated 6,700 Rohingya Muslims.

A child and an adult were killed in that nocturnal chaos, and the community was left with a new fear to live with after a harrowing escape from alleged “systematic killings and rape.” One of Khatun’s neighbors, his own leg still bandaged from falling over as he bolted from the scene, keeps a grisly photo of the aftermath on his phone. Soon afterward, the child’s mourning family decided to move deeper into the camp. Those remaining on the edges formed night watches, monitoring the hills and rallying the neighbors to chase away any elephants that wandered in.

Rohingya refugee Mustaba Khan said she thought thieves had come to her tent when she heard it rustling in the night, until she went outside and saw an elephant. Photo by Kaamil Ahmed/Mongabay.

But these community responses, which can instantly draw out thousands in a camp of almost 600,000 people, could be part of the reason why 12 people have been killed, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which has now teamed up with the U.N.’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, to formally train special response teams.

Shaky video shot taken during an incident in February shows terrified refugees scrambling down the camp’s naked hills and throwing sticks and stones at an elephant that ends up flattening several shelters in its confusion. This frenzied response, said IUCN local coordinator Mohammed Abdul Motaleb, illustrates why the refugees need help understanding elephant behavior.

“Basically they throw stones and firecrackers, which is really bad for the elephants … and the elephants attacked people because they don’t like this kind of chaos,” he said.

“Elephants are like human beings, they always prefer quieter places and that’s why they always come at night. They have fixed routes that people never go to, which helps them to move freely.” The problem, he said, was that the sprawling refugee camp now falls across those elephant corridors.

Refugee encampments (gray shading) overlap with known elephant routes (red dashed lines). Map courtesy of ISCG.

Protecting the community

“I am ready. I promise to protect my community,” barked the first of the Rohingya refugees to stand up and make his pledge to serve in localized elephant response teams.

Inshallah” — God willing — came the response from the 19 other men sitting crossed-legged on the floor of a bamboo-framed meeting room, all proudly wearing blue T-shirts marked with an elephant logo unmistakably identifying their new responsibilities.

The training was simple: presentations on the history and character of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), designed to increase their respect for the animal; some team-building exercises; and a mock elephant incursion with three of the trainees on their knees, lurching at their friends, while the others imitated guiding the elephants away and keeping back onlookers.

One of the Rohingya responders, Abdul Lateef, said he had seen 14 elephants since arriving in Bangladesh and had to improvise ways to chase some of them away.

“We didn’t know what to do,” he said. “Everyone was shouting and running in every direction, falling over each [other].”

Abdul Lateef takes a pledge to protect other Rohingya refugees from elephant incursions. Photo by Kaamil Ahmed/Mongabay.

After two or three incidents, they realized they needed to organize themselves. Each night, volunteers would sit by their tents, fixing their eyes on the unlit hills from which the elephants usually slipped in, raising the alarm when they spotted something.

“We didn’t have lights or sticks with us, we were just shouting, creating noise to drive them away,” Abdul Lateef said.

Motaleb’s team has given the trainees flashlights, spotlights and whistles. Other programs in Bangladesh have proven these simple tools are enough to protect humans without harming the endangered animals, he said.

Motaleb said the key to training the elephant response teams was in teaching them to control the crowds and to ensure that groups of no more than 10 people were responsible for protecting the elephants and guiding them away from the camp. In the past, he said, the refugees would surround the elephants on all sides, aggravating them and leaving them no way to escape — and that’s when they would lash out.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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