How the exiled Rohingya and endangered elephants learnt to coexist
When an ethnic cleansing campaign drove 700,000 Rohingya from their homes in Myanmar into neighbouring Bangladesh last year, the only land available to host them was a national forest. But the hilly, waterlogged jungle where the refugees hacked out a camp was already home to another threatened population: Bangladesh’s last surviving elephants.
After escaping massacres at home, an arduous journey on foot and by boat, and the rigours of refugee camp life, the Rohingya soon found themselves in conflict with Asia’s largest land animal. The Chittagong Hill Tracts on which the sprawling Kutupalong-Balukhali Refugee Camp is built are one of the few remaining habitats for the elephants.
Now, a spate of incidents in which elephants have killed members of the Rohingya community has led to the creation of a system of watchmen here. They are tasked with keeping the refugees safe from elephant incursions.
But a longer-term problem remains. With the camp straddling a major migration corridor, the future of the elephant population is at risk, further underscoring the unsustainable nature of the Rohingya’s exile.
Throughout Bangladesh, there are just 268 surviving elephants, according to International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates. Around 90 per cent of the critically endangered animals live in the jungles of southeastern Bangladesh.
Across the border in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, the Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group who have long faced persecution from the Buddhist majority government, which considers them illegal Bengali migrants. In August last year, most of Rakhine’s remaining Rohingya population fled a coordinated government campaign of arrests, killings, rapes and arson.
Arriving in Bangladesh and consigned to the jungle, the Rohingya soon fell foul of the local wildlife. Incidents followed a typical pattern. When the Rohingya entered the jungle to collect firewood, or roaming elephants approached the camp, any interaction between man and beast would attract a gaggle of curious onlookers. Often the elephants would become alarmed and stampede. Between August 2017 – when the refugee influx began – and March this year, 13 Rohingya were killed in elephant attacks.
When Dr Haseeb Irfanullah, a Bangladesh programme coordinator at the IUCN, visited the camp in January, he was immediately introduced to the danger.
“I can remember around 2 a.m. an elephant got into the camp silently,” he says. “People tried to scare the elephant away and it got scared and began trampling shelters. It killed an old guy”.
Without action, camp residents would continue to be killed. “Our main goal is saving the community from elephant attacks,” says Dr Irfanullah.
‘We call them uncle’
At sunset every night, blue-uniformed men scale bamboo watchtowers erected around the margins of the camp. These watchmen survey the surrounding jungle for elephants until sunrise.
Formed in March, the Elephant Response Teams are a partnership between the IUCN, the United Nations Refugee Agency and Rohingya volunteers, who are charged with protecting the camp and keeping the elephants safe.
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The 360 volunteers take it in turns to man the 60 towers overlooking the jungle in pairs, earning a modest stipend for their efforts. They are trained to gently direct elephants away from the camps and to keep away crowds.
“People love to watch the elephant,” says Roshon Ali, one of the Elephant Response Team members. “They have such an enchanting figure, you can never tire of looking at them”.
A slender 45-year-old with spectacles, Mr Ali says the Rohingya often get so excited to see an elephant that they approach too close and crowd around. “We call them uncle” he says. “People say they are a bit like a saint”.
Despite being one of the few Rohingya to attend university in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, Mr Ali said he has always worked as a farmer because of a prohibition against his ethnic group’s employment in the country's public service. On the rare occasions he saw wild elephants in Myanmar, Mr Ali was always careful not to harm them. “Our elders taught us never to throw anything at an elephant,” he says.
Rohingya lore tells that elephants have excellent hearing and can even understand humans. “When we go in the jungle we call out to them that we are there to protect the forest and we aren’t there to harm them,” Mr Ali says.
Since the Elephant Response Teams were formed, there have been no further injuries to camp residents from elephant attacks, according to Dr Irfanullah. The teams have thwarted eight elephant incursions on the camp boundaries in total, he says.
But, like the presence of the elephants threatens camp residents, the reverse is also true: the camp’s creation now jeopardises the very animals that roam these parts. The Kutupalong-Balukhali Refugee Camp is so big (as a conglomeration of smaller camps it has become the world’s largest refugee camp) that it has isolated nearly a quarter of Bangladesh’s elephants from the wider population.
“The whole area was elephant habitat,” says Dr M A Aziz, professor of zoology at Jahanginar University. “The camps have interrupted their migration corridor”.
These corridors once allowed Bangladesh’s elephants to intermingle and wander freely into Myanmar. If they are not restored, Dr Aziz fears for the future of the herd.
“Twenty four per cent of the national population is entrapped by the camps, so if we lose them it’s huge,” he says. “They can’t mate with the larger population and in the long run will lose genetic diversity and may not survive”.
Dr Aziz and the IUCN are now lobbying for the restoration of elephant corridors right through the camps. It’s a plan that faces several major obstacles.
The sheer density of the camp makes it difficult to find the space for 300 metre wide paths, which would need electric fencing and planting with vegetation suitable for elephant consumption. Beyond the logistical challenge, the IUCN must convince the Bangladesh government of the task’s necessity.
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Despite its hospitality in welcoming the refugees, the government of Bangladesh is reluctant to commit to longer term planning in the camp, fearing it would amount to acceptance that the Rohingya may never return home. There is consequently little appetite from Bangladeshi leaders for the camp, and its massive population, to become a permanent fixture in an already overcrowded country.
But for Mr Ali, the Elephant Response Team member, the survival of the country’s last Asian elephants is of paramount importance not only for the endangered animals, but for those exiled into the jungle here.
“They say if the elephant survives in the forest, the forest will remain healthy and everything will grow well,” he says, “and if the forest survives, so will we”.