Why Elephants Pose A Threat To Rohingya Refugees

Apr 17, 2019
Originally published on April 18, 2019 8:30 pm

Foyes Ullah's first thought was — burglars! It was 2 in the morning in a crowded part of the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, and a commotion had just jolted him awake. People outside were yelling. The walls of his shelter were trembling. He could hear bamboo snapping as if someone were ripping apart a neighboring hut.

His neighbor was screaming, "Who is hitting my house? Who is there? But no one was responding," Ullah says. He wanted to go outside but his wife stopped him, saying, "They will kill you."

It sounded as if the whole neighborhood had woken up. People were yelling, "There are robbers!"

Then Ullah heard a sound: "EEEK."

And he knew it was an elephant.

When Rohingya refugee Foyes Ullah heard noises one night, he first thought robbers were tearing at the walls of his shelter. It was actually an elephant.
Jason Beaubien/NPR

When Ullah finally came outside, he says the elephant was knocking down everything in the camp, including shelters made of tarps and woven bamboo mats tied to bamboo frames. The elephant had plowed through several huts and was eating from a pot of rice that it had spilled over.

"One of the men here saw the elephant," Ullah says. "He pulled the tail of the elephant, and the elephant just turned and went away.

It was then that Ullah discovered that the elephant had stepped on his neighbor's chest, killing him.

Ullah's neighbor was one of 14 people, all but one of them refugees, who have been killed by elephants over the past year and a half in and around the camps. The most recent fatality was in February.

An Asian elephant in Bangladesh. The males can weigh up to 12,000 pounds.
Mamun Hossain/Getty Images

Asian elephants can weigh up to 12,000 pounds. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the species as endangered. In Bangladesh, there are only a few hundred left in a couple of areas in the wild. And one of those areas is exactly where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are now taking shelter in sprawling refugee camps. Late in 2017, nearly 700,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar to escape brutal attacks by government security forces and pro-government militias.

To deal with the elephant problem, the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, has helped set up elephant response brigades among the refugees.

"We are not traditionally an organization that gets involved in conservation," says Paul McCallion, a senior energy and environment officer working out of the UNHCR office in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.

"We are involved with the elephants here simply due to the fact that their migratory path has been cut off with the influx of refugees."

The elephants end up in the camps, McCallion says, because they're instinctively trying to follow a path they've taken in the past. "It's just in their DNA, and they will keep naturally trying to take that route."

He says the elephants travel each year back and forth between Myanmar and Bangladesh foraging on local vegetation. But as the Rohingya refugee camps have expanded, the settlements have taken over areas where the elephants used to graze and blocked them from getting to other grazing spots.

McCallion says the elephants aren't naturally aggressive. The fatal encounters usually occur, he says, when an elephant ends up cornered in a camp:

"The elephant can feel trapped. It can feel confused once it's behind the shelters. The danger is when the elephant ends up in the midst of a camp and doesn't know how to get out. That's when it gets to a stage where the animal could react in a very aggressive way."

The main goal of the elephant response teams is to keep the animals out of the camps in the first place.

Dotted around the camps are tall, thatched watchtowers on spindly bamboo frames. They look like fire lookouts or guard towers.

The U.N. constructed this elephant watch tower in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh so residents can be on the lookout.
Jason Beaubien/NPR

Noor Salam, who's 33, is with the elephant response team in an area known as Camp 4 Extension. He is dressed in the official uniform of what UNHCR officials call a "tusk force" — a blue T-shirt and dark track suit bottoms. He says the towers are used to watch for elephants that might be approaching the settlement.

If an elephant does enter the camp, Salam and his colleagues use whistles to summon more members of the team.

"In the training, we were taught to surround the elephant on three sides," Salam says. "We leave one area open for the elephant to move back toward the edge of the camp."

The team members wave fluorescent flags and blast sirens from handheld megaphones at the elephants to drive them away. At night they shine large lights while making lots of noise.

Salam says before the response teams were formed, the refugees would yell at the elephants and bang pots to drive them away, but it was often chaotic. The noise and the commotion would often upset the elephants even more. And it didn't keep them away. "This is the elephant's land," Salam says. "They're going to keep coming back here."

But the response teams have been effective. Since Salam's team was formed in Camp 4 Extension last year, there haven't been any fatal elephant incursions in his part of the camp.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next, we report on a side effect of a refugee crisis. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar. Many are in neighboring Bangladesh. They set up shelters in what used to be a nature preserve, which is not so good for preserving nature. What is now the largest refugee camp in the world stretches across a migratory path for elephants.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports the result has been deadly.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: It was 2 in the morning in a densely crowded part of the Kutupalong refugee camp when Foyes Ullah bolted awake. People outside were yelling. The walls of the shelter were shaking. He could hear bamboo snapping as if someone was ripping apart a neighboring hut. His first thought was burglars.

FOYES ULLAH: (Through interpreter) My neighbor was screaming, who is hitting my house? Who is there? But no one was responding.

BEAUBIEN: Ullah wanted to go outside to help his neighbor. But his wife stopped him, saying, they will kill you.

ULLAH: (Through interpreter) We yelled, there are robbers. And people inside the other houses were screaming. Then we heard the sound of the elephant.

BEAUBIEN: The elephant was knocking down everything. The Rohingya refugees’ shelters are made of tarps and woven bamboo mats tied to bamboo frames. The elephant had plowed through several huts and was eating a pot of rice that had spilled.

ULLAH: (Through interpreter) One of the men pulled the tail of the elephant. The elephant turned and went away.

BEAUBIEN: And it was then that Ullah saw that the elephant had stepped on his neighbor's chest, killing him. Ullah's neighbor was one of 14 people, all but one of them refugees, who have been killed by elephants over the last year and a half.

There are only a few hundred Asian elephants left in the wild in Bangladesh. The animals, which can weigh up to 12,000 pounds, are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. They're only present in a couple of areas of Bangladesh, but one of those areas is exactly where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are now taking shelter in sprawling refugee camps. In 2017, the refugees fled what the U.N. says was a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar against them. The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, has helped set up elephant response brigades among the refugees to deal with the animals if they do wander into the camps.

PAUL MCCALLION: We are not traditionally an organization that gets involved with conservation.

BEAUBIEN: Paul McCallion works with UNHCR out of their office in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

MCCALLION: We are involved with the elephants here simply due to the fact that the migratory path has been cut off with the influx of refugees.

BEAUBIEN: The elephants are ending up in the camps, he says, because they're instinctively trying to follow a path that they've taken in the past.

MCCALLION: It's just in their DNA. And they just keep - will keep naturally trying to take that route.

BEAUBIEN: He says the elephants travel each year back-and-forth between Myanmar and Bangladesh, foraging on local vegetation. McCallion says the elephants aren't naturally aggressive. The fatal encounters occur, he says, when an elephant ends up cornered in a camp.

MCCALLION: The elephant can be - can feel trapped, can feel confused. Once it's behind the shelters and once it's behind the people - that's when it gets to a stage where the animal will - could react in a very aggressive way.

BEAUBIEN: The main goal of the elephant response teams is to keep the animals out of the camps in the first place. Dotted around the camps there are tall, thatched watchtowers on spindly, bamboo frames. They look like fire lookouts or guard towers. Noor Salam, who's with the elephant response team in another part of the Kutupalong camp, says they use the towers to watch for elephants that might be approaching the settlement. If one of the animals does enter the camp, Salam and his colleagues use whistles to summon other members of the team.

NOOR SALAM: (Through interpreter) In the training, we were taught to surround the elephant on three sides. We leave one area open for the elephant to move back towards the edge of the camp.

BEAUBIEN: They wave fluorescent flags and blast megaphones at the elephants to drive them away. At night, they have large lights that they shine while making lots of noise. Salam says before the response teams were formed, the refugees would yell at the elephants and bang pots, but it was often very chaotic. The noise and the commotion would often end up upsetting the elephants even more.

This is the elephant's land, Salam says. They're going to keep coming back here. But he adds that since his response team was formed, there haven't been any fatal elephant incursions in his part of the camp.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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