Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, famous Bangali novelist and short story writer, once wrote, "Otikay hostee lope paiachhe, tikia achhe telapoka" - literally meaning, giant elephants have gone extinct, but cockroaches survived.
By giant elephants, Sarat Babu probably referred to the mammoths, the last of which got erased from the face of the Earth 4,000 years ago. Of course, there are other African elephant species that went extinct later as well.
Today, the mammoths' closest trunked relative, the Asian elephant, is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
Bangladesh is a lucky country to have them, being one of the handful host countries for Asian elephants. It is a matter of profound sadness that we don't seem to value this fortune of having these magnificent giants on our land.
We have seen at least six wild elephants being killed in eight days, one of the cruellest statistics in recent times.
And this happened across the last habitats of our elephants: Sherpur, Chattogram and Cox's Bazar. One elephant was shot dead, and others were killed by electrocution or other unknown means.
There seems to be a strange pattern in elephant deaths.
In June last year, too, news of several dead elephants came in three consecutive days. At that time, The Business Standard asked Monirul H Khan, a wildlife researcher and professor of Zoology at Jahangirnagar University, if that could be considered a notable rise in elephant deaths. "These elephants were incidentally killed in a row," said Khan, adding, "But the death rate is already high."
The high death rate of elephants and damage to human life and property emanates from the encroachment into elephant habitats.
Unabated wildlife habitat destruction due to agriculture and other monoculture plantations, habitat fragmentation, disturbance in elephant corridors and routes due to infrastructure development etc. have put elephants in a really tight place in regards to their access to a food source.
Every year, especially during the winter, elephants come down on crop fields to find food. These giant animals are intelligent too, so they move after sundown so that humans do not see them. Humans are no less intelligent because the locals have invented ways to prevent the invasion of their crops. They put fences around the crop field and often electrify it. As a result, many elephants die of electrocution.
Also, people use firecrackers and fire to drive away elephants, which sometimes cause elephants to fall off from the hills and die.
Unstoppable despite strong legal provisions
Killing elephants is punishable by law. According to the Wildlife (Conservation and Security) Act, 2012, killing an elephant (or a tiger) is a non-bailable offence. The person committing the crime will be facing imprisonment for a term between two and seven years and a fine amounting between Tk1 lakh to Tk10 lakh.
In case of repetition of the same offence, the perpetrator shall be punished with imprisonment for up to 12 years with a fine of up to Tk15 lakh.
Also, if any person collects, acquires or purchases or sells any trophy or parts of the body of an elephant, s/he shall be punished with a jail term of up to three years, or with a fine not exceeding Tk3 lakh, or with both. For a repetition of the same offence, the jail term is up to five years, and the fine is up to Tk5 lakh or both.
So why are elephants being killed despite these strong legal provisions?
Simply put, it is because the law is rarely applied.
But the Forest Department (FD) alone can hardly be held responsible for this. There is a general lack of the sense of urgency among the administration and other government departments when it comes to wildlife and forest conservation.
Take for example the construction project of a railway from Chattogram to Cox's Bazar, which is being implemented razing tropical hill forests and wildlife sanctuaries – namely Chunati Wildlife Sanctuary, Fasiakhali Wildlife Sanctuary and the Medhakatchapia National Park – an area situated on a number of active and seasonal elephant travel routes.
Conservationists and even FD officials have been publicly voicing their concern over the project but to no avail.
Like many other places on the planet, sacrificing wild habitats and biodiversity for 'development' has been a common practice in Bangladesh for a really long time. Degrading forests with monoculture plantations for producing timber and rubber has been taking place since the colonial era, and even all the new concerns over climate change catastrophe and the latest extinction phase - often referred to as sixth mass extinction or Anthropocene extinction - could not stop it.
Trends like planting exotic trees like acacia, agar or rubber on forest lands, or extension of agriculture take a toll on elephants' accessibility to food, which lead to these moderately shy animals being displaced and coming out of the forests.
In the latest cases of elephant deaths in the country, no parts of their bodies went missing, indicating they were not killed for trophies, rather, for the usual cause: saving crops.
Now, there are also legal provisions for the compensation of loss to life and property caused by elephants and other wildlife such as tigers, crocodiles and bears.
According to a circular published in March this year, the government will pay a maximum Tk50,000 in compensation if any person or organisation's property is damaged in the locality outside the government forest due to the attack of wild animals. Previously, this amount was Tk25,000.
The law stipulates that the government will also compensate anybody killed or injured by the listed wildlife and pay a maximum of Tk3 lakh to the family of the deceased and Tk1 lakh to the seriously injured.
In fact, if implemented properly, this provision of compensation for damage to property could reduce human-wildlife conflict. The FD is known to pay compensations for loss of life. The process of paying for the damaged property and crops should be expedited and people should be informed about such provisions so they stop taking such desperate, deadly measures to save their crops.
Considering the size of our economy and allocations for the ongoing megaprojects, compensating marginal farmers living around the last elephant habitats for their damaged crops should not be difficult. It is only a matter of priority - whether we truly want to save the last of our Asian elephants.
The government is currently implementing a feasibility study to assess the possibility of creating a wildlife corridor in the south-east of the country, keeping in mind the natural migration of elephants. Plans to enrich the forests with native plants that feed the wildlife, giving back encroached land to the forests, and stopping forest land allocation for new infrastructure should naturally come with the proposed corridor project.
This is probably the last chance to save the elephant population in the country.
Wild elephants could be found in most of our forests a century ago, but now they can be seen only in a few locations. According to a joint survey conducted by IUCN and Forest Department in 2016, there were 268 resident wild elephants, 93 migratory elephants and 96 captive elephants in the country.
Many of these remaining elephants have been killed since the 2016 survey.
An intricate interdependence
Although many commoners often fail to see this, every species of this planet - be it a mosquito, a hornet, or the most destructive of all - the humans - have their roles in the ecosystem. With all the species combined, a very intricate interdependence is in place. Even without the microscopic virus and bacteria, the all-powerful (!) humans will perish.
If the current rate of extinction continues, Asian elephants, along with the world's other megafauna will soon be gone, and other smaller species and microorganisms will rule the world.
Perhaps even then, cockroaches will survive, as Sarat Babu observed in the last century.
Maybe, just maybe, the Earth will become a planet of cockroaches!