Twenty-eight-year-old wildlife defenders Zenifar Azmiri and Sahrin Jahan have been woken up more than once in the middle of night.
Their camp in Cox’s Bazar, the largest refugee camp in Bangladesh bordering Myanmar, houses one million Rohingya refugees fleeing violence in Myanmar.
Last week, UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, visited Cox’s Bazar to draw attention to the plight of the Rohingya refugees and urge more support for Rohingya refugees.
Now the refugees face another challenge: up to 45 elephants pass through their camps, situated along the elephant migratory corridors, as they look for food and water.
“Elephants are very intelligent, and will always follow their traditional migratory corridors,” says Jahan. Since the refugee influx began in August 2017, at least 10 people have died in wildlife conflict, including a 12-year-old boy.
A joint United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) survey reveals that frequent elephant movement, mostly along the western boundary, is making refugees vulnerable to elephant invasions and attack.
“The refugees arrive with very few possessions and rely on natural resources from the forest to make fire and for food,” explains Jahan. “But the impact of deforestation is taking its toll on the forest, and the elephant population is starting to strike back,” she said.
There are an estimated 93 migratory and 96 captive Asian elephants in Bangladesh, and they are critically endangered. Jahan and Azmiri are on the front line of critical work to reduce human-wildlife conflict in the camps.
They are responsible for training Elephant Response Teams, to protect refugees, the elephant population, and the surrounding forest.
“I was aware about the critical humanitarian situation in Cox’s Bazar, having worked on gender-based violence in the camps. I knew how people were suffering. I could also see that trees were disappearing, and I was sad about the wildlife and environmental situation as well. I wanted to help by putting into practice my environmental management skills,” explains Jahan.
“At first, when the refugee community came face-to-face with the elephants, they were very scared, and the elephants were also scared. This led to a lot of confusion and fear, with elephants and people getting injured,” added Azmiri.
“Our work in the Elephant Response Teams is to reduce confusion and educate people,” explains Azmiri. “We have set up watch towers in key spots around the refugee settlement, and provided people with information about elephant migrations and how to respond to a potential crisis. We also mark the elephant routes and corridors clearly, so people know which areas to avoid,” she said.
Elephants typically enter camp late at night or early in the morning. The camp has 31 watch towers already set up around the camp, and nearly 500 refugees will be trained to become Elephant Response Team members.
They guard the sites 24-hours a day and take turns to keep watch at night. Team members are trained to divert elephants out of the camps using bright lights and whistles to avoid conflict.
They communicate via mobile phone when elephants enter the camp, to guide them back into the forest. “Sometimes we ask imams at mosques to alert others in the camps about the elephant’s whereabouts,” said Azmiri.
The team has a great track record. Since they started their prevention and awareness raising work in April 2018, there has been a significant decrease in animals invading the camp and no one has died or been injured.
Elephant Rescue Team members have also increased awareness among refugees in the camp about protecting the forest and preventing trees from being cut down. This both preserves the forest, and keeps migratory routes open for the elephants.
“We asked members to share the lesson with their neighbors and community people,” said Azmiri. “After realizing the importance of forest, our members do not go and cut trees,” she said, adding that alternatives are being explored with other organizations in the camp.
“Now we have a good feeling that we can protect people and biodiversity,” added Jahan. “And because the teams have a much better understanding of the work, we can get more sleep!”
Zenifar Azmiri and Sahrin Jahan work for the International Union for Conservation of Nature.This story is part of a series featuring inspirational young people and how they are striving for a better, healthier environment for all.