Greater Manas Landscape Conservation - IndiaBy restocking and enlarging a park, we restored its natural heritage and brought back the one-horned rhino
In Barpathar village in Assam’s Manas National Park, families burn wood for most of their energy needs at home, such as cooking and warmth. Women do most of the foraging and wood collecting, but men also chop down usable trees and carry firewood back home on their shoulders or bicycles.
People must take frequent trips into the forest for wood, but on these trips they can encounter wildlife, like elephants—sometimes with deadly consequences.
This is a landscape where people and wild elephants share space. A decade ago, it wasn’t uncommon for villagers to lose their lives when coming face-to-face with elephants in the forests. One of them was the husband of Rani Mondal*, whose death left her with two young kids to take care of when she was just 25.
Fuelwood collection is a top contributing factor in human-elephant conflict. Reducing these conflicts is one of the biggest conservation challenges here, which is why IFAW is supporting the Assam Haathi Project to help people and elephants share the land safely.
With IFAW’s support, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) has been working in villages like Barpathar to help families become less dependent on the forest. One of the project’s biggest successes is transforming families’ kitchens to become cleaner and safer.
One of the first steps was installing improved cookstoves. WTI developed villagers’ skills to install the stoves. The stoves also reduced in-house smoke significantly. Between 2012 and 2017, more than 2,500 households were covered under this activity.
‘Cooking with traditional stove designs involved inhaling a lot of smoke,’ says Sanatan Deka, who leads the Assam Haathi Project.
‘With women mostly involved in the kitchen, they were at most disadvantage. The improved design allows for the smoke to pass through a chimney, making cooking more comfortable and healthier.’
Fuelwood consumption in a traditional cook stove is 2.73 kg per person daily. After the improved cookstoves were installed, the consumption came down to 1.81 kg per person daily, a reduction of over 30%.
Things improved further when the government of India launched Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana in 2016. This scheme aims to make clean cooking fuels available to 50 million rural and deprived households. The IFAW–WTI team at Manas jumped on the opportunity and helped villagers use the scheme to buy and install liquid petroleum gas (LPG) connections in their kitchens. LPG is a cleaner-burning fuel, so it also reduces deadly smoke in homes.
The Assam Haathi Project has also supported more than 260 families who couldn’t pay for the scheme. They needed to contribute only the deposit while the remaining amount was covered under the project.
Narmila Barman, who lives in No 1 Barpathar village, says, ‘I use both the improved cook stove and the LPG. We have a small farmland, and that helps me in saving some refiling cost for the LPG cylinder. We have a smoke-free kitchen, and I feel happy now because we no longer depend on the fuelwood from the forest for our daily needs.’
Project leader Sanatan Deka estimates that the transformed kitchens have saved more than 10,000 trees from being felled for fuel—a key step to mitigating climate change and boosting ecosystem resilience. Importantly, these interventions have also improved the relationship between park managers and villagers.
Sanatan says, ‘Today you will see not a single hand-pulled cart for collection of fuelwoods inside the park, pulled by villagers accompanied by small kids. People use LPG as a source of clean cooking energy and use the fuelwood from their backyard farmland when required, especially in winter and for other social functions.’
The Assam Haathi Project was launched in 2018, in collaboration with Assam Forest Department, IFAW, and Chester Zoo. For almost five years, no human or elephant deaths have been reported in the villages as a result of human-elephant conflict.
Today, Rani—whose husband died in an elephant encounter—has an LPG connection in her house and doesn’t depend on firewood to run her kitchen anymore. With poultry in her backyard and a home garden in the front, she no longer needs to risk her life in the forest.