One with nature

Rohingya refugees take on environmental challenges

Their lives are difficult, and often dangerous. But thanks to elephant response simulations, rallies for the environment and creation of handicrafts, the Rohingya refugees in Kutupalong are finding ways to ease some of the difficulties they face.

On the occasion of World Refugee Day today, June 20, IUCN celebrates art and innovation, the courage of displaced people, and those moments of joy and laughter that give humanity hope for the future. 

With over 600,000 residents, Kutupalong Settlement in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, is the world's largest refugee camp. The camp sprawls over the Myanmar-Bangladesh wild elephant migratory path.

Since August 2017, after the violent clashes in Myanmar's Rakhine state drove hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees into neighbouring Bangladesh, 13 people – including children – have been killed in encounters with elephants.

Elephants follow
the same paths that their
ancestors have taken for

Elephant footprints in a dry rice field near Kutupalong Settlement © IUCN Bangladesh

They may also charge when they
feel threatened, and can be terrifying 
to those who encounter them.

Children collect firewood from the hills around the settlement, where they are in danger of running into elephants © Sultan Ahmed / IUCN Bangladesh

With fewer than 300 individuals in Bangladesh, Asian elephants are classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™.

According to an IUCN survey carried out earlier this year, as many as 45 of Bangladesh's Asian elephants could be in the hills and forests around Kutupalong.

tusk force

IUCN and UNHCR have joined forces with the Rohingya community to form the Tusk Force, aiming to stop human-elephant conflict in its tracks and keep both vulnerable groups safe.

Children cool off in the shade of the "baby" elephant puppet, in a dry rice field filled with elephant footprints © UNHCR / Caroline Gluck

In February, Elephant Response Teams (ERTs) were established.

35 ERTs, each composed of 10-12 Rohingya volunteers, received classroom instruction and practical training from IUCN experts on what to do in case of elephant incursion. They also learned how to prevent these potentially lethal encounters from happening in the first place.

The IUCN and UNHCR Tusk Force also set up watchtowers at key locations, where elephants were most likely to leave the hills and enter the settlement. The towers give ERT members a vantage point to monitor elephant activity.

Upon spotting an elephant, they use whistles, torches, and handheld megaphones to guide the animals away from the settlement and people's houses, and encourage them back into the surrounding forest. 

In March, a new strategy was devised to foster friendlier associations with elephants among the community, and to get everyone involved in staying safe.

An ERT volunteer puts the finishing touches on a life-sized baby elephant puppet © Samiul / IUCN Bangladesh

Under the guidance of Bangladeshi artist Kamruzzaman Shadhin, and led by ERT members, refugees built three life-sized elephant puppets with bamboo skeletons and colourful patchwork skin.

On a weekend in early April, ERT members maneuvered the puppets through a dry rice field, simulating an elephant incursion. Other volunteers, pretending to be sleeping inside their houses or bystanders bearing witness, demonstrated to the crowd of spectators what to do if they ever found themselves in similar situations. 

The event marked a significant step forward. Rather than a fearsome enemy, elephants are now viewed as a threat that can be dealt with.

ERT members also discovered that they could handle not just elephants, but other wildlife that found its way into the settlement – like the 12ft (3.6m) reticulated python (Python reticulatus) that took everyone by surprise in June.

ERT volunteers rescued the snake, and the Bangladesh Forest Department released it into nearby Mochoni Nature Park.

Joining the fight to Beat plastic pollution

Over the course of the next few months, the ERTs became champions not just for wildlife, but also against plastic pollution.

An ERT volunteer gathers plastic bottles from a drainage gutter on World Environment Day © IUCN Bangladesh

Cox's Bazar is a low-lying coastal area, and prone to flooding. Kutupalong Settlement, with its very basic infrastructure, does not have the ability to cope with the large volume of water brought by monsoons.

On World Environment Day (WED) on June 5, ERT volunteers came together and led a cleanup of plastic in the camp. Their aim was to clear the water drainage system of debris and to work towards preventing flood-related problems.

Children help ERT volunteers to collect plastic waste and keep their community clean and safe © Sahrin Jahan / IUCN Bangladesh

Just a few weeks before WED, ERT volunteers took to the streets of Kutupalong and rallied in support of wildlife, to mark International Day for Biological Diversity on 22 May.

art for the future

 Today, on the occasion of World Refugee Day, ERT volunteers will give another field demonstration on human-elephant conflict management in the settlement, and put on a puppet show for children. 

Together with UNHCR, IUCN is also providing an opportunity for Rohingya artisans to display their handicrafts at the Cox's Bazar Cultural Center. 

An artisan makes and displays clay figurines of people riding elephants, buffalo and oxen © Samiul / IUCN Bangladesh 

An artisan from the community weaves a basket out of bamboo © Samiul / IUCN Bangladesh
IUCN is #WithRefugees

To learn more about IUCN's work with UNHCR in Cox's Bazar, please visit our website, or click on the links below:

UNHCR, IUCN launch plan to prevent human-elephant conflict in Bangladesh refugee settlement

World's Largest Refugee Settlement celebrates World Environment Day 2018

Smiles and slapstick as Rohingya refugees learn to corral elephants

Cover photo: Refugee community members and ERT volunteers gather for a demonstration of what to do in the event of an elephant encounter © Md Abdul Motaleb / IUCN Bangladesh