Mohammed Alam and his young family were enjoying their first good night’s sleep in a long time when the elephant attacked their tent.
He and his wife, both Rohingya Muslims, had fled their village in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state after soldiers began burning houses. They had trekked for five days to cross the border and carve out space on the fringes of Bangladesh’s sprawling Kutupalong refugee camp. That night, in October, they thought they were safe. “We were sleeping so soundly,” Mohammed says. “I didn’t know anything.”
First, there was trumpeting — three short, sharp bursts. Then the elephant scooped up Mohammed’s wife with its trunk and slammed her down. It trampled on Mohammed’s leg and he lost consciousness. When he woke in a hospital in Chittagong, the nearest major city, he was told his wife, father and son had all been killed.
“My family was very good,” the 25-year-old says, gazing blankly at the walls of the dark mud hut in Kutupalong where he is recuperating. “We were very happy.”
After fleeing a campaign of arson, killing and gang rape that is being called ethnic cleansing, more than 650,000 Rohingya now live in hastily constructed Bangladeshi camps. The vast majority, more than half a million, are in Kutupalong and its surrounding settlements, a contiguous area that has in less than four months mushroomed into the most densely populated refugee camp on Earth. The next largest, Uganda’s Bidi Bidi, is home to about 270,000 refugees.
But the area around Kutupalong is desperately unsuited to house so many people. Rickety shelters teeter on once-forested hills rapidly stripped bare by arriving refugees. The muddy slopes are prone to landslides. There are fears many of the fragile shelters will be washed away when monsoon season arrives in June. The close quarters are a breeding ground for infectious disease. Diphtheria, which had almost been eradicated in Bangladesh, has spread through the camps, infecting more than 3,600 people and claiming 30 lives, according to the World Health Organization.
On top of all that are the elephants. Around 70 of them live in the region and their migratory routes run through the camps, according to wildlife experts. The blockage of these corridors — strips of land where the animals move from one habitat to the other — has already led to conflicts. Six refugees were trampled to death in September and October and in late November an elephant destroyed four houses.
“The animals have no space now,” says Mohammed Asser Hussein, an official with Bangladesh’s forestry department, standing in Kutupalong camp where tents stretch far into the distance. His cap bears the image of an Asian elephant.
“They have no place to stay and no route to travel, so we are very stressed,” he says, wiping beads of sweat off his face. “What will happen to the new arrivals we don’t know.”
Wild elephants have long roamed the subtropical forests around Teknaf, the scrubby border town at Bangladesh’s southernmost tip, and Ukhia, in Cox’s Bazar district. The area was named a protected wildlife reserve several decades ago, and cutting down the forests there is illegal.
But the rapid influx of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya since August forced the government to grant them 3,000 acres of land to build camps.
Maps drawn up by the United Nations show the elephant migratory routes as thin lines snaking through the area. But refugees who set up shelters, especially on the sparsely populated edges, were given no advice on the dangers.
Noor Alam, an elderly relative of Mohammed, says the family chose the spot where the attack happened because it was less crowded. “At that time the road was used by elephants but we didn’t know it so we built our shelter there,” he says.
There have always been occasional and sometimes deadly encounters between humans and elephants in the region, but the radical environmental changes wrought by the refugee influx have ushered in a dramatic escalation, according to wildlife experts.
“In the Teknaf area, due to the Rohingya influx, the government … had to accommodate them in the forest place, in the elephants’ habitat,” says Dr. Raihan Sarker, an associate professor at Chittagong University’s Institute of Forestry and Environmental Science.
After researching human-elephant conflict in the Teknaf region for several years, he found the rate of those conflicts was rising due to deforestation even before the arrival of the refugees.
“Before the Rohingya population, the forest condition was bad. Now it’s severely bad,” he says.
“So, suddenly a huge amount of people are living there and definitely they are taking firewood from the forest and also to construct their houses in the camps. In this situation, elephants will definitely face problems finding food, resting sites and ultimately elephants will search for food in the human settlements.”
The placement of landmines on the border by the Myanmar army has further disrupted the elephants’ movement, Sarker says. These conditions could constrict the gene pool, even threatening the survival of the species, he adds.
“Elephants that are living in the Teknaf sanctuary will not be able to cross the Myanmar border and they will not get contact with the Myanmar elephants,” he says. “If this situation continues for a long time, then the elephant population in Teknaf Wildlife Sanctuary will become homogenous and then after that we’ll see less genetic variation within the population and if any disease occurs it will be easily transmitted to everyone and ultimately elephants will be lost.”
He wants the refugees to be moved to a less forested area.
“The government allows the Rohingya people on the basis of humanitarian grounds. Of course, this is a good initiative for Bangladesh, and I understand the situation, but we have plenty of land,” he says.
The fate of the Rohingya, unwanted now on both sides of the border, rests on the outcome of complex negotiations between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
In theory, the Rohingya are temporary guests. While initially welcoming the refugees, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government has made clear its intention to dispatch them back to Myanmar as quickly as possible. The two countries signed a repatriation deal in November, and Bangladesh has said it will begin the process this month by handing Myanmar a list of 100,000 Rohingya chosen at random. Bangladesh’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday it will complete the repatriation process within two years.
But most of the refugees — many left traumatized by violence — are unwilling to return without guarantees they will be safe. Thousands of Rohingya who fled similar waves of violence in the 1990s are still there.
“In Myanmar, no government authorities ever showed us sympathy, but when I came to Bangladesh I discovered there are good people who would welcome us,” said Mohammed.
The humanitarian workers who have descended on Cox’s Bazar are digging in for the long haul.
“I think [the government] might be looking with rose-tinted spectacles on this particular issue,” says Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, the UN Senior Coordinator for Emergency Response in Cox’s Bazar, speaking to Time. “Repatriation after this type of persecution just doesn’t happen in two years.”
But Bangladesh, where the Rohingya are sometimes termed “infiltrators,” may be losing patience. Cox’s Bazar is one of the poorest districts in a poor country. The prime minister bemoaned the environmental impact of the refugees at a gathering of world leaders in France last month.
“On humanitarian grounds, we have given them shelter on 1,783 hectares of our forest land in Cox’s Bazar,” she said. “The Rohingya crisis has severely affected forest and environment in that area.”
Moving refugees to “char areas” — riverine districts prone to flooding — has been touted as a solution by environmentalists. Bangladesh has said it will push forward with a heavily criticized plan to move at least 100,000 of the refugees to Thengar Char, an island that is so often underwater it is deemed uninhabitable by locals.
In the meantime, faced with multiple threats — disease, trafficking, the cyclone season — there have been few practical measures taken to mitigate the risks posed by elephants in the camps.
A spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration says the agency, which is helping lead the response, is consulting experts on human-elephant conflict and is encouraging refugees to use alternative sources of fuel in an attempt to stop the destruction of local forests.
For the relatives of those killed, the attacks are the bitterly unfair addition to a litany of tragedies.
“We fled Myanmar to take shelter here and we had to lose many of our family members,” says Noor Alam, clutching a metal bowl squashed by the elephant that he keeps as evidence.
“Oh God,” says his sister-in-law, Busara Khatun, weeping softly. “What to do? There is nothing to do. This is our life.”