Sleepless in Sonitpur - for the love of Elephants | WWF India

When danger looms over a village in Sonitpur district, it’s announced either by the loud trumpeting of elephants or by informants who have kept up all night to keep guard.  

Fully trained to tackle a situation like this, a few men, armed with nothing more than searchlights and firecrackers, mount kunkis and make their way towards the approaching sounds. Their weapons are simple because they want to avoid harming the elephants, even though the pachyderms sometimes represent danger to life, limb and livelihoods.

These men – students, forests guards, villagers and local community members – form the Anti Depredation Squad (ADS) of the Upar Kachari  Bokagaon village and have volunteered to guard the village against raiding wild elephants. By chasing the animals from human inhabited regions to forested areas, the ADS groups help protect not only the villagers’ lives and property but the giant animals they’re trying to keep away. As elephants are diverted before they reach human settlements, conflicts between humans and animals are reduced, preventing loss of human lives and property, and in turn reducing retaliatory elephant killings. 

Trained Anti-depradation squad members play a crucial role in carrying out elephant drives. Photos © Rommel Shunmugam/WWF

The practice so far has been crucial in bringing relief to villages that are often paid visits by the large mammals. “Last year, an elephant raid had destroyed my crop. We were lucky no lives were lost during the raid. We believe that when a rescue team is locally and immediately available, crisis situations can be better managed; at times even completely prevented; before forest/police officials can arrive,” says Dibakar Basumatary, villager from Upar Kachari, Bokagaon.

The task, however, is neither easy nor completely reliant on force, particularly because the team does not want to injure any of the elephants. Driving away an elephant is not a matter of exercising physical power against an approaching invader, as it may seem. “Among other things, timely action is absolutely important. If we don’t know well in time that an elephant or a herd of elephants is on its way to the village, we risk putting our lives in danger. With the help of WWF-India, we know how important it is to maintain a solid information network,” says Pallab Das, member of ADS squad, Kumarigaon village of Sonitpur. Pallab Das and other villagers have been trained by WWF-India in maintaining records of elephant herds, their type and movement.

Kunki elephants support the ADS members in diverting wild elephants away from human settlements
© David Smith/WWF-India

Lessons in elephant behavior also form a major part of these workshops. Studying how an elephant will react in a particular situation can help volunteers better strategize the drive. “During these workshops, we particularly emphasize on the behavior of loner male elephants. This is because most of the human deaths and injuries are caused by such elephants in groups of two and three,” says David Smith  of WWF-India. Musth is a periodic and physiological condition during which elephants like these become highly aggressive and can prove to be very dangerous. It is, therefore, a must for squad members to understand elephant behavior and how to identify and be cautious of such elephants” he adds.

What these lessons in animal behavior and psychology also help achieve – other than protecting villages and crops – is a sense of empathy in people towards these sentient creatures.

Did you know?

- Elephants are like us in many ways! They have individual histories, interests, personalities and are one of the few known animals that can recognize themselves in a mirror!

- Elephants don’t have any sweat glands – that’s why they spend so much time wallowing in the mud to cool down!

- However, elephant numbers are seeing a sharp decline because of threats such as poaching, conflict with humans, train accidents and degrading habitats! 95 percent of the Asian elephant population has been killed during the last 100 years.

Forming an ADS team, in this way, not only secures livelihood and property in small Indian villages, but helps protect the Indian elephant – listed as endangered by the IUCN since 1986. As the squad drives away wild elephants before they reach human inhabited areas, confrontations between humans and the animal are prevented, protecting elephants from human rage. “Human-wildlife conflict is one of the many reasons that threaten elephants in the Indian landscape. We believe, it is only with the involvement of, and by benefiting local communities, which frequently come in contact with the wild, that we can build a sustained movement to protect the natural world,” says Hiten Kr. Baishya, WWF-India.

Anti-depradation squad members with the WWF-India team © Rommel Shunmugam/WWF

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