Hiten Baishya, Elephant Programme Coordinator, Brahmaputra Landscape, WWF-India
I clearly remember, it was late during the winter month of December. The sun had set and the mist started to gather over the tea estates of Tarajuli in Sonitpur district of Assam. The clock had hardly struck 16:30, yet the area was shrouded in pitch black darkness. The combination of the cold winter and the geographic positioning of Tarajuli in northeastern India made for some of the longest nights. And, during these months, in the cover of darkness come out the raiders of the night- the Asian elephant (Elephasmaximus).
Sonitpur district in Assam, was once a safe and flourishing haven for wild elephants, but in the last two decades, the areas has seen a drastic loss of more than 60% of the lowland forest cover to agro based industries and communities. As a direct result, the large herds of elephants residing within these forests, began moving out from their fragmented habitats, taking rest in the tea gardens criss-crossing the area, thus giving unprecedented rise to unfortunate cases of human elephant conflict. In an effort to address this, the State Forest Department involve themselves in field operations, chasing herds of elephants back into the forests with the help of kunkis and local communities.
Therefore, on many such expeditions I, as the Coordinator of Elephant Conservation Programme in Assam from WWF-India, often accompany the frontline staff to primarily assist in crowd management and freeing common elephant routes to avoid any accident or mishap during elephant drive operations.
One of the operations that really stood out for me was an incident that happened few years ago in Tarajuli. We received news that a herd of 70 elephants have been raiding the tea estate area. Following the protocol, a large group of frontline staff members along with 7 kunkis, got down to chasing the herd back into the forests of Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary, with help from the local communities and I stationed myself to help manage the crowd. The herd comprising of females, sub adult males and calves were gradually edged towards the northernmost boundary of Tarajuli, while the forest department mounted on kunkis continually struggled to keep the herd from moving out into a neighbouring forest patch, grown by tea estate workers for generating fuelwood. The night was getting darker and more foggy by the second and had the herd moved into the neighbouring forest patch instead of going inside the park, it’d only become more difficult to trace them in the dark.
So, piling in maximum effort from all sides, the forest department mounted on kunkis, worked towards driving the herd to cross Jiagabharu river in order to enter the Sonai Rupai WLS. If everything went according to the intended plan, their efforts could provide the communities of at least 7-10 days of peace from elephant visits. The lack of any dominant adult males in the herd gave confidence to the team to move in closer and push the herd towards the protected area (as, female elephants are ranked less aggressive than males, the chances of any retaliation are also reduced). Out of sheer curiosity and excitement, even I moved in closer, now that we had already left the village communities behind and were moving towards Sonai Rupai WLS. The herd too kept moving in towards the desired path,having no other direction to escape into.
Suddenly, I saw a huge female stopping in her tracks while the others in the herd kept edging forward. Turning around, she stood there facing us, scanning the entire stretch of the land, and started trudging forward trumpeting at intervals. Eventually, as the distance between the frontline team reduced, her speed increased and so did the intensity of her sound. Now, she was running right towards us, undaunted by the kunkis and forest officials. Seeing a gigantic full grown female elephant give a surprise chase out of nowhere, was beyond imagination for most us involved in the operation. But soon enough, the trait of fight or flight kicked in and all of us unanimously chose “flight”, running away in different directions to save their lives!
I, too ran with whatever energy I had, looking back over the shoulder from time to time hoping to outrun the animal, when I realised that she was running in the same direction as I, and was slowly inching closer every second. Looking ahead, I tried running faster looking for any chance of escape, when I saw a culvert built for a stream coming up ahead. Luckily, a wooden post lying on the culvert made it possible for me, to run right across. The female ran right up to the edge of the culvert and stopped, staring down at me from the other side while I tried to catch some breath. Then she looked around as if looking for a way to cross over and moved towards a tea garden trench built nearby. I watched her movement and it was only a few moments later that I saw her lowering down her trunk into the trench, to help pull out her newborn calf. Once outside the trench, she pushed it towards the direction of the herd and slowly moved towards SonaiRupai WLS, where the other members of the family awaited her return.
As, commotion in the forest receded, and others joined me on the way back out of the forest, I was made to realise of my close encounter with an otherwise docile species, that took to aggressive retaliation on seeing her calf in danger of being left behind or lost!