An account of an elephant drive in Sonitpur, Assam
The time is a little after midnight. It is pitch dark outside. The only light comes from the searchlights Habil Ekka and his fellow Anti Depredation Squad members switch on from time to check their surroundings. They are grouped on a machan on the edge of their village near the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh state border in the north east of India, keeping a watch on the paddy fields. They are waiting for elephants hoping they will not come tonight. A herd of about forty elephants that moved out of their forests in neighbouring Arunachal had been reported to be on the move nearby. Except for the quiet murmur of whispered conversation among the group from time to time all is quiet. And thankfully, it remains a quiet night. But Habil remembers other sleepless nights when they spent the whole night driving wild elephants back into the forests they came out from.
Increasing human populations and loss and fragmentation of habitat is forcing more and more wild elephants to move out of forests and raid crop fields and villages for food. This results in severe economic losses to local communities and at times injury and even death of humans. To manage this rising human-elephant conflict, WWF-India is implementing ‘The Sonitpur Model’ in two districts of Assam in collaboration with the Assam Forest Department where locals are trained and equipped to form ‘Anti Depredation Squads’ that can drive the wild elephants back using searchlights, firecrackers and kunki elephants. Kunkis are trained elephants that can help the Anti Depredation Squad members in driving back wild elephants.
Meanwhile, Habil has returned home to rest for the morning. He has breakfast and is settling down for a well-earned sleep when suddenly, the trumpeting of an elephant is heard in the distance. The elephants have returned again! Habil rushes out to join his other Anti Depredation Squad members. They quickly learn that the elephants were seen entering the nearby Brahmajan Tea Estate. The Assam Forest Department is informed immediately and a group comprising Anti Depredation Squad members, local people, village defence party, student organizations, officials from the police and forest departments, tea garden workers and villagers gathers in a designated place near the elephant herd before the start of the drive operation. Everyone is briefed about the route of the drive, the places where specific people will be placed to monitor progress and safety issues. Firecrackers are distributed and two groups are made with one group taking over from the other at a predetermined point. The police officials are requested to check the Assam–Arunachal highway and stop vehicle movement if the elephant herd crosses the road. WWF-India team members, Hiten Bahishya and David Smith, based in the North Bank Landscape office in Tezpur are present on location and coordinate with everyone involved to ensure that everything goes smoothly. They started early in the morning from Tezpur carrying required supplies such as firecrackers, water, lights and batteries and reached the tea estate after a three hour drive.
The day is hot and humid. The distant hills of Arunachal in the north shimmer in the haze. The herd keeps stopping wherever they find shade. By now, a huge crowd has gathered complicating matters. Children of the nearby villages are particularly hard to control as their curiosity trumps
caution. The police, VDP members and WWF-India team keep the crowd in check so that no harm comes to them from the herd. The drive begins!
First, the kunkis fan out and move towards the herd urging the elephants to move back. They are followed on foot by the Anti Depredation Squad members who make loud noise, light crackers and shine bright lights. The herd initially remains stubborn and refuses to move. The crowd swells further and it is difficult for the police to hold them back. Everyone is curious and wants to be closer to the action! The noise increases as more crackers are burst. Finally, just when it looks like the elephants have no intention of moving, the relentless noise and the kunkis moving closer seems to work. The herd starts to move back, cross the tea estate and slowly move into the forests bordering the northern boundary of the tea estate. Another drive comes to an end successfully without any damage or harm. The excitement subsides and the crowd disperses in batches. The sudden quiet after so much activity feels unearthly. It is hard to imagine that only a little while back there was a herd of 40 wild elephants in the area. Some trampled plants and huge footmarks on a muddy mound are the only signs left behind by the elephants.
The Anti Depredation Squad members and everyone else involved gather around for some water and fresh tea. Habil’s tired face breaks into a slow but satisfied smile. It is hard work, dealing with wild and
unpredictable elephants, an unruly crowd and the heat and humidity. But his energy never falters. 34 years old and living near the Daflagarh Tea Estate nearby, he is passionate about what he does and knows the importance of conservation. “If all villagers work together as a team we can solve this problem without causing harm to the elephants and protecting our crops. I hope people from other villages in the area also come forward and get trained to form more Anti Depredation Squads with WWF’s help,” he says.
“It is amazing to see the kind of support we get from everyone involved to ensure that the drive is successful and smooth. Every drive needs to be well planned and done carefully as there is a real danger of people getting injured. This is where people like Habil are important in getting locals to be part of the Anti Depredation Squads,” adds Hiten Bhaishya, Coordinator, Elephant Conservation, NBL & KKL, WWF-India.
Habil heads back home on his cycle for a well-deserved break. He will be back though after dinner to again sit on the machan with his fellow squad members for another vigil through the night, hoping that the elephants do not come back.