In July 2023, WWF-India invited illustrations to enrichen real-life stories from the field. Inseparable, is an account narrated by Hiten Baishya -- Landscape Coordinator, Brahmaputra Landscape written by Sonal Sharma, with artwork by Anna Thomas.
This story is of a sombre October day in 2017. I was stationed in Biswanath, a small quaint town perched in the floodplains of the temperamental Brahmaputra, in Assam. A road snaked along the forest office which led straight up to the river at Biswanath Ghat and the famous Gupta Kashi temple. The water-corroded grey stone posts and beams, telltale of old temple ruins. As one stands at the ghats, along the silver riverine beach only accessible during the winters when the water recedes back, one can peer across to see the 6th Additional area of Kaziranga on the other side with a small, mostly privately owned island in the middle of the river, the Umatumoni island.
This remote but scenic island encompassed a privately owned resort and tea estate along with a small tract of wetland under conservation. Also popular among archaeology enthusiasts, one could also find numerous petroglyphs and inscriptions around the island. The October incident was set here, in the deserted wetland of Umatumoni, a few kilometres into the river from mainland Kaziranga. We were informed one day of three elephants who had ventured out, probably from Kaziranga, and had taken refuge in the wetland. Upon inquiry, we came to the conclusion that it was, in fact, a family of three, an adult female with an infant and another young tusker, possibly 4-5 years old. It was believed that the older female elephant was injured. The family, looking for a safe space to rest and recuperate, ended up as visitors to the wetland.
Three days after their arrival on the island, unable to recover from her injuries, the mother passed away. Someone on the island noticed the elephant family and informed us of the tragedy. The forest department officials arrived promptly, to a heart-wrenching sight, of an infant still trying to suckle milk from his dead mother’s teats. The calf held onto its mother for dear life, unable to comprehend her stillness. The news of the mother elephant’s tragic passing spread across the region.
We reached the scene a few hours later, to witness the young infant agitated and wild, aggressively charging toward whoever tried to separate him from his mother. The other young tusker stood resolutely, protecting his mother’s corpse, guarded and menacing. The calves were broken and confused with grief and there was a tragic madness, akin to human-ness, in their grief. Upon discussion with the forest officials and other conservationists on the scene, it was decided that two calves had to be rescued or they might not make it. It also became increasingly clear to us that in order to move the mother and successfully rescue the aggressive calves, we had to get innovative.
Crowds of people were quickly piling up. Anyone who was someone in elephant conservation in Assam came to assist. It is true when they say, it takes a village. That day, every conservationist there, and every official worked hard to devise ingenious ways to save the calves and transport the older elephant’s corpse from the island to Kaziranga. We also realised the might of the Brahmaputra while dealing with logistical challenges, the turbulent river was stronger than a horde of elephants but also forgiving. It was a race against time, we knew we had to accomplish the plan before daybreak tomorrow.
The rescue operation was to be carried out first. The infant was temperamental and had to be tranquilised in order to get him aboard the boat safely. He was finally rescued after much ado, lifted aboard, and ferried across the river to the opposite bank. The older calf was a tougher case, seemingly immune to the tranquilisers. He would remain calm and still under the tranquiliser’s influence for a brief while but as soon as any rescuer approached him, his survival instinct kicked in and he would regain consciousness. After multiple failed attempts, the young feisty tusker was sedated. Upon sedation, the task at hand was to move this large, young tusker, from the middle of the wetland to the bank, with the additional risk of not waking him up. This was not a few men’s jobs. The terrain was marshy, and hilly at times and a solid group of 25-30 people joined in to move the elephant to the ferry. To our relief, both the siblings were successfully rescued and relocated to a rescue center in Kaziranga where they went on with their lives.
The mother elephant’s corpse was transported back to Kaziranga. Its journey was solemn but possibly at peace, knowing her children were now safe. We were informed, some months later, that the young tusker was in training to assist as a Kumki elephant, and the infant, now a year old, was a resident of Kaziranga and had found a herd to call home.
I have been in elephant conservation for a few years now, but the giant pachyderms continue to amaze me ever so often, with their wit and compassion. A mother’s love is like no other, especially in the elephant world. With a gestation period of 22 months, the expecting mother elephant carries her baby in her womb for approximately two years before birthing and showing her child the ways of the world. During infancy, the mother ensures the calf never strays away more than a trunk’s length from her, while she gently supports it by grasping its tail with her trunk. There have been instances in the wild, where elephant mothers carry their injured calves, across rivers, over obstacles, often using their own bodies to protect their child. Elephant mothers are inspiring and humbling, their motherhood is truly evidence of their compassion. Nature has the sweetest stories to tell if only we listen with a soft heart.