To start Wildlife Week 2023, we take you to the resplendent Garo Hills in Meghalaya. Yash Magan Shethia, Director, Wildlife & Habitats recalls a unique encounter with a herd. Written by Sonal Sharma.

This story is set in the forests of South Garo Hills, Meghalaya in the warm June of 2012, the land of sacred groves and elephant country. I was stationed in Baghmara for an elephant conservation project. One of the most distinctive features of the region, I found, was that the dense forests and verdant expanse of hills were mostly under community custodianship. I got to witness firsthand the incredible alliance of community and forests. Any conservation efforts or projects to preserve elephant habitat require the complete acceptance and extensive support of the local community.

Baghmara was a quaint, picturesque town at the border outpost in South Garo Hills. Right adjacent to it was the Baghmara Reserve Forest, a 45 square kilometre, monitored jungle area in the large approximately 3000 sq km community reserve. A few miles away from Balpakram National Park and Siju Wildlife Sanctuary, the Baghmara Reserve Forest served as an elephant corridor to enable their movement across protected areas. The Baghmara Pitcher Plant Sanctuary nearby was home to a great variety of carnivorous plants and dense green foliage. One could see the  Simsang River winding its way from Nokrek Range and flow through the town, with many small interconnected streams merging with its course. One such was the Karvani Stream gently rippling along, with a familiar forest on its bank.

Back then, working on elephant conservation research, my colleagues and I had a regular acquaintance with the locals. Being the only Gujarati, on this side of the hills, I became something of an exhibit for the local community. People would often come to see me, their friend from the Westernmost corner of India. After a busy work week, my colleagues and I often went for weekend afternoon dips in the Karvani Stream.

It was one such Saturday afternoon, we were on our way to Karvani. This short walking trip entailed crossing a small forest patch to reach the stream. While everyone was aware that this was an elephant area, very few had ever been sighted and seldom on the street or the forest road. It seemed like they were always around, a glimpse, a turn away, but we could never see them. Our frame of reference was a few encounters in Kaziranga, grasslands where one could spot an approaching elephant a mile away. In stark contrast were these thick jungles of Garo, lush with canopies of Needlewood and Mahua. Elephants here moved almost noiselessly on the wet forest floor. It was difficult to ascertain their presence nearby if not for the occasional rumble.

We were merrily splashing away in the stream, grateful for the respite from the humidity and warm sun when we heard a distant rumble. We initially ignored it, thinking it to be a vehicle on the road. However, as the ominous rumble drew closer, my colleague and I became alert. After a few minutes, he observed that it was highly probable that this was an elephant rumble and we should immediately make our way out of the water and away from the forest. The deep rumble, while not an outright warning, was indicative enough that it made us get out of the stream. We hastily scrambled out and rushed off from the area - vigilant and guard up the entire way back home.

This experience was particularly interesting because to date we wonder if the rumbles were deliberate or not. There have been many such incidents and almost-encounters in and around Baghmara Forest Reserve but there have rarely been any close sighting. The region was also rife with human-elephant conflicts due to animosity against a few herds which would raid the neighbourhood jute fields at night. Our team had spent quite a few mornings gauging the aftermath of the raids. It was rumoured that to adapt to their surroundings, especially their conflicts with humans, the elephants of this region had altered their diurnal behaviour to become strictly nocturnal. There were always tell-tale signs of their presence, a rumble here, a dung heap there, but they purposely remained elusive to us. The elephants of Garo had become like mystical legends, always around, never seen, but frequently heard.

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