by Anushka Saikia & Abhijit Boruah
Considering humans (though contentious) to be the most adaptive and intelligent species among all, can’t we take the first step towards coexistence?
A herd of elephants are seen crossing the road
Photo: Abhijit Boruah
It was my first day in a field in Meghalaya after joining Aaranyak as a field biologist. We were six from the Elephant Research and Conservation Division of Aaranyak, which included researchers, assistants and drivers, split into two teams of three members. We were visiting the South Garo Hills for an Elephant Occupancy Survey on a February afternoon.
We were driving past a stretch of Agaratuli Reserved Forest when our vehicle was abruptly stopped by a queue of two scooters, a few cycles, and a car had already pulled up. It took us just a minute to reckon what was happening. There was a crowd standing just an arm’s distance from us, with a few people cheering and a few in distress. We all could see what was coming in a moment or two.
I immediately moved a bit ahead from my seat to take a glimpse of the scene from the windscreen of the car. I felt a sudden exhilaration but with no time to dwell on the rhapsody as I was in the middle of my working hours.
Could I be more favoured to witness the giants of the wild crossing the road just a few hundred metres from me on my first day in the field? My colleague and our Project Coordinator, Abhijit Boruah, immediately got off the vehicle with his camera and lens while I was still absorbed by all I could see.
The team counts and photographs the herd of elephants
Photo: Abhijit Boruah
“Anushka, get off, count the individuals in the herd,” shrieked Abhijit. Without further delay, after taking a notebook and a pen, I jumped off my seat to count the giants crossing the narrow road that divides the 11 sq km Agaratuli Reserved Forest into two patches, one of its sides stretching along the Bangladesh border. The herd was moving towards Bangladesh, the border fences faintly appearing some 150 metres from where I stood.
I stopped counting at 12 when an adult female elephant scrutinised the entire area, looking in almost every direction, possibly trying to sense if anything was alarming. Once she crossed the road to join the herd on the other side of the road, the crowd of people who had stood still for the last couple of minutes slowly started to dissolve. People were relieved, few also started their vehicles.
As we started to take our steps back to the car, we saw a teenager on his bicycle hurriedly pedalling his way. That is when the thirteenth individual, another adult female, appeared with a huge anatomy, gently taking steps to cross the road to join her herd.
The terrified teenager immediately left his bicycle and ran for his life. The gentle steps of an elephant on its way to her herd, with absolutely no intention of frightening the humans, however, brought the latter to a halt. I started counting again until it reached 33 individuals that afternoon.
A teenager runs after encountering an elephant
Photo: Abhijit Boruah
Soon after the herd of 33 individuals crossed the road and disappeared into the deep forest, the people started to move to their respective destinations. However, our team waited until we could search for some fresh dung to collect on the roads the elephants walked past.
As we got busy with our search, we could suddenly hear the voice of a BSF soldier quite loud and clear, “mama, go away. Don’t break these fences. You, yourself, will be hurt”. The soldier was pleading, putting his palms together and bowing to the giant female elephant, asking her not to thrash the border fence.
The border fence was stretched straight until many kilometres, and I could not stop wondering where these otherwise long-ranging big herds would go. After several attempts of hitting the fence, the elephant moved back to her friends, who were by then clumped somewhere in the middle of the small patch of forest.
I had no idea if it was the soldier’s helpless plea who lovingly referred to the elephant as “mama” (most people I met in Meghalaya refer to elephants as mama) that made the elephant change her mind to not break off the thick fence dividing two countries. Nonetheless, I smirked at the thought that these innocent pachyderms have no idea that humans have divided it all: Land, air and water.
BSF soldier Suresh Kumar at very close proximity to the elephant
Photo: Abhijit Boruah
On another evening, we reached Maidukutum village in Siju, where we went to a house for a regular survey as a part of our work. We met Goze M Sangma, a 70-year-old lady. She somehow pulled out a chair to sit and chat with us in the front yard of her house and opened a small bag of local tobacco leaves, a few rolling leaves and a long cotton thread.
She started to nimbly roll the crushed tobacco with the big rolling leaf. Once it took the shape of a long thin cigarette, she tied one of its ends with the cotton thread, possibly to keep it in shape. She lit the cigarette in no time, took a puff, and lifted her dress to the knees to show us a big scar with faintly appearing sutures over it.
“Mama attacked me while working on the paddy field three years back. A herd of them came to feed on the crops when a male elephant hit me to the ground. I somehow gathered myself to escape from the danger that was coming.”
On being asked if the forest department compensated her for the incident, Goze informed that forest officials visited her immediately after the accident. However, she had not received any compensation yet.
“We never made any efforts on our part to seek the compensation. Mama hears everything we talk in the house. If we complained, they would have returned to damage our crops and houses. We are scared of even taking their name. Elephants have a good memory,” Goze’s daughter interrupted our conversation.
While Abhijit and I could hardly ratiocinate the beliefs that these villagers held towards elephants, Goze extended her hand to hold my hand for support to get up from her chair, “What will these giants otherwise feed on? Very few forests are here, all we have is the broom, betel nuts and paddy. We are helpless, so are they”.
On our way back to our field station in Siju that late evening, Engthy Marak, the forest guard who accompanied us during the survey, pointed out a village on the other hill adjacent to the one where we were driving. “That is Mandarkata village. A fisherman who went out fishing in the evening was killed by a lone elephant just last week as the latter went for drinking water from the Simsang River.”
In December 2022, an elephant moving from India was killed on the Bangladesh border, informed James Marak, the forest guard who accompanied us in Balpakram National Park in South Garo hills.
We come in a very difficult position in our professions when the victims are not just one species, which is why we cannot stand on one side and see a picture. The picture does not come in black or white but is grey; hence, it becomes tricky.
As this piece is being written, somewhere on Earth, a wildlife species or a human being is killed. There’s no space for either species, but there’s still space for coexistence. Considering humans (though contentious) to be the most adaptive and intelligent species among all, can’t we take the first step towards coexistence?
By the time we surveyed the Garo Hills region in Meghalaya and were on our way back to Guwahati, I received a mail from the Forest Ranger of Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya, Shanbormiki Law, which read “Human-elephant conflict data 2011-2020”. I turned towards Abhijit, “We have been called to Jaintia Hills next week.”
*The Article first published in DownToEarth dated 6th June 2023.
About the Authors:
Anushka Saikia is a wildlife biologist at Elephant Research and Conservation Division, Aaranyak (ERCD), Guwahati, Assam.
Abhijit Boruah is the project coordinator of Elephant Research & Conservation Division of Aaranyak.