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The Elephants of the Brahmaputra River Basin

by Vedic Gupta and Seema Lokhandwala

Photo: Udayan Borthakur

In the heart of India's enchanting Brahmaputra River Basin, a remarkable tale unfolds, challenging our conventional understanding of elephant behavior and migration. While we often associate these majestic creatures with lush rainforests and sweeping grasslands, a distinct group has carved out a unique path along the riverbanks of Eastern Assam. Originating from the rugged Himalayan landscapes, the Brahmaputra River embarks on a tumultuous journey, shaping the lives of both humans and wildlife in its wake.

The Brahmaputra River, with an average width of 5.46 kilometres, is India's largest river and the world's fifth-largest in terms of average discharge. Originating from the sacred Kailash Mountain ranges in the Himalayas, the river embarks on its journey through Tibet before making its way into India via Arunachal Pradesh. The monsoon season witnesses the river inflate with an immense volume of water, triggering annual floods in Assam. These floods not only reshape the landscape by eroding certain areas and unveiling new lands, but they also influence the fate of the region's inhabitants and diverse wildlife.

Unlike the traditional elephant migratory patterns, a distinct group has chosen a unique trajectory along the river basins of selected districts- Dibrugarh, Sivasagar, Majuli, and Jorhat in Eastern Assam. In 1994, a herd of 4-6 elephants, believed to have moved from Arunachal Pradesh, made their ingress into Assam via the Lakhimpur district. Subsequently, their population exhibited gradual growth. Initially, their habitat range encompassed Dhemaji and Lakhimpur districts as well, but extensive habitat clearance and fragmentation have since limited their distribution to their current range. In 2007, their population was estimated at 82 individuals, and as of today, it has grown to over 150 individuals.

These elephants follow a migration route along the northern bank of the Brahmaputra River. They begin their journey by crossing the river and entering the Dehingmukh reserve forest in the Dibrugarh district. From there, they continue their march, making their way to the Panidehing Bird Sanctuary situated in the Sivasagar district. Their migration path proceeds through the Disangmukh and Dikhowmukh regions, eventually leading them into the Jorhat district via the Jhanjhimukh area. They further advance to Nemati and then reach the Molai reserve forest, a man-made forest created by the renowned environmentalist known as the 'forest man of India,' Mr Jadav Payeng, and finally enter the Majuli district.

Subsequently, they retrace their steps along the same path, making their way back until they again reach the Dehingmukh reserve forest near the newly constructed Bogibeel bridge. It is noteworthy that the elephants of Kaziranga National Park actively prevent the entry of this herd into their territory, forcing them along their established migratory path. Interestingly, it is noted that these elephants once extended their range beyond the bridge's location, but this behaviour changed post-construction.

Majuli, a pivotal habitat for these riverine elephants, holds the distinction of being the world's largest riverine island and the first in India to gain district status. Comprising approximately 100 small sand islands known as 'saporis' locally, Majuli possesses a truly unique landscape. Majuli also stands as the main hub of Assam's neo-Vaishnavite culture and is renowned for its satras, which are Vaishnavite monasteries. These satras offer a distinctive perspective on elephants. The guruasana, a sacred throne revered within the satras, comprises seven steps. Each step features an elephant motif atop the motif of a tortoise, and atop the elephant motif rests a lion motif. This symbolic arrangement represents the tortoise as the foundation of the Earth, and the elephant, due to its massive size and mass, symbolizes 'paap' or evil deeds. The lion motif atop the elephant signifies the triumph of good over evil, contrasting with the prevailing perception of elephants as divine beings in most of India, including Assam.

Motifs of animals are being prepared every year in Majuli for decoration of Satras

Photo: Chinmoy Swargiary

Despite this somewhat negative portrayal, the local populace holds a positive attitude toward elephants. A testament to this sentiment occurred during the 2020 floods when residents in spite of being the victims of the flood themselves, marched together, collecting funds to provide food for a starving herd of elephants stranded on one of Majuli's saporis.

However, Majuli is facing a grave threat to its existence as the massive erosive forces of the Brahmaputra River relentlessly cut away at its banks every year. Over the years, this erosion has caused the island to shrink dramatically, diminishing from its former size of over 1000 square kilometres to a mere 400 square kilometres. This is concerning not only for the people living there but for these elephants as well who are already facing the threat of habitat fragmentation.

Consequently, human-elephant conflicts escalate as the herd, in search of food during migration, raids crops and occasionally destroys settlements. According to the data provided by the forest department, 66 people lost their lives between 2010-2022 due to the conflict with the elephants in the districts where these elephants migrate. This raises concerns regarding the habitat's quality and ability to supply food for these elephants along their migratory route adequately.

Despite the captivating allure of these Brahmaputra River Basin elephants, our knowledge about them remains limited due to the scarcity of studies conducted on the subject. The intriguing relationship they share with their ecosystem provokes curiosity and ignites questions and concerns. What factors underlie their choice of this distinct migratory path? Does their home range provide adequate food sources? Could the herd be susceptible to inbreeding? Will they endure the escalating floods that keep on getting worsened every year maybe due to climate change? Is their behaviour distinct from that of typical elephants? Addressing these questions becomes paramount to safeguarding the fate of these elephants and the communities inhabiting the region. Through research, new knowledge will emerge, enabling the implementation of measures to ensure not only the elephants' secure future but also the well-being of the local population.

In a world where their existence hangs in the balance, unraveling the enigma of these Brahmaputra River Basin elephants becomes not just a quest for knowledge, but a crucial endeavor to safeguard their future and the harmony of the communities that coexist with them.

About the Author :

Vedic Gupta has completed his Master's degree in Wildlife Conservation Action from Bharti Vidyapeeth Institute of Environment Education and Research (BVIEER), Pune. His fondness towards elephants bloomed during his Master's dissertation topic "Understanding Human-Elephant Conflict and its associated costs in Kendai forest range, Chhattisgarh". He has also been associated with Aaranyak’s Elephant Research & Conservation Division as an intern.

Seema Lokhandwala is an engineer turned elephant biologist, who aims to integrate technology with data and concepts from elephant communication, behavior, and ecology to understand the ecological and evolutionary processes that promote wildlife conservation.


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