“Raha, Raha, Raha!” urges Panchanan Nayak. He is a short, wiry man, his voice barely above a hoarse whisper, yet his sense of urgency to ‘stop’ reaches the three-ton, eight foot cow elephant who grinds to a halt, using her trunk to contain her young son, who is not so ‘obedient’. She is a wild elephant, even if she goes by the name of ‘Lakshmi’, and she is the matriarch of the herd, who follow her lead.  The group of 25-odd elephants have paused—if visibly impatient—just short of the busy Bhubaneswar-Athgarh highway (Odisha) and across-to the paddy fields beyond.


It’s surreal:  25 wild elephants contained in their path by ‘Panchu’ and his three colleagues—Sanatan, Santosh and Dileep—who form the ‘Athgarh Elephant-conflict Mitigation Squad’. Not by force; no, of course not. Not by  blank-firing from guns, bursting crackers, burning mashals to drive harried animals—the methods usually deployed across India, to contain or get rid of ‘conflict elephants’ as they enter towns, bazaars, fields that are now dense human habitation areas, and which were once forests.  Actually, ’squad’ is somewhat of a misnomer, a grandiose title for what is essentially a rag-tag group of four daily wagers employed by the forest department and armed with nothing more than mobile phones, to coordinate between themselves, call in additional forest staff for reinforcements, or police to control crowds.

Here, man and beast communicated.

It was late afternoon when the elephants approached the road. Traffic was at its peak, and people milled around: working in the fields, doing brisk business in the dhabas and sundry shops that line the highway, children racing back home from school, cowherds herding their cattle back home. On the edge of the road, barely hidden by a forest fragment, the elephants were restless. On the other side, though much further, was water (this is a dry landscape with scant water sources), and the paddy was ready for harvest—an easy, power-packed snack for the pachyderms (the small, patchy forests of Athgarh that they are confined to does not have the forage to sustain them).

End of a Sanctuary

The elephants were also very stressed. They are the erstwhile Chandaka elephants, a sanctuary on the outskirts of Odisha’s capital, Bhubaneswar, whose rapid, ill-planned expansion fragmented it. Chandaka forests were once contiguous to the Kapilas forests further north, and westwards along the left bank of the Mahanadi, they extended towards Narsinghpur and into what is today the Satkosia Tiger Reserve and Mahanadi Elephant Reserve. Once upon a time, the elephants traversed the entire landscape. Ancient instincts, and knowledge, dictates their movements, the paths they take. They know they must move to strengthen their bloodlines, and not to overburden a forest—given that one elephant consumes about two quintals a day.   They are not just copious consumers,  but also distributors of seeds which they disperse, smartly packaged in fodder-dung-as they travel, contributing, in a major way, to a forest’s plant diversity.  Confining elephants in small islands, and pushing it to feed in fields, will slowly, but surely, wither a forest, as in the case of Chandaka.

A mixed Sal forest, Chandaka represents the northern tip of the Eastern Ghats, not as celebrated as the Western Ghats, but equally rich in biodiversity. Chandaka had tigers once, with the last resident recorded in 1967.  Even as the big cat vanished, it continued to harbour other rare species—elephants, leopards, sloth bears, ratels etc. It was declared the Chandaka-Dampara Wildlife Sanctuary in 1982, to protect elephants—it had over 80 till 2002 in its 190 sq km—and serve as Bhubaneswar’s green lungs. 

Over time, the dynamics of the city and the forest changed. From a quaint capital built post-independence in 1948, Bhubaneswar has grown rapidly with a vision to transform the Chaudwar-Cuttack-Bhubaneswar urban conglomerate into a metropolis that will replace Kolkata as the ‘hub of the east’.  Gated colonies, large institutes (Bhubaneswar has over a 100 engineering colleges, plus a number of management and other institutes), tech parks, hospitals, malls have come up, decimating, engulfing the sanctuary and its surrounding forests.

Even within the sanctuary there were problems. Chandaka was also neglected, mismanaged—overgrazed by cattle, exploited for firewood, encroached by villages, it no longer offered refuge, indeed became hostile for its denizens. Pushed out, elephants raided fields, blundered into residential colonies and institutes that were once forests. Crackers, shotguns, crowds, mobs and mayhem invariably followed wherever they went. The desperate, bewildered elephants were on the run, hounded by mobs, harassed by hostile villagers. A few fell on the wayside: some from sheer exhaustion, others were poisoned, electrocuted. Six including two calves were crushed by a speeding train as they travelled southward, toward  Chilika. Some-‘our’ elephants waded through the river Mahanadi, across towns villages and industries and highwaysto reach Athgarh.

There are too many stories here—an entangled mesh of rapid, rabid development and expanding human footprint, of deforestation and splintered natural habitats, of people and animals locked in war…and people and animal sharing an astonishing, inexplicable bond.

Breaking the species barrier /an elephantine bond

It is this chimerical drama unfolding that dominates my mind. Elephants: chased away from their home, chased everywhere, trapped in forest scraps. Untamed, cornered, desperate. Pushed into conflict with man, they have retaliated, killing people. Yet, they ‘listen’, and respond to this motley group of men who are, literally, their shadow.

Why? I ask the Athgarh squad.

The answer is as simple as it’s complicated: “The elephants know we help them.”

Indeed. When the elephants are harangued by a mob, the trackers lead them to safety; when amidst traffic and crowds, they free them of the terror only a trapped wild creature knows. If the elephants are in the vicinity of the railway  tracks they call up the station master at the Raj Athgarh railway station to get him to signal trains to slow down.   They have warned electricity department authorities of sagging power cables—an easy, frequently used weapon to kill elephants. In Odisha alone, over 60 elephants have been electrocuted in the last five years.

They have even rescued Lakshmi’s five-year-old calf, Nungura (‘the one who teases’, so-called because he is a bit of brat. Naughty, curious, whimsical,  “actually not unlike my own son, Pintu,” mutters Panchu as his mates holler in glee),  who slipped into an open well. The calf whimpered, shrieked, flailed in the depths, as the herd desperately tried, and failed, to lift him out with their trunks. The inevitable crowd gathered.  Curious—and suicidal—onlookers who tried to get close to watch the tamasha were charged at by an enraged, distressed Lakshmi.  A few came particularly close, unmindful, even mocking, of the panicked pachyderms,  mobile held aloft to click selfies—not an uncommon occurrence in volatile situations, and Lakshmi charged, stopping just short of them. She bellowed in warning, once, twice, thrice; maybe more, but heedless, the men jostled ahead, peering into the well. Tormented by the crowd, and terrified for her calf, Lakshmi struck….killing one man.

The situation was rapidly getting out of hand, if not explosive, when the squad arrived.

They admit to a brief moment of fear—after all Lakshmy had just killed a human—before it flickered out. “The elephants were not killers. They will not harm intentionally. We knew it was only because she was provoked, cornered, and like all mothers, fiercely protective.”

“So we talked to a distraught Lakshmi, calmed her, reassured her that we would get back her child… only she has to let us do our job.” The matriarch moved away, a silent sentinel, as with the help of a JCB, the calf was rescued, and united with her mother, and the herd.

In the alien, inimical world that the elephants have been tossed into, they know, and understand, that they have these men on their side.

Such bonds,  and elephant behaviour, while extraordinary, is not unheard of.

Elephants are the most intelligent of animals, are adept tool users (fashion twigs to shoo pesky flies, break electric fences, designed to keep them out, with logs, and clear wires using their tusks to provide a safe passageway), have strong social, familial bonds; are sensitive, empathic, known to comfort one another in times of distress.  When threatened, adults in a group  close rank, get into a huddle, encircling and shielding their babies with their bulk. In North Bengal, five elephants were mowed down by a speeding train  in 2010 when trying to save two of their young trapped on the Siliguri-Alipurduar track. In Corbett National Park, a mother carried the wasting body of her still-born calf for days, and constantly touched, caressed by others in her herd in an effort to comfort her.

They co-operate and coordinate to solve problems, understand and respond to people. Researchers in  Amboseli (Africa) speak of individual elephants recognising them after a gap of 12 years.  In Manas Tiger Reserve, guards recall that elephant herds would gravitate toward their quarters during the period of insurgency  that saw brutal violence and poaching. Did they feel safer? We don’t know-but in times of peace, such behavior diminished. A severely dehydrated tusker in Uttarakhand allowed forest officials and vets help him—even pour gallons of glucose water down his throat. When better, he calmly walked away, as his rescuers stood by.

While these seem anecdotal oddities, science supports that elephants are intelligent, social, empathetic beings with a problem solving ability.

Us vs Them

Back at Athgarh, this relationship is taking a toll on the trackers.  Their affinity to the elephants has alienated them from the other village folk, at times even their families, who bear them a grudge for the loss of crop ‘their’ animals have caused, and the havoc they create.   A few locals  also find this the perfect pretext to strike back for being caught by the watchers/trackers for poaching game  (ie deer, boar) for the pot.

Sanatan says his father is fed up, he fears for his son who is embroiled in this bizarre confrontation and the community’s wrath. So, he offered to pay Sanatan the piddly amount he gets as wages, if he left his job, and the elephants alone.

But Sanatan won’t. Like the rest of the squad, for better or for worse he is bonded to the elephants. 

It’s wasn’t always so. Their employment in 2011  was trigged by the escalating human-elephant conflict,  particularly a recent elephant caused mortality.

It was like throwing them in deep water…and not knowing how to swim. Panchu & gang were unacquainted with elephants, their impression of the animal largely based on the stories of conflict and confrontation.  Understandably, they were apprehensive.  Clueless. So, they generally followed the elephants, at a “very safe distance”, joining the crowd in bursting crackers, lung power and loud bangs in an effort to scare them away.

It didn’t work. Infact, quite the opposite. The uproar spooked the animals,   leading to greater chaos, and damage.

The turning point was when they realised that the elephants were as terrified. “We also sensed that they didn’t misuse their immense strength, their power—they could have actually caused us grievous harm, as we bumbled behind, trying to chase them away,” muses Panchu. “This gave us courage. “

And as they monitored their charges, 24×7, they learnt about elephant behavior, individual characteristics. They identified which one was unpredictable, which one calm. They knew that Lakshmi was gentle, yet aggressive. As the matriarch responsible for her herd, would put her life at risk, and kill others if she felt threatened. They learnt it was hunger and thirst which drove the elephants. And they saw them grieve–when one of the elephants was burnt, electrocuted, the group surrounded the carcass, circling it, touching it, shaking their heads, back and forth, calling out seemingly in distress. 

The fear factor fell-on the part of both man, and beast. The elephants started recognising them, even looking out for them in times of distress…which, say the trackers, motivates them to go on, against all odds. 

It’s certainly not the money, the wages are poor all of them have other means of livelihood.  Panchu, for instance, runs a small farm supply shop, the rest supplement their income with their small landholdings. Tackling conflict situations is stressful, at times risky, and knows no hours or Sundays. While their kith and kin celebrate Diwali and other festivals, the squad steps up its vigilance during festivities, with the accompanying noise and crowds. Nights are when the elephants are more vulnerable—to open transmission wires or around train tracks, where fatal accidents occur more often after the sun has set.

Failing the Elephant God

But  even such 24×7 monitoring and dedication cannot be a solution to the vexing issue of human-elephant conflict, unless the root of the problem-vanishing, fragmented habitat-is addressed. Let me briefly illustrate how loss of forest cover directly causes, and increases, conflict. The worst afflicted in the country is North Bengal, elephants kill no less than 50 people in the two districts of Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling.  But where do the elephants go-they have lost nearly 70 per cent of their original habitat in the region, which has been occupied over the years by tea estates, labour lines, fields, defence infrastructure, hydel projects, highways, rail tracks, resorts, etc .

Elephants have been killed as well; many bear the scars,  burns from lighted mashals, their bodies limp and pock marked with bullets.   It wounds the spirit as well.  Calves born, and living, with conflict are not unlike  children raised in war zones:  anxious, traumatised; and having never known peace are more prone to get into conflict situations.

The conflict mitigation team here is the ‘Mal Squad’ (based in Mal Bazar) and was set up in 1979, the oldest such in the country. It receives  no less than 50 distress calls a day.   

At best, squads such as these can diffuse the crisis—but it’s not unlike applying a band aid to a festering, bleeding wound.

In Athgarh, the sliver of forests in which these 25-odd elephants are confined cannot sustain them. As instincts dictate, the animals have tried to get back to their original home range, Chandaka, but were obstructed by barriers—moats and walls built as part of management plans by the forest department. When the need of the hour is to restore the habitat in Chandka.

The elephants were turned away, from a sanctuary created to protect them.

Even the fragments that they inhabit now in Atthgarh are further threatened. Grassy meadows which the pachyderms prefer, are being plotted, concretised, built up. Worse, one of the critical water sources, a natural pond is slated to be filled up for a ‘Picnickers Paradise park’.

Noone bothers to consult the squad when elephant habitat or a crucial waterhole is signed away for a power plant  or a shopping complex or any private use. The trackers form the lowest rung, in fact as contract labour, they do not even exist in the official hierarchy of the forest department.

The bitter irony is, in a state which has forsaken its elephants, this ‘squad’, and others like it in similar conflict hotspots across the elephant’s range, are the animals’ only saviours.  As Aditya Panda, a conservationist who works closely with the Athgarh tracker says, “It’s no exaggeration to say that the conflict mitigation  squad are the only barriers between elephants and humans that exist practically in a state of war.”

Forsaken-because the state has been a mute spectator to the slaughter of elephants by electrocution, train accidents, poisoning, and poaching for ivory.  It  has diverted and destroyed critical elephant habitat and corridors; in fact, it even refused to notify two proposed elephant reserves-South Odisha  and Baitarani Elephant Reserve, in deference of mining interests.

Ironically, this landscape is rich with elephant lore. Historically, the war elephants of these  jungles were the most coveted. Not many miles from Chandaka, about 30 as the crow

flies is the ancient elephant sculpture at Dhauli, where the emperor Ashoka

embraced Buddhism, and ahimsa. It was this that birthed the Arthshastra, which lays down the first laws to protect the elephant, and its forests.

It is not just the state which has forsaken the elephant, though.

In India, the Elephas maximus is strictly protected by law and is listed under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. It is also accorded the status of our Natural Heritage Animal, given how intrinsically it is linked to our culture, and revered as Ganesha, the God of Good Fortune.

Yet….it appears we are at war with our Gods—the turmoil and the conflict at Athgarh is a microcosm of what is happening across its range as forests and ancient pathways of elephants are decimated, drowned, destroyed, by mining, industries, urbanisation, dams, railway lines,  highways etc.  Consequently, human-elephant conflict has escalated across its range, with fatal consequences to both sides—all over India about 300 people lose their lives to elephants annually-and many elephants are felled in conflict.

The central government also failed to act on the recommendations of the Elephant Task Force it appointed in 2010. One key recommendation was to create an empowered National Elephant Conservation Authority along the lines for the tiger, but was dismissed.  While some cosmetic  recommendations viz. the Haathi Mera Saathi (the title of a popular yesteryear Bollywood film translated to ‘Elephant my Friend’ ) campaign was started with much fanfare, substantial recommendations of bringing crucial elephants habitats and corridors under some kind of graded legal protection  was not taken on board.

Currently, only a third of elephant habitat is covered under the Protected Area network. What dictated this again was the fact that elephant habitat is also prime coal and iron-ore belt.

Meanwhile,  back in Betakholi, Athgarh, dusk has fallen and elephants have broken cover, the squad  readies to watch over their herd, now a little too close for comfort to the village.  I wonder, worry about their future, grapple for a solution to this complex and arguably hopeless issue.  I look to our ‘elephant men’ who say that it is not the elephants who are the problem. “Elephants are wise, intelligent, peaceable and beings with a heart, a conscience.  We have wreaked havoc into their lives-taken their home, food, their family is being killed, and so they are pushed into being something they are not-aggressive, erratic, belligerent. Whatever ‘solution’ we think of, has to keep elephant in mind, and not stress them further. Only then there is hope…”

Profound. And true. But is anyone listening?

@prerna singh bindra

Inputs from Aditya Chandra Panda . Follow him on twitter: @AdityaPanda 

This story was first published in The FountainInk in its April 2016 issue here: https://series.fountainink.in/the-elephant-men-of-odisha/