A forest guard shares with us his chance encounter with an elephant that had strayed out of the jungle. It was a harrowing experience for him as this was his first job. But he learnt something important
It was 6 am, September 23, 2018. I got a call from an unknown number. The voice at the other end sounded urgent. “Where are you guard jee? An elephant has wandered near Charahi railway station. Can you please ensure it is sent away somewhere else? Otherwise, either your elephant will cause loss of life and property or people will harm him.” And then, he almost threatened: “In either case, it is your job at stake; remember, you are very new into this job.”
“My elephant?” I thought, how was the elephant “my elephant” (Forest department’s)? Elephants and other animals are free-living beings of the forest. Since when did they become a property of any government department? It did not matter. At that moment, it was a fact that the elephant had strayed into my sub-forest area. The irritated novice in me fretted, “Damned this elephant!! Of all the places, he had to find Charahi Railway Station and not some forest? What an idiot!”
But it was my job, and I headed to the spot with a forest guard colleague Ajay Kumar. My mother was repeatedly calling from home. It was a Sunday, a holiday. She was waiting to have breakfast with me. What could I tell her? Rather than telling her the situation and worrying her, I told her I was out with my friends at the bazaar and will have something to eat there. “You go ahead, ma, I will be back in a while”.
How do I chase away the elephant? In the meantime, I reached the railway station area with my colleague. My first thought was: “I am here, alright. But how do I chase away an elephant? It is huge. And wild. He is not a pup who would tamely follow me somewhere, it couldn’t be lifted and dropped back to the jungle. The scene around the railway resembled a village fair. Some men were offering puja as if to the ceremonial elephant, while a few daredevils tried to click selfies and make videos of the elephant. Some parents got their kids along. But it was the local journalists who were the most nuisance. They took photos and were posting it on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp and spreading rumours. Clearly, there was no thought applied, with the headlines screaming: ‘Wild elephant creating ruckus, forest department missing in action’.
Each of those present there was worried. The villagers were thinking if the elephant continues to stay put, how will they reach the jungles near their village? Worse, will he damage houses or cause harm to children? Railway guys were worried that if the elephant ended up on the tracks, will the train movement be hampered? The forest department was rattled as to how to remove the elephant from the station area?
“Why did this stupid fellow have to come here on a Sunday, sending my schedule topsy-turvy, I grumbled. In all this melange, none of us had bothered to think about the elephant who was visibly rattled as he had strayed away from his herd and reached this unfamiliar place.
But, clearly, it was not there to maraud human habitations. No, not at all. In fact, the place where he was standing, the area that is now known as Charahi Railway Station and the railway siding (from where coal is transported in goods trains to far off places), was once a lush green jungle. The Northern Karanpura valley was once a sprawling forest comprising diverse wildlife with clean and free-flowing rivers and streams. And then, came development. The lush green was obliterated by coal-black.
The rush of development not just swallowed elephants and tigers but also adversely affected us, the humans. If at all, any animals escaped being consumed by the mines, they were hunted, be it deer or tigers. The miscellanies of the forests, the trees, grass, were sold off, which proved to be the nemesis for the smaller and medium-sized species.
Elephants could not be directly harmed but the loss of forest, their habitats, meant that these gentle giants were forced to wander here and there, venture to places they would otherwise avoid. Their forests and the corridors linking their habitats were encroached by houses, agriculture land, villages, cities and even mines and industries. Where do the poor elephants go after all? Meanwhile, near the Charahi railway station, we were still thinking of a way out of this mess. But the elephant had surprised us by showcasing exemplary calm and sensibility. He actually found a way out of the station without causing any sort of damage. Unfortunately, hardly had he gone a few metres ahead, when he bumped into another form of development – the NH 33. Sensing the possible danger, Ajay and I had already reached the NH33 before the elephant could. Two of us stood in the middle of the road from the two sides and started requesting people to stop their speeding vehicles. Only a few stopped, most drove straight past us.
One good soul, a truck driver, parked his vehicle right across, thereby blocking other vehicles. No one had any clue why they were being stopped. Just then, the large elephant reached the NH33. It was an incredible scene. Stationary vehicles on both sides and this elephant crossing the highway. And, the considerate elephant crossed the highway without damaging the road divider, without causing any damage, or injury, whatsoever to anybody. Phew!!! Relieved I was and how!!
The two of us, on a motorcycle, became pilot for the elephant. We went ahead and warned each of the villages falling in his route to avert any possible problem. One young man, who tried to meddle with the elephant, was quickly reprimanded with a threat to cut an offence challan. By now, the villagers had started beating drums to warn about the elephants and also to chase him away from their respective villages. We were finally able to push the elephant towards the jungles of Mandu. The entire day had passed herding the elephant toward the forest. We realized we were very hungry, and returned to our Charahi forest area.
By that time, I was deeply touched by the elephant’s forethought and its pain. In my few months as a forest guard, this was the first time that I had come face to face with an elephant. I never thought that this first encounter will create an emotional bond. The elephant is the largest mammal on land, and so much bigger in size and stronger than humans, yet we have reduced the beast to being helpless, strengthless.
Poor Gajraj, kicked around, helplessly unable to halt the destruction of his home, compelled to venture into human habitation and on top of it, victim of tamasha-loving humans. Despite that, he was so quiet, so calm, so tolerant. Possibly the reason why on one hand, humans are proliferating, the elephant numbers are going down. For instance, in the state of Jharkhand, elephant numbers have gone down to 555 in 2017 compared to 688 as per the earlier census. Top forest officials and wildlife experts offer a variety of possible reasons. Most important is the encroachment in their habitats, their forests laid waste by industries, in the name of development, forests vanquished by roads and mines. And last but never the least, the trench along the Bengal-Jharkhand border which has sliced a critical corridor.
I was sitting at the Charahi forest office generally reflecting on the day’s events. Just then, the phone rang again. A panting voice at the other end told me, “Sipahi ji, please come fast. After crossing the jungle, the elephant has fallen into a coal mine.” Even before this piece of news could sink in, the phone rang again. This time, it was my senior from the office. He too had heard that the elephant had fallen into a mining pit. I could hear him use cuss words for the elephant. Obviously, because it would mean an entire night-long operation to rescue the elephant. And God-forbid, if he died, then the department would be in trouble.
Listening to this turned my sympathy for the elephant to empathy. Again, and again, I visualised that simple, graceful elephant. A small corner of my mind said, “Come on Ganesh Bhagwan!!! I escorted you safely near the jungle. Then, why did you venture towards the mines?” But the very next instant, a thought struck my mind: “Were these mines there since ages?” The clear and obvious answer was – ‘No’.
This was once a flourishing jungle, where the ancestors of the elephant and other animals roamed freely, but now the coal mines have taken over. Humans have encroached upon the forests have dug deep mines and now the animals are getting trapped into these pits. Ironically, we then say, “An elephant has strayed into our mines!” When we reached the coal mines, to our surprise and great joy, the jumbo had managed to come out of the pits on his own and was heading towards the jungle. I let out a sigh of relief and said silent prayer for his safe journey back home. I would never have mentioned this incident or written about it but for Raza Kazmi, who had visited our Forest Guard Training Centre at Chaibasa to train us on issues regarding wildlife conservation.
I had shown him the photo where the elephant was seen bang in the middle of the railway track at the Charahi station. He asked me to write in my own words how the day unfolded. That photo was proof enough of the fact how humans have destroyed wild habitats prompting the elephants from the jungles to reach the railway tracks that exhibited their distress. On one hand, we worry about declining wildlife, on the other we continue to destroy the already limited wild habitats by building railways, roads, digging mines and raising industry, all in the name of development. It is not just the elephants that are paying the price for it, but we humans too are paying it directly and indirectly. Increasing human-elephant conflict We all know and talk about the increasing problem caused due to pollution that has now become a global problem. What we may not be aware of if that human-elephant conflict has increased exponentially.
News about human-elephant conflicts has been common from states such as Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Odisha. According to a study, Jharkhand alone witnessed the death of 62 people in 2017. It simply means, loss of one human every sixth day of the year. As if in revenge of it, humans have killed dozens of elephants, be it direct fallout such as pollution or indirect ones such as human-elephant conflict, the maximum brunt is borne by the poorest of poor who contribute least in this whole development-driven paradigm. I am not a votary of ‘no development’, it is essential for our country’s progress. But we need to redefine ‘development’.
I feel, development should be that which will acknowledge the presence of forests and wildlife and take into account the direct and indirect benefits by way of ecological services they offer. This is not a matter of ‘save the environment’ for its own sake. It is in our interest. We need a clean environment, free rivers, a thriving forest and wildlife. It is such sustainable development that is vital to protect the real interest of us humans. This incident that showcased the immense courage and patience by the jumbo opened my eyes forever. I am hoping that this write up can take the voice of the aggrieved elephant on the track to the readers and push them into thinking.
(The author is a Forest Guard at the Ramgarh Forest Division. The views expressed here are his personal)
This article was translated by Nivedita Khandekar. Nivedita Khandekar is an independent journalist based in Delhi. She writes on environmental and developmental issues. Her twitter handle is @nivedita_Him