A real incident quite common in parts of India where elephants and humans share common spaces.
Much has been written about the plight of elephants in the face of aggression by people and also about the immense losses people face due to elephants in human-use areas. However, the picture is not always as grim as portrayed. If the situation was indeed dismal, elephants would not have continued to persist in densely populated areas like the duars in west Bengal.
In this part of India, local people have a love-hate relationship with the elephants. The animals are worshipped, venerated, respected, cursed, made fun of and also sometimes chased and hassled. But elephants are always a cause for celebration in duars and I found that they help in building strong community bonds between people in this region and I am going to illustrate this with this following account.
The elephant fair is a rare event in northern West Bengal (also called north Bengal), there is no fixed date in the lunar calendar that governs it. It occurs four or five times a year when elephants, while moving between forest patches, are stranded in the open at dawn, usually within the tea-plantations which abound the region. I have been fortunate (or unfortunate) to be witness to a number of such cases but never for an entire day. In my earlier attempt to be objective about ‘collecting data’ on the behavior of elephants in response to human aggression, I failed to appreciate the larger picture of such interactions between people and elephants.
An early morning phone call from one local in a tea garden, and I was at once on my way, carrying the usual paraphernalia including my camera, notebook, binoculars and my GPS device. Despite the remonstrations of my seventeen year old motorcycle, my faithful companion in my search for the elephants, I was on my way. As I approached the tea-estate where I got a call from, I could see young men on bicycles, motorbikes and on foot headed in a particular direction and I had no problem in identifying the place where the elephants were.
I parked my motorcycle along with the twenty odd other vehicles where were already parked at the ‘designated parking spot’ and then I continued on foot. I could see the elephants clearly from the parking spot since they towered well over the tea bushes (tea-bush is about 2.5-3 feet in height). When I reached closer, I could also see tiny trunks (of elephants) probing just above the tea bush, I hit jackpot with tiny calves which were barely taller than the tea bushes. Presence of calves would make the herd more circumspect about their activities and would make for interesting behavioural observations. Especially, since at least 500 people now surrounded the elephants from all four sides of the tea-section. The elephants were in the middle of a square which would be approximately 400 sq metres.
After exchanging pleasantries with my local contact and other acquaintances in the particular garden, I met the members of the state Forest Department to understand their course of action. The police were present and also an ambulance in case things turned sour. Most people were happily watching the elephants from a distance; however, there is always at least one group of youths who will always find ways to taunt the animals in a game to see who can get closest to the animals without being trampled on. Some youths, who were too nervous to get close to the animals, were also hurling crackers in the air, which has negligible impact on the elephants who are far more experienced in this game than the enthusiastic youths.
The elephants were in a tight formation as is common when they are in human-use areas. The calves were sticking to their mothers, the juveniles and sub-adults were at the centre of the group, the two sides were taken up by the two largest females. The male, was also in the formation and kept moving here and there. One of the leading females was sometimes mock chased some of the youths if they came too close and then the youths started running back, immensely gratified with this feat.
The crowd kept increasing slowly, children skipped school, women returned early from work in the tea-plantation and soon there were two thousand people at the scene. Some people gifted with strong business acumen saw the scope of this gathering. People started selling gutkha (chewing tobacco) packets, cigarettes and pan (betel leaves), men in cycle came with locally made ice-cream served in cones and Hindi and Bhojpuri songs blaring from a plastic carry-bag hung from their bicycles. The ice-cream vendors raced for the best place to sell and this was the closest spot to the elephants where most of the crowd had gathered. The vendors continued to arrive, this time they came with puffed rice and other snacks and savouries and business was good as people thronged to these stalls. The elephants were now almost forgotten in the frenzy except for the shrill cries of a calf which brought people back to their purpose.
The forest department and the police were alert so that people do not go too close to the elephants. They continuously announced in their Public Address Systems that the animals should not be teased. However, I felt that both the elephants and the administration were playing a waiting game. Neither was eager to make a move. The elephants knew where they had to go, yet they chose to stay put.
The local crowd now comprised of people of all ages, most of them (barring about 20 youths) were happy to watch the animals from a distance and they also cursed the youths for teasing the gentle animals. People felt sympathy for the animals and accepted that they have nowhere to go. I asked some of the youths why they were teasing the animals and going so close endangering their own safety. One of the leaders promptly replied asking why elephant came to their houses and in their tea-estates. I was noting his response when suddenly an elderly gentleman beside me shouted back to the leader saying that the elephants fed on the elderly gentleman’s banana and areca nut tree and he does not have a problem with it then why is the youth teasing the animal? Such interesting dichotomies are frequent as people have varying attitudes towards the gentle giants.
The crowd represented a multitude of communities comprising of the adivasis, who have been forced to settle in the area more than a century ago by the British to work in the tea plantations. The Bengali Muslim community has been residing in these areas since the partition of India and some families continue to come from the bordering country Bangladesh to settle here. The Bengali Hindus moved to these areas to work in the tea plantations as managers and supervisors. The Nepali and Bhutia communities have settled from the nearby bordering countries of Nepal and Bhutan respectively. The indigenous tribes of the area (Mech, Minj and Rajbangshi among others) survive in small pockets and settlements in the region. People from Bihar, Gujarat and Rajasthan have also settled in the area and are mostly engaged in manual labour or business and trading.
The elephant fair represented all these communities and it was remarkable how a wildlife species was responsible to get all these communities together. Such congregations are rare since all these communities have their own festivals and rituals and the only other time that they all meet is probably during the Durga Puja which is the single largest gathering of ecelectic and diverse communities.
The crowd lulled during the afternoon as many people went back to their homes for lunch but in an hour or so they were back, this time with their families and kids in tow. By 4 p.m. the crowd was even larger and the elephants also started becoming restless due to the lack of food and water.
The animals then started to move towards the river but could not make much progress as the people followed them and some even blocked their way. I could see the adult elephants pumping water from their bodies and spraying them on the young ones and on themselves to keep cool, elephants are known to do that often during water stress. Meanwhile, the sale of ice-cream and snacks also soared as more people thronged to the area. I was also feeling tired after standing for six hours continuously and was relieved when some locals got me samosa (local snacks) and water. I was reassured since it started to get dark and soon and the crowd would disperse and the elephants would be able to move wherever they wanted.
However, that was not to be as powerful torch-lights suddenly emerged from inside the shirts of the men and people who owned motorcycles used the headlights to great advantage. The elephants were followed into darkness. Now finally the Forest Department had enough of this and they got into action. They pushed their own vehicles between the crowd and the elephants and gave the animals some room to move. Slowly and nervously the animals moved away towards the river, had their fill of water and slowly moved to the safety of the forests across the water. I returned to my base camp more enriched with not only the knowledge of elephant behaviour in human presence but also that of the people in presence of the giants.
Written by Aritra Kshettry
Picture credits: Aritra Kshettry
This article was first published in SAVEUS