Tusker tales

 Navin M Raheja |  2015-12-06 19:08:42.0  |  New Delhi

Tusker tales

Travelling on the Haridwar-Rishikesh-Dehradun Expressway, as you enter Haridwar city, a very long bridge on river Ganga takes you to a circular crossing with a signboard pointing towards Bijnor and Najibabad. Across this bridge is the Chilla forest range of the Rajaji National Park. Lest you don’t cross the river, to your left are the Ranipur, Beribada, Dhaulkhand and Motichur forest ranges of Rajaji National Park. Ahead are the towns of Raiwala and Doiwala, to whose left is the Barkot forest range of the Dehradun Forest Division. As you go further on the Rishikesh bypass, river Chandrabhaga separates this division from the Narendra Nagar forest division. It is here that our story of a rogue tusker begins.

The presence of elephants is periodically observed in and around Haridwar and Rishikesh towns. Elephants are usually peaceful by nature and left to themselves, tend to mind their own business. It’s only after repeated encounters with humans that they tend to lose their cool. Even then, most of their charges are mock ones, meant just to frighten. At times, a musth elephant — a periodic condition among bull elephants with a continued draining of body fluids from their temple glands — poses a big threat to humans. The phenomenon occurs once a year but as long as the musth period lasts, the elephant is unusually aggressive. This is the story of one such male tusker.

It was the morning of February 10, 2011, one of the coldest of the year. Sita Devi, a native of the area, had concluded her usual household chores and gone into the forest to collect fodder for her cattle. Unaware of the presence of a wild elephant, she busied herself in cutting grass. She turned on hearing a peculiar noise but before she could react, she was blown away and smashed by the raging Elephant. This was the first victim of this giant.

For the people living here, terror had arrived without any warning. Over the next 11 months, nothing was more terrifying than death by trampling — nine people, including six women, were killed during this period. Nobody ventured out alone on the road, particularly after sunset. For they didn’t know when and from which unseen corner the killer would strike.

Often, the residents spotted it with a small herd of elephants, which would appear regularly near a herbal garden on the outskirts of Rishikesh. The state forest department played down the first two killings. These were passed off as mere mishaps. After all, such incidents do happen in forest stretches of this particular sub-Himalayan belt. And it’s not uncommon for elephants to cross over from one stretch to another within a kissing distance of Rishikesh. It was only after the elephant had claimed its seventh victim on October 3 — Awwal Singh — that the gravity of the situation dawned on the authorities, stirring them into action after the media became hysterical.

Initial efforts to catch the rogue proved futile. Often, the animal disappeared into the forest and everyone heaved a sigh of relief. But the peace was short-lived. Like the proverbial ghost from the darkness, it reappeared after a few days and resumed its rampage. When all efforts to capture the killer tusker failed, the Uttarakhand forest department turned to another state for help. Dipen Kalita, an expert elephant-catcher from Assam and a veteran of numerous encounters with the rogue elephants of the Northeast, joined the operations along with a trained mahut, Rawa. They reached Rishikesh in the first fortnight of November. It was at this time that Digvijay Singh Khati, Chief Wildlife Warden of Uttarakhand, called up my office for help, and I immediately dispatched a team comprising Kishan Dev, Shivender and Abhinav to provide whatever logistic support was required.

Three trained elephants were summoned from the nearby Corbett National Park. Apart from this, senior officers of Rajaji National Park, along with some two dozen forest guards, camped in the area for over a month, making it one of the biggest operations of its kind. It soon transpired, however, that the rogue was smarter than the trained force as it inflicted serious injuries on Pawanpari and Gomti — two of the elephants brought from Corbett Park for the operation.

On November 22, the team was able to put a tranquiliser dart in the elephant but by then, darkness had engulfed the area and it could not be pulled out of the dense thicket.

By the end of November, Khati and Bijendra Singh were supervising the operation on a day-to-day 
basis. Experts and volunteers from the Wildlife Institute of India, Raheja Productions, Wildlife Trust of India, as well as the man who had put the dart into the animal’s body, Dr Parag Nigam, a senior scientist from the Wildlife Institute of India, camped in the area for several weeks. Camera traps were put up at several places and patrol parties formed to search for the elusive tusker. At times, the team managed to get close to the elephant but was outsmarted by it at the last minute. The elephant kept on playing hide-and-seek with an army of 50-plus forest guards, senior forest officials, doctors, mahouts and others. It was turning into an exasperating operation. The authorities even invited a local hunter, Sanjay Singh, from Moradabad, who scoured the forest with his team for about a week, but in vain.

While the elephant had nine victims to its name, many fortunate ones had also managed to escape in the nick of time to tell hair-raising stories of bravery and luck. Forest experts and volunteers from the WTI, WII and Raheja Films held interactive sessions with the residents to keep them out of the wild and taught ways to protect them from elephant attacks.

Success, though much delayed, arrived suddenly and swiftly on January 4, 2012. That morning, the tusker came ambling to the herbal garden as if to challenge the authorities and charged at the forest staff. But this time, having acquired a fair knowledge of its behaviour, the team were well prepared. Dr Parag lost no time in putting the dart into the tusker, promptly sedating it. Everyone in the team quickly assumed its role. Covering its face, the first thing the officials did was to cut off the pointed ends of its tusks — necessary to reduce its aggression towards humans.

Capturing an elephant was one thing but putting it into a truck turned out to be an elephantine task. It took more than an hour for the authorities to lift it up using JCBs and a hydra lift. An elephant in a truck is a very unusual sight, even on Indian roads, and as the vehicle passed through the busy streets of Rishikesh, crowds gathered to have a last look at the killer ghost who had haunted them for months. The elephant was named Narendra and was taken across the Ganga,, 30 km inside the Chilla range and set free with the hope that it would will start life afresh in its new home.

The elephant vanished into the forest with no trace till February 2015, when Khati happened to click its photo in the Motichur Chila range. Its cut tusks had started re-growing and widening in angle. It is now scared of any human presence and carefully stays away from our habitats.

For centuries, the forest stretch connecting the Rajaji Park with Corbett Tiger Reserve had been a natural corridor for elephants, allowing them free movement from the foothills of the Shivaliks to Tarai in the sub-Himalayan belt reaching up to Bihar, Nepal and the far east. But mindless construction in and around the Park — that of the Ganga canal, the Raiwala ammunition dump, ashrams, farms, residences colonies and industries around Rishikesh and Haridwar — has fragmented the corridor at several places. Human advancement and growing encroachment of their natural habitat has only led to more man-animal conflicts while also adversely affecting the gene pool of the animals. It is time we give them their right of way and the right to live.

(For already published stories and films on wildlife by the writer, which have run on National Geographic channel, Doordarshan National channel and Doordarshan (India), please log on to www.rahejagroup.org).  

Navin M Raheja

Navin M Raheja

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