Death on five-tonne tip-toes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 April, 2012, 12:00am


The moment the elephant's trunk wrapped itself around Fulmani Urao's waist, she must have known it was all over. She did not even struggle. There was no point.

It was about 1.30am when the huge, bad-tempered bull elephant smashed its way into Urao's house. Her five-year-old son, Asman, asleep in her lap, managed to wriggle free, but there would be no escape for his mother. This was an elephant with murder in mind.

The animal dragged her out of the house, onto the road, and beat her head against the ground until she was dead. Afterwards, just to make sure, he trampled her body. Then he trumpeted and faded back into the night, as silently as he had come.

It is a myth that the ground shakes as elephants approach. The truth is that for Urao and the other unfortunates among the hundreds of thousands who find themselves in the path of wild herds, death comes on five-tonne tip-toes.

At least 400 people a year are killed by elephants in India and the conflict between man and beast is growing as the human population expands inexorably, increasing the demand for land and eating into the territory of the animals.

As forests are cut down and converted into agricultural land, man and elephant are pressed ever closer together. Crucial corridors along which the animals traditionally move from area to area have been farmed, built upon and traversed by train tracks, while the success of anti-poaching campaigns has led to a rise in elephant numbers. In north Bengal, where Urao lived, the last elephant census, in 2010, counted more than 500 animals.

Indian elephants are slightly smaller than their African counterparts, with the largest males standing about 3.5 metres high. They usually weigh between three and five tonnes. There is a perception that the Asian elephant is less aggressive than the African, but that is little consolation for those who do battle with the creatures every night.

In the darkness on the edge of Chilapata forest, up hard against the border with Bhutan, a group of men are lighting bundles of jute sticks to use as torches. The rice harvest is over, but the elephants are still around, hungry for the stored crop. Every night they come; every night the villagers form these halla (noise) parties to chase them off.

The dogs are barking; the herd is on the move. Orange flames leap from the torches, clouds of sparks rising into the night air.

A few of the men are carrying sticks; one has a large spear. The elephants are in the forest, hidden from view.

A mile away, Jayanta Roy is also searching for the herd. The elephant tracker stands in the middle of a paddy field, turning slowly, the beam of his powerful torch cutting through the dark. He turns again and suddenly there they are, two large males, no more than 40 metres away, staring into the beam. There is a split second to register the shock and then he is running for his life.

It is like this every night, the villagers say, a seemingly endless conflict between elephant and human.

It is two weeks since Nikil Rava heard the elephant tearing up the paddy field. His father, Bilu Rava, 60, sits on his doorstep in the village of Mendabari, a nine-foot-long spear cradled in his lap. Bilu is looking at an X-ray of Nikil's arm, which shows an ugly break, the bone snapped clean through and projecting through the skin. The young man is still in the hospital.

'Nikil was trying to scare the elephant away but he stumbled and fell on the ground,' he says. 'I remember that before trampling him, the elephant sounded a trumpeting noise. My son was screaming, he was saying 'Father, I've lost my hand'.

'I was scared and confused. I picked up the spear and ran to him but even though I was carrying the spear and the elephant was right there I couldn't hurt it because I was terrified of it,' he says.

When the rice is being harvested, he and the other landowners from the village sit up every night waiting to chase the elephants away. They put up towers in the fields and sit in them in the dark. The spear is to prod the animals, not to kill them, he says. Like many Hindus, he regards the animals as sacred. Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, is venerated here, along with Mahakal, a manifestation of the god Shiva.

In the village of Singhijhora, Ganga Adhikari perches on the step of the family home, watching her mother praying in front of their shrine, with its picture of Ganesha. A wire clothes line runs behind the shrine; it saved her life, says Adhikari.

'We were trying to drive the elephant back into the forest. I shouted but then the searchlight stopped working and he started to chase me. He had very big tusks and a big trunk. He was chasing so fast that I knew I would not reach our house, so I tried to run to a neighbour's.'

She darted under the washing line - and in doing so saved her life. The elephant stopped.

'It is something in their heads,' Adhikari says. 'Mentally they have to know what it is in front of them, that it won't hurt them.

It didn't know, so it stopped and I had time to get inside. But I was crying for a long time afterwards.'

It is unusual for girls to go out to chase away the elephants, but Adhikari says she has been doing it since she was eight.

'When I was very young I used to follow my father to chase the elephants and as I gained more confidence I began to join in,' she says. 'Now I'm the first to go with my father. I'm comfortable with the idea of an elephant being around. I'm not afraid for myself, though I'm afraid for my brother or my father, because I don't want them to get hurt.'

The worst months are October, when the rice is harvested, and March and April, the corn reaping season, when the elephants know they will find grain stored inside people's homes.

Ratan Ray, 24, was supposed to be protecting the potato crop, but it had been quiet and by 1.30am he and his brother, Tapan, 22, had dozed off. 'I woke up and found myself on the ground,' he says. The elephant had torn one of the tower legs out of the earth.

'It was terrifying. People don't survive these things. I thought, I'm no more.'

He looked up to see the elephant pushing against the remains of the tower with its head, while his brother clung on desperately. 'There was a bamboo stick next to me and all I could think was to grab it and hit the elephant on the legs,' he says. It worked. The elephant lumbered off into the darkness.

'I survived because of Mahakal Baba,' Tapan says. 'He is god and I will say no more, because the elephant did not hurt me.'

It would be enough to turn a man to drink, but that too can be fatal. According to local folklore, the animals are far more likely to attack a drinker than a sober man and there are numerous reports of elephants raiding houses to get at home-made beer. They make belligerent drunks.

NIGHT IS FALLING, the sun already below the horizon. Soon the elephants will be on the move again. Eighteen-year-old Sushila Kheria calls to her three younger sisters to come inside the fence.

It was an evening just like this, one year ago, when the children were orphaned. Their mother had succumbed to illness a few years earlier and their father looked after the girls with the help of neighbours.

'I suddenly heard people screaming. It was a halla party. They were shouting and banging and blowing trumpets,' says Sushila.

'My father had been on his way to the shop and he was killed halfway there. He was trampled and his head was smashed.'

The children survive now with help from their extended family. There is a long, long silence when Sushila is asked how she feels about elephants now.

'I can't say,' she eventually mumbles, looking at her feet, twisting her fingers together. 'They are gods.' She looks up and out over the fields. 'I miss my parents a lot.'

THIS IS NOT AN entirely one-sided conflict. Local records show that in 2010 there were 52 people killed by elephants in the Dooars region (an area of about 9,000 square kilometres in the foothills of the Himalayas) and in the previous five years, 49 elephants had been killed by trains, illegal electric fences or pesticides used in the tea plantations.

The main railway line from Siliguri to Alipurduar cuts through the green of the tea gardens which cover much of the best land in West Bengal's Banarhat forest. In doing so, it bisects the elephant corridors, with disastrous results for the animals. The number of elephants killed on the tracks has shot up since the line was converted to broad gauge in 2004. The worst accident took place in September 2010, when a freight train smashed into a herd just beyond the level crossing.

Two calves had somehow got stuck on the line. Realising their distress, the older animals went back for them and crowded round, trying to protect and free them. It was around midnight when the train came thundering down the straight track. It ploughed straight into them. Seven animals died, including both calves.

People rushed to the spot, but there was nothing they could do to save the dying animals. Instead, they worshipped them with flowers and vermillion.

'We found them on both sides of the tracks. One had been dragged a couple of hundred metres,' says 70-year-old Gyan Kumar Thapa. 'They had to bring a crane to move them.

This never before happened in my lifetime, so many elephants killed at one time. Maybe it is because the elephants are moving further these days.'

By the side of the track stands a cluster of half-finished statues of elephant gods, one for each of the dead animals. The villagers have made them from bamboo, straw and mud. They plan to put them up as a memorial.

AS THE PROBLEM intensifies, so too does the search for a solution. In a clearing on the edge of the jungle, the forestry department's great hope is eating a banana. Shankari is three years old. The little female elephant stands in the shade of a tall tree, a thick chain fastening one of her hind legs to the tree trunk to stop her escaping.

Shankari was born wild in the jungle. Somehow she became separated from the herd and was found by the mahouts, who brought her here to train as a kunki - a captive elephant used to drive off the wild herds.

There are two older kunkis tied to trees here. They have to be chained to stop them wandering back into the jungle, says Dulal Ravna, one of the mahouts.

'She has to learn she is working for the forest department now,' he says, gesturing to Shankari.

When a wild herd enters a village area, the mahouts arm themselves with firecrackers and guns, climb up onto the older kunkis and head out.

'It is a very difficult situation,' says chief mahout Sunil Kheria. 'I would never go alone into a wild herd. You have to think of yourself and make sure you are properly armed. It is very frightening and we can be called out any time of day or night, in sun or rain.'

But it is working, he says: the wild herds are not coming here as often as they once did. The wild elephants are fierce and powerful, but the presence of the kunkis along with the torches and firecrackers is usually enough to turn them away.

Other states are trying different methods. In Orissa, the deaths of seven villagers and four elephants in the Khallikote forest range in the past three years have prompted work to start on electric fences to keep the two apart. In Kerala, they are hoping chilli-coated ropes will irritate the elephants' trunks enough to keep them at bay. At Erode, in Tamil Nadu, the forest department is digging wide trenches. Karnataka is physically relocating some of the more troublesome animals to areas of deep jungle, far from human habitation.

In Singhijhora, Nidhi Singh is banking on string. Singh arrived in the nearby town of Siliguri in 2008, determined to tackle the elephant-human conflict and brimming with ideas. She has persuaded a group of farmers to encircle their fields with the string, which is attached to a musical alarm bell. If an elephant pushes against the string, it triggers the alarm, which plays a Hindu religious song.

It works, up to a point, but if the elephants are determined enough, they will get through. Something more is needed, Singh says; people have to be prepared to share the land with the elephants instead of blocking their traditional routes.

'Our thought process in India is traditionally to co-exist,' she says. 'We can live together but greed has increased with commercialisation. Greed is everywhere, in the minds of farmers, forest officials, tea garden owners, so that is creating conflict. There has to be a will to change.'

Until then, the battle goes on. In the yard outside a cluster of houses surrounded by jungle, 62-year-old Mangra Orao is warming himself by the embers of a small fire. He sits on a wooden board on the hard ground, brushing his teeth with a stick. A scrap of old cardigan is wrapped around the stump of his right leg, tied with string.

He had been on his way home from a meeting of tribes when he came face to face with the elephant in a wheat field.

'It started to run towards me. We came face to face and it hit my shoulder and immediately I felt my leg shatter,' he says. 'It was an accident. The elephant stood on my right leg and I felt the pain and then I fainted and after that I couldn't feel it. Then the villagers came, and the elephant fled, and they took me to the hospital.'

Orao was in the hospital for a month.

A couple of days after he was admitted, the surgeons amputated the leg just below the knee. He slides around the yard on a plastic sheet tied around his waist, propelling himself with his arms. He used to be a farmer, he says; now he cannot do anything without help. But he feels no bitterness.

'Why get angry? I won't get my leg back so I'm not angry with the elephant,' he says.

'Humans and elephants used to co-exist. Elephants used to come to eat from the field and go back into the forests but now, because the number of houses is increasing, they are starting to come into the villages and ransack the houses and kill people.

'But we have to co-exist with them. We can't kill them. We have to live with them. All we can do is chase them away.'