Elephant's day out | WWF

Elephant's day out

Posted on 10 November 2010    
As human populations grow and people settle in areas that were once the sole domain of elephants, human-elephant conflicts become increasingly common. At present, this is the biggest threat to the survival of Asian elephants in the wild.
© A. Christy Williams / WWF
By KD Kandpal and Ameen Ahmed

An unusual guest
It was mid-September and the season’s unusually heavy rains had just subsided. One morning we received a call from a farmer who said "Sahib ek haathi hamare kheth main ghus aya hai." ("Sir, an elephant has entered the farmland.") We wasted no time in calling the Sub Divisional Forest Officer (SDO) for Jaspur, who confirmed the report.

The SDO asked WWF-India’s Terai Arc Landscape team to go immediately to the site to support the authorities’ efforts to drive back the elephant and prevent any harm coming to the residents or the elephant. As we rushed to the village, we prayed all along that there should be no loss of life on either side. Three years ago, an adult wild tusker had strayed into a community in a nearby Forest Division. Huge crowds had gathered at the site, possibly blocking any escape routes to the forest for the animal. This led to an avoidable conflict that resulted in human casualties. The tusker was declared a threat to human life and finally shot dead.

We greeted the SDO, who thanked our team for coming so quickly on short notice. He led us to the site and we climbed atop a roof to see a huge elephant hiding in the sugarcane fields. We estimated this pachyderm to be about 2.75-2.80m in height, as it was taller than the sugarcane, which stood more than 2.5m. Only the elephant’s back was visible to us, but farmers informed us that it was a tusker.

Operation 'drive back'
Until the late1930s, Kashipur town was surrounded by dense forests that formed a part of the elephant corridor connecting Jaspur and Kashipur forests to River Baur. We interviewed some of the elders in the village regarding elephant presence in Kashipur, but none of them remembered any such incidents over the course of six or seven decades.

We had to know where this elephant had arrived from before attempting to drive it back. We learned that for the past two years a male elephant was residing in Shivrampur, an isolated patch of forest about 25km from Kashipur town. We called the forester nearest to Shivrampur and asked him to come over at once to ascertain if this was the same elephant. A couple of hours later he arrived, saw it and confirmed that it was the one.
Now we started analyzing the probable route taken by this elephant to reach Kashipur town, as this might be the best way back to the forest too. The forest department formed eight teams; these teams, along with staff from WWF-India, were dispatched to the sites where the elephant was likely to move.

We asked the range teams to gather all possible information from nearby areas where elephant pads were seen. After getting the feedback, we concluded that this elephant ad walked for miles along the banks of River Dhela and then went north toward Kashipur.

A safe ending to this unusual tale
We waited for sunset and as soon as the natural light disappeared we asked the farmers to fire their “Gandhi Banduk” in the air. This is a country-made gun used by communities in farms near forests to create noise and drive back wild animals that stray out of the forests. Around 9:00 p.m. the elephant started moving from the sugarcane field toward the highway. The elephant crossed the road and went to the other side of the town. This was a positive sign, as the elephant could find its way back into the forest. We decided to return to the office and wait for further field reports. We left behind one team in the agricultural fields to try and monitor the elephant’s movements.

When we returned, the team members told us that they could not trace the elephant, but were firing the “Gandhi Banduk” frequently hoping it would continue toward the forest. We started following the elephant’s prints and traced it until about 12:30 a.m., when we decided to resume the operation in the morning.

Around 5:00 the next morning, we started off for the place where we last saw tracks. We could now see that the elephant had damaged the walls of an archaeological site and exited to the paddy fields. Then it headed to Kashipur’s town centre.

It had passed near the courthouse, crossed the railroad track and then moved out of the town. We were stunned that the elephant had entered such a populated area in the night. We could not have imagined the consequences if it had walked there in daylight.

We continued to search for traces left behind by the elephant, and were relieved when we were told that it had returned to the Shivrampur forest. One of the reasons for the happy outcome of this event was the excellent support received from the local community. This incident could have ended in tragedy, but instead is a lesson should something similar happen in the future.
As human populations grow and people settle in areas that were once the sole domain of elephants, human-elephant conflicts become increasingly common. At present, this is the biggest threat to the survival of Asian elephants in the wild.
© A. Christy Williams / WWF Enlarge
The teams plotted the elephant's route back to his home forest.
© WWF-India Enlarge

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