[Commentary] A story of two mothers from a human-elephant conflict zone in Assam

Elephants in the tea estates of Udalguri

  • Udalguri district is one of the top human-elephant conflict zones in Assam.
  • Despite efforts to mitigate human-elephant conflict in the state, the incidences have been increasing with both elephants and humans reaching fatal ends.
  • Political will to create multi-stakeholder based, socially-just solution to the core problem of habitat loss as well as social exclusion is necessary in Assam.

In the first week of November, 2022, at around 5:30 in the morning, news spread that an elephant calf had probably died in a village paddy field in Udalguri district in Assam. Its mother was trying to drag the body with her. Udalguri district is one of the top human-elephant conflict zones in Assam. Records show more than 100 elephants and 200 people have been killed in the last 12 years in this conflict.

By around 6 a.m., people had gathered, looking at the single female elephant trying to drag a dead calf with her hind legs. Onlookers reported that a large herd of 80-100 elephants raided that particular crop field the previous night and this elephant and the calf were part of that. However, the herd went back to the forest around 4 in the morning leaving the mother.

“A mother, be it human or elephant can never leave her child behind, dead or alive” stated a farmer who lives nearby. He further added, “Mothers can take great risk to safeguard their child. You can see this female elephant in the midst of all these people in the daytime, trying to wake her child up.”

More than 200 people gathered by 7 a.m. but all maintained silence and a respectable distance from the elephant.

The female elephant was unnerved by the presence of the people and was determined to drag the dead calf to safety. She used her back legs to roll the body over. The calf seemed to be around 3-4 years of age and so, not small enough to be pulled with her trunk. As the early morning chill gave way to the higher temperatures, she cooled herself with spraying her body with soil and water. The dragging continued for the next eight hours and the mother was able to roll the dead body for 400 metre from the death spot, crossing standing crops, shallow irrigation canals and shrublands. At around 3 p.m., her patience broke and she probably accepted the fact that it was futile to wake her child up from death. She left slowly and walked along the river to enter the forest. She or the herd did not visit the area for a week or so.

Elephants are social, multi-emotive, sentient beings who are known to mourn the dead. The mother-calf relation is particularly strong as the calf associates closely with the mother for 8-10 years.

Death of an elephant at a farmland. Photo by Sayan Banerjee.

The human mother

Close to 20 elephants were killed in Assam in October, 2022 in Assam and many of those were due to electrocution at farm areas. The forest department was keen to find out whether electrocution was the reason for the death of the calf in this case as well.

As the body of the dead calf was unavailable for forensic analysis at that moment, other evidence had to be relied upon. Near the spot where the calf died, there was a small patch of standing crop with a wire-fence put up at the boundary. Putting up such a fence is a common practice as it has been found that such single-strand, non-electrified wire fences deter elephants psychologically to great extent. However, there was no connecting wire to electrify the fence.

The home of the paddy field owner – a woman with a six-year-old daughter – was nearby, located in a hamlet that was particularly vulnerable to elephant-related damages. Most of the people here are former tea estate workers.

The woman informed that her house had been broken by elephants three times and she had no land of her own. She too used to work at the tea estate, but, following a prolonged disease and abandonment by her husband, she was now unable to work long hours. She decided to take two bigha of paddy field in a sharecropping arrangement with another man from a different village. On enquiring whether she electrified the fence, she said she had not.

However, upon further investigation, parts of elephant skin and flesh were found attached to the wire fence of the same paddy field. A connecting wire was also found around the paddy field, hidden inside a Lantana bush. The connecting wires were laid underground.

The woman who owned the field was questioned once again and she eventually admitted that she along with her partner indeed electrified the fence. This was done out of desperation, she stated, adding that she had no other way other to guard her dui bigha maati (two bigha land).

The situation was delicate. As per protocol, she had to be arrested under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. But, given that she had a young child, the forest staff decided not to take that action immediately. Later, both the mother and her partner were arrested and taken to the police station.  The woman was ultimately released on grounds of compassion and she returned to her village. Her partner was charged for wilful killing of the elephant.

A few days later, the elephant mother, was spotted when the herd shifted to another tea estate and was associating closely with a new-born calf in the herd.

Read more: Oil palm expansion in northeast India gives rise to human-elephant conflict concerns

Intersecting lives

The lives of the two mothers, elephant and human, intersected and progressed to a tragic conclusion in this human-elephant conflict zone. This was not a random event; but, a mode of encounter that has been produced through historical and present contingencies. The elephant had lost much of its homeland through extensive deforestation in Assam, especially in last three decades which had led them to become increasingly dependent upon nutritious foods grown in human-dominated areas. On the other hand, the tea-estate workers, known as Aadivasi in Assam had been living in poverty without much social upliftment for the past 150-odd years. Many of them now live in small hamlets after buying few bighas of land at the periphery of villages.

Machan built by village residents for crop guarding. Photo by Sayan Banerjee.

Both now live marginal lives, depending on plantations and paddy fields. The tea plantations sustain both, as the Aadivasi find low wage-but-year-round work there and the elephant find important refuge at these estates outside the forest. The paddy fields again are survival resources as these provide subsistence to the poor Aadivasi farmers and elephants alike. Both become desperate to lay claim on these resources, resulting in damages for both parties.

On some days, Aadivasi people win, but, on other days, the elephant trumps over them. With no clear-cut solution to this problem, the damages are deemed to be intensified in the future.

In absence of political will to uplift both lives, hard spatial separation between people and elephants is not a practical goal.

In the greater discourse of elephant conservation in India, coexistence has become a buzzword to describe desirable modes of encounters between people and elephants. People, who often bear the brunt of elephant-related damages indeed talk about coexisting with elephants, mainly due to cultural tolerance. But, this should not hide the uncomfortable fact that conservation policy and practice is woefully failing both people and elephants by not providing political solutions to the core of the problem.

Both deforestation and social exclusion have been caused through political processes and same political will is necessary to secure lives of people and elephants. Putting up solar fences and conducting awareness sessions might only be temporary ‘band-aids’ on the damages, but political solutions are necessary to provide justice to the mothers, both humans and elephants.

The author is a PhD Scholar at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.


Banner image: Elephants in the tea estates of Udalguri. Photo by Sayan Banerjee.

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