The elephant story of North Bengal | Milaap

The elephant story of North Bengal

The first-ever synchronized all-India Elephant Population Estimation conducted from March to May 2017, covered 1.10 lakh square kilometers and across four regions of India- the northeast, east-central, south and north. Preliminary results from this elephant survey pegs India’s Asian elephant population at 27,312 and North Bengal's elephant population at 480.

Ripe paddy being loaded on a van cycle from the fields

Madarihat is a small town in the Alipurduar district of West Bengal. Situated in the Dooars region, it's forested and is home to the famous Jaldapara National Park. This small town surrounded by villages where the majority of the population is engaged in agriculture, is a quiet, peaceful place, with plenty of golden and black paddy fields everywhere- it's the time of paddy harvest. But the peaceful aura of the place is often disturbed when elephants emerge from the nearby forests and come to the paddy fields for consuming these ripe paddies.

"I'm busy these days, I have to cut the paddy, hence I'm in a hurry. Last time Ganesh thakur (lord) ate our paddy as we were a bit late in cutting the paddy", says a borrower of Belghoria Janakalyan Samiti (BJS)- a micro finance institute, who is a farmer residing in a village of Madarihat, she farms on her family's own land as well leased lands.

The husband of another member of BJS had died 2 days before our visit. An elephant was feasting on the paddy in a field. The man had wanted to hold the elephant's tail. He had held it 2 times already successfully, but he wanted to hold it again, and on his third attempt, the elephant picked up the man with it's trunk and threw him on the ground.

"Just by seeing the elephants from a distance, we join our hands, and this man had the guts to hold the elephant's tail", said her mother-in-law.
Last year one member of BJS was killed by elephants. At night upon coming out of her house for going to the toilet which was outside her house, she saw 4 elephants standing in a circle outside her home and got attacked.

"At night these elephants come in huge herds of 70-80. The calves run towards the light, and if a calf is lost, then the mother elephant goes mad", she said.

In Nishiganj, when a calf was lost, the mother elephant broke stores, huts of the villagers. In such cases, the people of forest department has to be summoned, who search for the calf and then return it to the forest, according to Regional Manager Debasish Majumdar of BJS, under whom 6 branches of BJS function in the districts of Coochbihar and Alipurduar.

"Around 70 elephants came to our fields last year and ate our paddy. We were a bit late in arriving in the fields when the elephants came, as it's a bit far from our house. When elephants come to the fields, they don't come quietly, they make a lot of noise; neighbors, and others upon hearing the noise, go to the fields in groups. A huge number of people gather in groups when elephants come. People go with patka (firecracker) and torch lights and shout to shoo away the elephants. Elephants are also scared for their own lives, they move into the forests when people burst crackers, or shout. If they don't go, then we call the forest department, those people come in cars, and then the elephants move away towards the forest. The moment we call the department they move away as if they can sense that the forest department people are coming", she said.

"Last year, there were 2 deaths by elephants, they were alone in the evening on the streets, and the elephants killed them."
Paddy stalks need to be thrashed to separate the grains from the stalk

"As this is the season of paddy harvest, several temporary watch towers have been built by the forest department, forest department people stay over there, to keep a look-out for elephants. They are equipped with searchlights, if they find elephants coming then they point these searchlights towards them and the elephants again move into the forests. These watchtowers would stay for 15-20 days, during the harvest time- when paddy is being cut, after which they would be removed."

"Rhinos never come out, they are in the Jaldapara forests. Gaurs (Indian bison) don't come out often. Two years ago one gaur came here. These gaurs don't see anything, they just run, and destroy everything in their way. If you show bhatki (reverence) to elephants, they won't attack, but it's not the same with the gaurs."
Gaurs often attack tea pickers in the tea estates of North Bengal during the summer months, so does leopards when they come to birth their cubs in the tea bushes during the peak plucking time.

"This year, we have beautiful paddy in our fields. This year our paddy has come out best compared to all others in that area. Everyone is saying that because last year our paddy was destroyed by elephants, this year it has come out so beautiful and long. It feels like we have been blessed.
"There is a house beside our fields, we would store our paddy in their yard along with their paddy this time. They have lights and all, so we don't need to fear for elephants this time. We don't have space in our house so we store the grains there."

Man-animal conflict in regions such as Madarihat has reached an alarming stage. Human habitation on the fringes of the forest, and the danger of elephants emerging from the forests and making their way into paddy fields for consuming the ripe paddy, or for haria (rice beer brewed by the villagers) have put human lives and property in danger. But that is not all, often humans for their callous attitude has also caused elephants to attack. Recently I have come across a news that a man daring to salute an elephant was trampled by an elephant which had strayed into a highway in North Bengal.