Around 3.30 am on June 1, at village Patpara Pahartoli, adjacent to a forest area in Assam’s Goalpara district, Manoj Hajong (25) and his brother Bidyadhar Hajong (28) were woken up by shouts that there was an elephant outside their hut.
The Hajong brothers rushed outside to see a lone elephant, about 9 feet in height and without a tusk, walking away after eating the rice crop kept in the verandah of the hut.
Manoj, a driver by profession, sprinted behind the elephant to chase it away, Bidyadhar on his toes. At the same time, three young neighbours of the Hajongs — armed with sticks which held lit jute twines — ran towards the elephant from the other side.
Trapped, the furious elephant turned, let out a cry and sprang towards Manoj. It threw Manoj to the ground, crushed him and went off towards the forest. Bidyadhar ran out of its way.
“I saw Manoj die… what could I do? It was ‘Laden’. Had I tried to do anything which offended the giant, I would not have been alive today. We call it ‘Laden’ because people get paralysed with fear when they see him attacking,” says Bidyadhar, who is a farmer.
The elephant he is talking about is around the same age, and Goalpara district’s only loner elephant. Over two years and the 300 sq km of forest area he is rumoured to operate in, ‘Laden’ is accused of killing several people and damaging huts. Villagers in the affected areas do not know much about Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda. What they do know is that ‘Laden’ stands for “someone who scares”.
Since 2016, Goalpara district officials have attributed 20-25 deaths to elephant trampling. This year, they have listed eight. Every other day in the past few weeks, ‘Laden’ has hit the headlines in the local press for his “atrocities”.
But several forest and district administration officials as well as experts say it is unlikey ‘Laden’ is responsible for all he is accused of. “No doubt this elephant has killed people, but so have elephants in herds. He is targeted by public because his atrocities are prominent,” says Goalpara Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) A Goswami.
Officials name two deaths this year in Goalpara for example — of Tilottoma Nath (50) and Satish Rabha (55) — as not caused by ‘Laden’, unlike what was reported by the local press.
Goalpara has around 103 reserve forests, covering 20 per cent of the district’s land mass. Approximately 42 wild elephants are known to live in these forests, divided into two major herds. Due to anti-elephant barricading in the nearby Garo Hills region of Meghalaya, the area of movement of these elephants has become restricted, increasing the chances of man-animal conflict.
Assam itself has been struggling to contain cases of elephants coming into clash with humans, for reasons such as degradation of elephant habitats, infrastructure development, blocking of traditional elephant corridors and expansion of human settlements. Conservationists say 24-odd people have been killed in the state so far in 2018. On Friday, a woman was trampled to death in Nagaon district.
“While moving from one reserve forest to another, elephant herds have to cross villages. The forest is not continuous,” points out DFO Goswami about Goalpara, adding that elephants often land up in paddy or jackfruit fields.
Forest officials and guards in the Rongjuli forest range say the reaction of villagers to the sight of any wild elephant further ends up enraging the animal. “They will make hulla (noise). People will flash torchlights at the elephant and try to poke it with sharp objects. There is immense provocation,” says Rongjuli forest range officer B K Das.
Das also points out that many of the killings attributed to ‘Laden’ have happened at night, when he is out looking for food. “A lot of misreporting happens.”
Dr K K Sarma, a professor at the College of Veterinary Science in Khanapara in Guwahati, who has studied ‘Laden’, says what they know is that he was thrown out of his herd around two years ago, probably after a fight with the most dominant male member of the herd. “He remains a satellite of the herd. He is distressed psychologically because he cannot enter the herd in which his family stays,” says Sarma.
Prominent wildlife conservationist Kaushik Barua adds that having spent so much time around human settlements, ‘Laden’ may have lost his fear of man. “He thinks if he removes the human, he gets the food.”
Professor Sarma believes things could change for ‘Laden’. “When he becomes strong enough and the dominant bull in his herd becomes weaker due to age, he might challenge the dominant member and take his place.”
However, will ‘Laden’ live to see that? In 2006, a 10-feet tall male, also tusk-less and nicknamed ‘Laden’, had been declared rogue and put down after killing around 14 people in north Assam.
For now, officials, who have looked at all other options, say the answer to Goalpara’s ‘Laden’ is translocating him to a wildlife sanctuary or national park, which has sufficient buffer area from human settlement. An important meeting is scheduled for Monday in this regard.
Says D P Bankhwal, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) and Assam Chief Wildlife Warden, “We are looking at the feasibility of translocating. ‘Feasibility’ is the operative word because it is a huge elephant. We have to ensure the task can be executed seamlessly without any damage.”