The wild elephant that roamed Guwahati city through Tuesday was released inside the Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary on Wednesday morning after a rescue operation that lasted 18 hours.
“They called him Maharaj — this was not the first time he has entered the city,” says Kaushik Baruah, Honorary Wildlife Warden (Guwahati), who was part of the rescue team. Maharaj, a male tusker estimated to be about 16-18 years, was a frequent visitor to Guwahati’s Panjabari area adjacent to the Army Cantonment in Narengi.
The entire area shares its boundary with the 78.64-sq km Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary, home to 44 species of mammals and 250 avian species. Last August, Maharaj is believed to have taken a walk around Boragaon, near Gorchuk on the city’s outskirts. “He was rescued and guided back into Amchang then too,” says Barua.
In the early hours of Tuesday morning, the pachyderm emerged from the Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary and entered the Hengerabari Reserve Forest, also part of Guwahati city. “There he consumed rice-based local brew left lying outside before being chased away by the people,” says a forest ranger, part of the rescue team, adding that the area is filled with “illegal encroachments”.
Around 4pm, the elephant entered Ganeshguri, a choc-a-block commercial locality, before ambling into the Guwahati-Shillong Road or GS Road, the busiest thoroughfare in the city, dotted with malls, restaurants and shopping complexes.
As crowds gathered and traffic stopped on both lanes of the road, forest department authorities, who had reached the spot by 5pm, attempted to tranquillise the elephant. Two shots were administered within reasonable intervals, but without much effect. “The arrangements were in place, the police were cooperating, but it had already turned into a mob-like situation,” says Tejas Mariswamy, DFO of the Assam State Zoo, “There was a lot of disturbance — the animal was under stress and its adrenaline levels were high. So the tranquilliser did not have its desired effect.”
Despite the hullabaloo, the elephant did not react or harm anyone. “This is an elephant that has spent considerable time in human areas,” says Barua.
Wild elephants straying into the city is not uncommon. Last year, when a resident of Baghorbari area was attacked during her morning walk, an anti-depredation squad was formed by the locals to avoid future incidents.
“The main reason for such incidents is the encroachment in the Reserve Forest and sanctuary area,” says Jitendra Kumar, DFO, Guwahati Wildlife Division. Three decades ago, these areas barely had any human habitation. The last five years have seen a rise in construction in the city, as well as encroachment in protected forest land.
Many also believe that the elephant was injured a couple of months ago by the metallic spikes placed in the Narengi Cantonment by the Army to prevent elephants from destroying food stock. After media reports about the six-inch-long bed of spikes, in place since 2003 and the cause of injury and death to several wild elephants, the army passed an order to have them removed in March. “This elephant was injured on its left foot — the area and type of injury is evidence to the fact that it had injured itself on the same spikes,” says Barua.
On Tuesday night, as heavy rains lashed in the city, the elephant moved out of GS Road to take refuge in a private compound at the Sreenagar locality around midnight. Later, the authorities ensured, through barricades and blockades, that it took the route towards the Guwahati Zoo. “Around 6 am, it entered the zoo. And things happened smoothly thereafter. There were no crowds and we administered the sedative,” says DFO Mariswamy. “At 8.30 am, it was lifted in a crane and driven to the Amchang Wildlife sanctuary.”
DFO Kumar says the entire rescue operation took so long (from 5pm Tuesday to 12pm Wednesday) because of two reasons: space crunch and the mob. “This was a large animal, we needed space for it to be rescued. But there were so many people, with their phones and cameras. Even the media, who insisted on a 24/7 ‘live’ coverage did not help the situation.”
The elephant is now back in Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary, with the forest authorities monitoring it for the next 48 hours. Warns Barua, “Their habitat is shrinking. This spillover is inevitable. If we can’t secure the habitat, this situation will only escalate. This is definitely not the end of it.”