It’s a love he says he can’t describe. A relationship he has worked on for thirty-three long years — despite the kicks, shoves and near-death experiences that come with it. But at 60, Dr Kushal Konwar Sarma — one of the 118 Padma Shri awardees announced for the year 2020 — maintains that his first and only love will always be elephants.
Famous as the “elephant doctor” of Assam, Dr Sarma was awarded the Padma Shri in the field of medicine on Saturday — along with five other names from Assam: classical dancer Indira PP Bora (art), writer Lil Bahadur Chettri (Literature and Education), Dr Ravi Kannan R (Medicine), historian Jogendra Nath Phukan (Literature and Education).
Dr Sarma started treating elephants from the early 1990s. While weekdays see him as the Head of the Department of Surgery and Radiology in College of Veterinary Sciences in Guwahati, weekends are spent in service of elephants — either sick or rogue — across Assam.
It is an affinity that can be traced back to his childhood spent in the village of Barama in Assam’s Kamrup district, surrounded by forests and rivulets. “My grandmother had an elephant called Lakshmi — we were best friends, spending all day together,” he said, “I began to love elephants so much that even at this ripe old age, I dream of them!” said Dr Sarma.
While it was in 1983 that he became a veterinary doctor, it was only in 1994 that he specialised in anaesthesia in elephants. The years that have followed have been eventful to say the least, as Dr Sarma has gone on expedition after expedition to tame rogue elephants on ‘musth’ (aggressive behaviour in male elephants as a result of surge in testosterone levels), often risking his own life. “I can’t explain it but I just love them. And the funny thing is I am not scared, even if I have been injured by elephants many times myself,” said Dr Sarma, who lives in Guwahati.
But on most days, Dr Sarma is typically moving around Assam treating ailing animals — whether they are cows, pigs, hens, goats. “In fact even when the call from the Home Ministry came, I was treating a pig. I almost did not pick up the call — but thank god I did!” said Dr Sarma, adding that he never imagined that he was being considered for an honour as high as the Padma Shri.
In 1998, Dr Sarma led an expedition to tranquillise a rogue elephant in the forests of Upper Assam. The elephant had gone on a killing spree trampling to death 29 people, and among them was forest ranger Narayan Sarmah, the brother-in-law of Dr Sarma. “That incident scarred me. For a long time after that I was in a state of shock and I didn’t know what to do,” said Dr Sarma. However, that was one of his rare failures — till date Dr Sarma has tamed 139 rogue tuskers and treats at least 600-700 elephants on an average every year.
In Assam, where human-elephant elephant conflict is a major concern, Dr Sarma has emerged as an important figure who helps relocate wild elephants back into the forests. He is the first person in Assam to have used tranquilizing darts to subdue ‘musth’ elephants — not only helping save the elephant but people in surrounding villages too.
“However, till now, we have just treating the ‘symptoms’ — an elephant might walk in to a main road in the heart of Guwahati city, and we might successfully put it back into Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary. But that is no reason to celebrate because we have done nothing to treat the real disease: encroachment,” he said. The Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary is located on the eastern periphery of Guwahati and is known to have a lot of “illegal” settlements on forested land.
“The explosion of human population is what has created the problem. And we have deprived animals their legitimate space,” said Dr Sarma, “In Assam, a term frequently used in political discourse is ‘khilonjiya’ or ‘indigenous’ — the original inhabitants of the land. Actually the ‘khilonjiya’ is not people of a particular community or religion. The ‘khilonjiya’ is the forest, the trees, the animals, the plants, the fish, the elephants, the birds. This land belongs to them.”