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Guwahati residents herd together to better understand the wild elephants that pay them frequent visits

Soon after an incident where a wild elephant ran amok for two hours in a Guwahati neighbourhood, local residents have got together to form a “squad” to deal with such situations

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati |
Updated: October 6, 2018 9:20:47 pm
An image of a wild elephant helping himself to food at the Narengi Army Cantonment circulated among Whatsapp on Wednesday. Forest authorities say that there are three male elephants who “hang around” in the Army Cantonment area.

It was her 5:30 am walk — the one she religiously does every morning — that landed 55-year-old Dr Kaberi Saikia, a resident of Guwahati’s Baghorbari area, in hospital. “She usually goes with a friend but that morning she went alone,” says PK Bora, 65, her husband. On the morning of September 14, Bora got panic calls from several unknown numbers: his wife had been injured by a wild elephant. Now as her seven broken ribs and one damaged lung heal (where the trunk of the tusker had hit her) in the Intensive Care Unit of Guwahati’s GNRC hospital, Saikia’s husband is yet to make sense of the whole story. “Because parts of her trachea have been affected too, she hasn’t really been able to narrate the entire episode to me,” he says.

At 2 am on September 14, the residents of Srimanta Nagar in Guwahati’s Panjabari area — that lies adjacent to the Narengi Army Cantonment — woke up to the sounds of people’s shouts: ‘haati haati’. “We could hear it stomping about,” says H Khatiwara, a 55-year-old government worker, who from his window, watched the pachyderm stomp around on the adjacent empty plot of land. “People were making quite a lot of noise,” recalls Khatiwara, whose house shares a boundary wall with the Army Cantonment. 

By 3 am, all the residents were up on their roofs. Some had steel and copper plates which they were clanging together so as to scare the elephant away. Nearby, Bijoy Sarmah, a government employee, also on his roof, watched his car getting trampled. A few cars, boundary walls, gates and of course, the meeting with Saikia (on her morning walk) later, an intervention by the forest department led the elephant to make his way back to the forested fringes of the Army Cantonment in Narengi, where he lives.

Most elephants loiter into Panjabari from the Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary that shares a boundary wall with Guwahati city. The entire area was part of larger elephant habitat earlier.

Two weeks later, on September 30, Khatiwara, Sarmah and about 100-odd other people gathered in a meeting organised jointly by the the local Srimanta Nagar Mahila Samiti, Unnayan samiti and Yuva Manch in Panjabari to “discuss the issue”. Authorities of the State forest department were also present. 

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“It was a voluntary gathering. Elephants have come in the past but the September 14 incident was serious, so we decided to hold a meeting. The gist was to explain and understand that we shouldn’t get agitated when an elephant comes in our midst. We should not tease it or try to chase it away. It only worsens the situation,” says Dimbeshwar Gogoi, long-time resident of the area and a representative of the Unnayan Samiti. 

According to wildlife conservationist and Honorary Wildlife Warden (Guwahati) Kaushik Baruah, there are three male elephants who “hang around” in the Army Cantonment area in Narengi nearby.  It is possible that the tusker who visited on September 14 belongs to that group. Earlier in August, he says, the same elephant had made his way all the way to Lokhra, which is about 20-odd km away (aerial distance). “The entire area was earlier was a part of a greater elephant habitat,” says Baruah. “Actually it’s just rich in biodiversity: wild boars, deer and the like.” 

Near the area is the 78.64-sq km Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary that shares its boundary with Guwahati city. Amchang is home to 44 species of mammals and 250 avian species, besides varied numbers of reptiles and amphibians. Earlier in November 2017, a massive eviction drive demolished over 400 houses illegally constructed inside it.

“Most of these elephants come from Amchang,” says Khanapara Range Amchang Wildlife (AWL) Sanctuary officer, Jayanta Goswami, “It is only natural for them to. The elephants move to the Narengi Army cantonment. Some bits of the boundary wall are broken. They then move to the residential areas,” he says. Adds Baruah, “Three decades ago, this area had hardly any human habitation. The last five-eight years has seen a lot of construction.”

The meeting has resulted in the formation of  a “village protection committee” or an “anti-depredation squad” comprising local residents and forest officials who will coordinate when a situation like this arises again. “And it will. The elephants are not going way anywhere. The good bit is that people have realised that they must live with that reality,” says Barua, who refers to these elephants as “Guwahati’s suburban elephants.”

In the meeting, three searchlights were handed out to be shared among the 25 members who will act as contact points of the forest department.

“Very often, people do not know how to react. Crackers are burst, a lot of noise is made and that scares the elephant even further,” says Gogoi of the Unnayan Samiti. “We basically listed out the do’s and don’t’s. For examples, how we should turn on all our lights, especially in our front porches, if an elephants comes. And how we shouldn’t tease it or make too much noise.”

The residents have also been advised not to keep their garbage out, as that might attract the elephants.

The meeting has resulted in the formation of  a “village protection committee” or an “anti-depredation squad” comprising local residents and forest officials who will coordinate when a situation like this arises again.

The youths will also patrol “vulnerable points” after dinner every night and early morning.

“The most positive aspect about this initiative is that it was a voluntary move by the local people. They have understood that elephants will come and they will have to compromise, coexist and look for ways to minimise the damage,” says Pradipta Baruah, DFO, Guwahati Wildlife division, “Elephants usually come looking for food and water. Their earlier route from Marakdola to Deepor Beel through Rani and Garbhanga has been blocked now.”

Meanwhile, the residents of Srimanta Nagar are yet to receive compensation. Some admit that they have not applied yet, but add that after the meeting on Sunday they will.

“We have also submitted a memorandum to the Deputy Commissioner asking for a 24-hour patrol, compensation for property loss and  budiling of watch towers,” says Gogoi, “Right now, if property is damaged, only those people are living on the land own and have miyadi pattas (valid, legal document of land ownership to show individual possession), can file for compensation.”

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