Assam: Drones and an MLA’s expertise in 10-day quest to capture ‘killer’ elephant

Abhishek Saha
What camera caught. (Source: Assam Forest Department)

It was around 4 pm on November 1. A group of forest officials and wildlife experts were huddled around a screen, looking intently at feed from a camera mounted on a drone hovering above the Satabari reserve forest in Assam’s Goalpara district. The camera was searching for a lone rogue elephant that had killed five people in the area three days previously.

A speck of grey appeared amid the lush green of the forest. And Sunny Deo Singh, divisional forest officer of Cachar forest division who was operating the drone, zoomed in on it.

“As the drone dropped to a height of 30 metres from the ground, the grey spot turned out to be the elephant — a 9-foot, 8-inch-tall male weighing around 4 tonnes that had gone on the rampage in the area,” Akash Deep Baruah, chief conservator of forests, Lower Assam Zone, told The Sunday Express.

“By corroborating the accounts by eyewitnesses and our field staff, and mapping the location of the elephant, it was found close to where it had killed the fifth person — we confirmed that this was indeed the elephant in question.”

Baruah had arrived in the area on October 30 to head an eight-member team of forest officials, elephant experts, and veterinarians that was put together to track down the elephant. Two days of search operations on the ground using domesticated and trained elephants that are locally known as kumkis, had not produced results.

Forest officials operating the drone. (Source: Assam Forest Department)

Time was running out — the elephant needed to be tracked quickly to avoid potential further damage to life and property. Villagers in the area were panicking — the memory of another lone elephant that had killed scores of people and caused significant damage to crops in the area last year fresh in their minds. That earlier elephant, called “Laden” by terror-struck local people, had died of natural causes last year, forest officials said.

On October 29 evening, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal had held a meeting with the deputy commissioner and superintendent of police of Goalpara, and directed the Forest Department to rush a special team to “capture the rogue elephant if required”.

However, to capture the elephant, it needed to be first identified and tracked. This was difficult — the elephant tended to remain deep inside the forest during the day, and come out to open patches only after dark.

“It was the first time in the state that drones were used in such a situation. After having identified and tracked the elephant, the next step was to tranquilise and translocate it,” Parimal Suklabaidya, the state environment and forest minister, told The Sunday Express.

So, later on November 4, at an urgent meeting chaired by Suklabaidya and attended by top government officials and members of the committee headed by Baruah, a decision was taken to move the elephant “to a suitable location in order to prevent further occurrence of loss of human lives”. Baruah began arrangements — ropes, trucks and a crane were commissioned.

Meanwhile, Padma Hazarika, the BJP legislator from Sootea, offered to help with the operation. Hazarika’s family has long had several elephants, and the MLA is popular in Assam for his knowledge and experience in catching rogue elephants.

“I told the CM that if given a chance, I would go and join the efforts at Goalpara. The CM agreed, and I went ahead. Use of a drone (to track the elephant) is one thing, but you have to ultimately go inside the jungle and tranquilise it,” Hazarika said.

Hazarika, however, wanted one of his own elephants and its mahout to enter the forest — and it was only on November 9, after this elephant had completed the 400-km journey from Sootea to Goalpara by truck, that Hazarika was ready.

Under his supervision, his elephant and its mahout, and three kumkis of the Forest Department, began the search for the rogue elephant. When they found it, the rogue charged at the party, giving Hazarika an idea of its coordinates and behaviour. “On Sunday (November 10), there was a final meeting, and on Monday (November 11) we went into the jungle to tranquilise the elephant,” Hazarika said.

Asked why the elephant had killed five people in one day, but had not shown similar tendencies thereafter, Baruah said that in all probability the elephant was frustrated at not being able to get a mate due to the presence of other powerful males in his herd.

“As a loner, it kept moving around the herd. During one such movement, probably it came into human contact, and ended up causing their deaths. You have to note that it did not trample anyone, as so-called ‘killer’ elephants usually do,” Baruah said.

A combination of ketamine and xylazine was used to immobilise the elephant, Baruah said. “Through the kumkis, it was tried to nudge the drowsy elephant towards a clear patch — but it fell and remained knocked out through the night. It could be loaded onto a truck for translocation only the following morning (November 12),” he said.

In a statement on November 11, Sonowal praised Hazarika as “a true public representative” who had offered his help “to provide succour to the people who were living under constant fear of attack by the wild tusker”. Suklabaidya thanked “everyone involved in the long process”.

The story though, is not over yet.

Baruah told The Sunday Express that the elephant had been taken to the Orang National Park, but had been kept captive. Efforts would be made to tame it, he said. Suklabaidya said he had been told that once an elephant left its herd, it was seldom taken back or accepted in a new herd.

Baruah, however, said it is often difficult to tame an adult wild elephant. “There are some trainers in South India who are adept at training grown-up elephants. We are in talks with them,” he said.

Elephant expert Kaushik Barua, who was part of the committee formed to track the elephant, said the capture had solved only the problem at hand. “If the administration does not proactively address the larger issues, such problems will keep recurring. A first step can be a basic awareness programme based on solutions to current-day problems, and not some outdated concepts. Take protection and guard, but you have to learn to live with the elephant,” Barua said.

Hazarika has named the elephant ‘Krishna’, a departure from the practice of naming any wild elephant that killed people “Laden”. He told this newspaper on Thursday evening that he had gone to Orang National Park to check on Krishna. “He is doing very well. I am sure he will be tamed, and will become an asset for the Department. We have to be friends with elephants and not treat them like enemies; only then can man-elephant conflict end,” Hazarika said.

On Sunday, forest department officials woke up to the news from Orang that the elephant died early morning. Confirming the death, Baruah told The Indian Express, “In a shocking and totally unexpected development, the elephant died between 5.30 to 6 am. A team of veterinary doctors are on their way and they will be ascertaining the cause of death.”