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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Wild elephant census on Indo-Bhutan border: A real life drama

Enumeration of wild elephants was on in the remote forests on India-Bhutan international border in February 2011. Bankim Sarma,DFO,Dhansiri Forest Division,Udalguri has been known for his experience and expertize on wild elephant census during his tenure as a DFO in Kaziranga NP. It was my pleasure to meet him on many occasions to discuss various topics like tranquilizing and trans location of rhino and tigers;inter-relationship of tigers and leopards etc. It was known from him that elephant census or enumeration works were on in 22 blocks in Bornadi WLS and other reserved forests in Udalguri district. I decided to experience wild elephant census myself. It must be mentioned here that elephant census or enumeration is a difficult and lengthy process, Unlike rhinos or tigers wild elephants never stay in a particular area for a long period. They could move away fast to other places in search of food and shelter. Forest officials engaged in enumeration are divided into many groups thereby working at many places in a time frame. Frequent movements of wild elephants of course pose hurdles like double counting. Movements of wild elephants on either sides of the Indo-Bhutan international border also pose problem. Forest personnel engaged in elephant enumeration are given proper prior training to overcome such problems. Details of wild elephants,herds, numbers,sex,dung,size of the tusk etc are properly recorded so as to check double counting. Enumeration staff tour their blocks with a seven days schedule. I decided not to disclose my plan to DFO in advance. Thought,it might pose difficulty in their normal census schedule. I started my journey alone from my home town Kalaigaon in a Maruti Alto in the morning of February 26. It was a ninety minutes journey from Kalaigaon to Samrang via Tangla-Paneri-Bhutiachang (55 km).Forest Officer Kushal Deka greeted me with a smile at Samrang at 10 am. He was ready for his days activity along with other three. Leaving my vehicle there I joined them and started moving on foot towards unfamiliar terrains,rivers and streams. On way we noticed Neewly PRF (Proposed Reserve Forest)being encroached by people. An SSB camp was established there too. I was told that government had alloted nearly 450 bigha forest lands to a religious organization which in turn caused massive deforestation near Indo-Bhutan international border. Serious enough, the organization actually encroached more than 5000 bigha pristine forest lands (once belonged to Neewly PRF).I realized,the serious impact of the construction of buildings and dairy farms and establishment of the SSB camps had virtually blocked the age old “Samrang Elephant Corridor” forcing wild elephants to roam in the villages. Yes,it was the root cause of so called “Man-Elephant Conflict” in the district. There had been only excitement and thrill to move ahead on the dry beds of so many zigzag streams and rivers in the midst of tall grasses and forests! Far away from hue and cries of towns,undisturbed by mobile ring tones,we were moving ahead for hours looking for wild elephants,sometimes greeted by pairs of horn bills. Further away we noticed water filled holes made by wild elephants on the dry and sandy river beds to quench their thirst. Beautiful Kalanadi greeted us at 12.30 pm after walking over 6 km from Samrang. Two forest workers were left there to prepare lunch and we three let ourselves get lost among the untrodden ways in the midst of deep and dark Samrang forest. “What is that?”,someone shouted to break the silence,and we saw a narrow man made track ahead. Forest officer Deka told us that the track had been made by poachers and anti-social elements. Yes,he was right. Just a few meters ahead we saw a three feet deep and eight feet long man made trench where poachers take shelter. Watch showed 1.30 pm. The sudden sounds of movement alerted us. Could that be poachers? No,we could not send any messages to forest camp because of no network coverage. We did not carry guns but two packets of crackers with us. Finally we decided what to do and burst two crackers to warn poachers and turned back to retreat. Wow! So many plants of Ow-tenga (Dilleniaceae) ahead! Yes larger sized tengas were very attractive and I picked up two for my wife. Talking about lunch with local chicken and boiled pork we followed our old track. So on a sudden a very familiar scent of animal and loud sound in the form of trumpet stopped us three. Yes,fresh dungs of elephants told us that they were very close. A herd of wild elephants blocked our track back to open. We could hear our hearts beating very fast. I realized what terrible had happened!The bursting of crackers to warn poachers acted as a boomerang. The sound had actually alerted all the wild elephants of the herd and they just assembled blocking all our hope. Without a single word we started our retreat through deep and thorny creepers of Samrang forest. The sky was cloudy and the time was 3 pm of a short winter day. I never knew what it had reacted on others,but I just felt that the time was terrible. And may be against my will I threw away the two Ow-tengas and replaced my camera with them. Following a track without GPS inside the deep and dark forest was impossible as the day was cloudy. I tried to switch on my GPS,but to my utter disappointment I saw that the GPS was out of battery. How to track ways to open in a 10 km wide forest within just an hour? Otherwise we would be lost in the darkness. But that was not so important to us, important was to get out of the forest. We just realized that we had been just moving deep inside the forest. As we had been moving ahead,thorny creepers started drawing designs on our sweaters and jackets. But who were those springing away seeing us? Yes,the deers hiding under bushes perhaps mistook us for poachers. Perhaps you all too,while going through my narration,realize our position that time. Actually we lost our hope of life. I remembered my wife and two sons. Would I ever meet them?It was 3.30 pm. Moving forward away,we arrived at a small open space with a big and tall tree. As asked Sanju climbed the tall tree and declared that he could see a water tank at a distance. How could a water tank be there!But without exchanging a single word we started following that direction. And within a few minutes we could make our way to an open place. But the place was quite unfamiliar to us. When asked a wood cutter told that it was Segunbari SSB camp, just 10 KM away from Samrang SSB camp. But how could that be?We realized that we had been moving inside Samrang forest for several hours. The worst was yet to come. We left behind two forest workers inside deep forest for ourto prepare our lunch. I also left behind my vehicle at Samrang. Our tired limbs just refused to follow our command to move ahead. Mobile network too did not support us. Finding no alternative we just continued our journey back to square one by following another route by a stream. Suddenly we noticed a wild tusker coming slowly towards us from the other side of the stream. We knew that it was a loner,very unpredictable. But we could never increase our pace due to our immobilized legs. Compelled to ignore the wild tusker's presence, we slowly moved forward. Perhaps the tusker too realized our condition and allowed us to moved on undisturbed. By the time it was getting dark.