There is something common between Manik, Mohan, Madan, Pawan, Joybahadur and Motilal. All of them are male Indian elephants – Elephas maximus indicus – in “musth”, a condition of heightened aggression, who had started terrorising people in their area in the North East Indian state of Assam and were eventually subdued by Kushal Konwar Sarma.
59-year-old Sarma was honoured with the Padma Shri, among the highest civilian honours in India, this year for his outstanding service to the largest terrestrial mammal of India for over three decades. Sarma is affectionately identified by the monikers “Elephant Doctor” and “The Elephant Man of Asia.”
Currently the Head of the Surgery and Radiology Department in College of Veterinary Science, Khanapara, Assam, Sarma treats 700-800 elephants annually. He is also a member of the Steering Committee of “Project Elephant”, set up in 1992 by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest, now the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.
On the afternoon of January 25, when Sarma was operating on a pig at the veterinary college campus, he received a call from the Union Home Ministry informing him of the award, which he said came as a pleasant surprise. Sarma, who was a good horse rider in his youth, had participated in the Republic Day parades as a mounted cadet. “I saluted two successive Presidents, Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy and Giani Zail Singh. Now, I will be receiving the award from another President [Ram Nath Kovind],” he said.
He first shared the news with his mother and then informed his family, friends and colleagues. As the news spread, he received more than a thousand congratulatory calls. Taking out time from his hectic schedule, he sat down for an exclusive chat with Mongabay-India on becoming a veterinarian, personal losses, triumphs, anthropogenic pressures on wildlife and literary pursuits centred on elephants.
Please tell us something about your childhood and why you decided to be a veterinarian.
My decision to become a veterinarian goes back to an incident from my childhood. I was born in a small village called Deulguri in erstwhile Kamrup, which now falls in Baksa district. In our village, there was an old female elephant called Lakshmi. Though it belonged to a businessman, most of the time it stayed in our orchard. For seven to eight years, I developed a very strong bond with Lakshmi.
I learnt to ride the elephant myself as its mahout was an opium-addict. Later my father, who was a pharmacist with the state government, was transferred to a place called Morimakha near Bhutan border. When we returned after a year, Lakshmi had passed away. My grandmother informed me that she injured her foot during logging work and died from the infection. When I asked about her treatment, my grandmother said, “Where do you find a doctor for elephants!” That incident had a huge effect on me. Later, when I had to choose from medical, veterinary, engineering, pharmacy and fisheries disciplines, I chose veterinary. I started as a doctor of cows, gradually moved to dogs and horses, and then started treating elephants and rhinos.
You have tranquilised 139 rogue elephants so far. What are the main challenges in tackling such an animal? Did you have close shaves while attempting to tranquilise elephants?
A male elephant becomes violent when it is in musth which is nothing but a surge in testosterone. It is a normal physiological behaviour. Females can also kill if they are bored in captivity or detained improperly but in most cases, it is the male who goes on a rampage. Till a long time, rogue elephants used to be gunned down by the Forest Department. When I successfully managed to tranquilise an elephant called Manik, in 1994, it opened a new chapter in the role of veterinarians in elephant management. People started understanding that as musth is a temporary phenomenon, it can definitely be treated.
The main challenge of tranquilising an elephant is that one needs to come close enough to the beast to fire the tranquilising dart. We generally fire the dart from 40 metres and in such a short distance, elephants can easily outrun an Olympic sprinter. Also, even the most potent drug takes around 10 minutes to show its effect. So precautionary measures have to be taken. Sometimes, we climb trees and at other instances, we hide behind boulders. Ultimately, we also need a lot of luck in such circumstances.
I had 10-12 close shaves when I was chased by elephants, but thankfully nothing happened. Unfortunately, in 1998, I had to lose my brother-in-law Narayan Sarmah, who was also the ranger of Dibru Saikhowa National Park, Assam, at that time, in such an incident. An elephant named Gobind Singh had gone rogue in Tinsukia and it ended up killing 29 people. It was the only incident when I failed to tranquilise a rogue elephant and the outcome was fatal. Sarmah was an excellent forest officer and his contribution to Dibru Saikhowa was immense. I dedicate this award to him.
Assam is one of the worst affected Indian states in terms of human-elephant conflict. What, according to you, is the main reason behind the conflict in Assam today?
When the British took over Assam in 1826 from Burmese occupation, its population was only 1.3 million. Currently, Assam’s population is almost 40 million and our forest cover has also decreased rapidly. This population boom is pushing our precious wildlife, including elephants towards extinction. On paper, the number of elephants in Assam might seem okay. But in reality, their condition is precarious. Barring Kaziranga and to some extent Manas, no other elephant habitat in the state is undisturbed. This is the reason why the man-elephant conflict in Assam is so high.
Our senseless act of politicising population issues has played a very big role in aggravating the man-elephant conflict in Assam. We need to understand that this is not a political or religious issue. This threatens the very existence of the human race. If there are no animals, trees or forests, we will also not get any oxygen or water. Also, by turning vast chunks of forests into tea gardens, the British did a lot of damage to the elephant’s habitat. As elephants don’t eat tea leaves, they enter nearby villages for food which leads to conflict.
Last year, there was a huge uproar over four elephants from Assam being sent to Gujarat to take part in the Rath Yatra at the Jagannath Temple. What is your take on such practices?
I am strictly against it because when an elephant is taken to a hot and dry state like Gujarat and Rajasthan, its condition is like a fish out of water. As per the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, capture and sale of elephants is prohibited. However, exploiting some legal loopholes in the act, elephants are leased for a particular period with a condition that they will be returned when the lease is over. Unfortunately, since 1996, thousands of elephants were taken out of Assam and none of them ever came back. The exodus is still on.
How difficult is it to procure drugs for the treatment of wild animals, especially for rhinos in India?
No potent anaesthetic, sedative or immobilising drugs are produced in India. We have to face a lot of obstacles to procuring the necessary drugs. The problem with rhinos is we have to use narcotics as there is no other substitute. For other animals like elephants, there are alternatives. To procure these drugs, we have to take clearance from four to five ministries. When the file finally gets cleared after, say eight months, that particular drug might become unavailable in the market. This happened with a drug called Immobilon which we had to procure from the United Kingdom. But again, if the government doesn’t put restrictions on these drugs, then they will be abused. So this problem will remain.
India is hosting the 13th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Migratory Species [CMS COP13] and has sought inclusion of the Asian elephant in the global list of endangered species. What do you think about this move?
I welcome this development. International support is always encouraging but eventually, this is our problem and the onus to solve this is on us. To protect the elephant we need to protect its habitat and for that strong political will is required.
What is the wildlife trafficking scenario in Assam now? What are the species being trafficked?
Wildlife trafficking is a serious issue in Assam though currently more than the bigger animals like elephants and rhinos, it is the trafficking of smaller animals which is a cause of concern. Trafficking of animals like tokay gecko and Chinese pangolin has increased alarmingly. However, in the past few years, poaching of rhinos for their horn has come down, which is a great achievement. However, the demand for rhino horns is very much there and to meet that demand, poachers are moving to other territories like North Bengal and Nepal. Poaching of elephants in Assam might happen for their ivory and not their skin. Elephants in Assam are safe inside protected habitats but outside them, they are vulnerable especially in forests bordering Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan.
Please tell us something about your literary journey.
I used to write about some of my experiences in the Assamese magazine Prantik. Those received favourable feedback from readers. Then some of my friends urged me to write a book. My first book Boliya Hatiko Bolabo Paru Moi [“I can tame a rogue elephant”] was published in 2011 and comprised of eleven accounts of my encounters with rogue elephants. The book was received well. I have now finished writing a few more books that are in various stages of editing. I have penned the second volume of my encounters with elephant titled Tumak Bolaboloi Tan [“It is difficult to tame you”].
I have finished writing another Assamese book called Hasti Palokor Haat Puthi, a hand guide for mahouts. Generally, when an elephant starts killing, its mahout is the first casualty. So through this book, I seek to increase awareness among them. I have also penned an English book, Defending the Rogue, which will be published from the USA.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.