Assam grapples with how to rescue injured, trapped wild animals
The recent incident in Assam involving an injured female elephant that got hit by a train has highlighted the status of government facilities, or lack of it, to carry out rescue and rehabilitation of wild animals
On the night of October 9, a speeding train hit a herd of wild elephants crossing a railway track at Titabor in Assam’s Jorhat district. The accident killed a female elephant and her calf within minutes. But a third pachyderm, a female, escaped with injuries. Due to the impact of the hit, the adult elephant that sustained injuries on both her hind legs, fell in a small stream near the tracks. According to experts, the stream helped ease her pain a bit and the water’s buoyancy kept her afloat, putting less pressure on her legs.
As morning dawned and news of the accident and the injured elephant’s painful cries reached nearby villages, hundreds of residents gathered at the site. Soon, crews from local television channels also reached there and began telecasting videos of the injured pachyderm lying in the stream.
Questions were raised on the failure of the state forest department and railway authorities to prevent such accidents and provide treatment to the injured animal by shifting it to another location. Arrival of the elected representatives at the scene added pressure on officials to transfer the elephant from the spot.
At first, a small crane was brought to lift the animal, but when it failed, a bigger hydraulic crane from Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) was brought in. Finally on October 11, nearly 42 hours after the accident and after a 6-hour-long rescue attempt, the elephant was lifted from the stream, placed in a truck and taken to Hollongapar Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary in Jorhat district for treatment and rehabilitation.
But the injuries sustained in the accident, delay in initial treatment and the attempts at rescue, which included tying all legs including the injured ones to ropes and lifting it in an upside down position, were too much for the pachyderm and it died within hours of arriving at the wildlife sanctuary.
Deaths on Tracks and Roads
While this was the most recent such incident to have hit headlines in the state, it’s not the only one. Every year, many wild animals including elephants and on some occasions rhinos get killed while crossing roads or railways tracks in search of food or to escape flood waters.
On October 8, a day prior to the train hitting the herd of elephants, a rhino trying to cross the NH-715 that runs besides Kaziranga National Park, was hit by a speeding truck at Haldhibari. The animal managed to get up and walk away. Three days later, a drone video showed the rhino was alive and well.
Decrease in forest cover over the years and search for food force wild elephants to leave reserve forests around winter each year and raid standing crops. When this happens, the pachyderms sometimes get hit by trains, get trapped in pits in construction sites or get killed by electrocution from low-hanging high-tension electric wires. On some occasions, villagers poison or use electricity to kill the elephants in order to save their crops.
According to government figures, in the past 10 years, human-elephant conflict has claimed lives of 800 persons and around 250 pachyderms. According to the Union government figures, 186 elephants were killed in train hits in India between 2009-10 and 2020-21. With 62 of those deaths, Assam was at the top followed by West Bengal (57) and Odisha (27).
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According to a 2017 census, Assam (5,719) has the second highest population of wild elephants after Karnataka (6,049). This year 8 elephant deaths have taken place in Assam due to train hits—four of them within a span of one month between September and October.
According to the forest department, in the past years’ measures like constitution of anti-depredation squads, erection of solar-powered electric fences to prevent pachyderms from moving towards human habitations and intensive patrolling to monitor movement of elephants have been undertaken to reduce human-elephant conflict. But the accidents have continued to occur.
“Linear infrastructure such as railway tracks often runs through pristine wildlife habitats which have consequently led to habitat fragmentation, posed barriers to wildlife movement and caused casualties due to collision. Conservation costs must be prioritised while planning development projects,” Guwahati-based wildlife NGO, Aaranyak, said in a statement issued this week.
The recent incident which killed three elephants in Titabor led the Assam government to hold a meeting with Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) officials on Saturday. During deliberations, chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma directed railway authorities to “deploy high-end tech solutions” to save the tuskers from train hits.
Status of Rescue Capabilities
The incident at Titabor involving the injured female elephant that got hit by a train highlighted the status of government facilities, or lack of it, as well as required manpower, resources and expertise needed to carry out rescue, transportation and rehabilitation of wild animals, especially bigger ones like elephants and rhinos, that get hit by vehicles or get trapped in constructions pits and mud-holes.
“In our state, besides train hits, we have several cases each year where small elephants get trapped in drains at tea-gardens or get separated from the herd during floods. Therefore, the government should have its own mechanism to deal with such situations. But it is lacking at present in Assam,” said noted veterinarian and Padma Shri awardee Kushal Konwar Sarma, who is also popular as an elephant doctor.
“Assam is a bio-diversity hotspot and home to a large variety of wild animals. Due to shrinkage of their habitat due to human intervention, conflicts of wild animals that stray out of forests with humans and accidents that result out of it is a big challenge in our state. We need to be prepared to deal with this,” Sarma added.
According to him, the Assam government should set up a fully equipped and well-organised establishment where there are a large number of veterinarians who are able to deal with wild animals and enough facilities including cranes etc. It should be able to train people to deal with wildlife rescue and rehabilitation and have adequate space to rehabilitate rescued animals. There should be some satellite units of the same in other parts of the state.
At present, the state forest department has just 3 wildlife veterinarians—one posted in Kaziranga National Park, another at Manas National Park and the third at the state zoo in Guwahati.
“There is almost no organised infrastructure in Assam to handle rescue of injured wild animals. While we have experts on wildlife, their views are not consulted at the time of rescue. It is surprising that the government doesn’t even have big cranes at their disposal to lift wild animals. If money can be spent on buying hundreds of drones to survey forest areas, why not use some to buy such big equipment?” questioned Bibhab Talukdar, CEO of Aaranyak.
One Centre, Lot of Pressure
It’s not as if there’s absolutely nothing on the ground to help with rescue and rehabilitation of wild animals. The state is home to the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC), the only facility of its kind in India which is involved in rescue and rehabilitation of wild animals.
Since its formation over two decades ago, it has rescued over 250 wild animals and treated and released around 130 of them back into the wild. The centre was founded by the Assam forest department and Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), a wildlife conservation NGO.
“It would be wrong to say there’s no set up at all. CWRC, which deals with all kinds of wild animals, has been in existence for 22 years now and at present we are the leader in rescue and rehabilitation of wild animals and our expertise is used by forest departments in other states. But there’s always a scope of improvement,” said Rathin Barman, joint director of WTI and head of CWRC.
While CWRC’s work is commended, experts say it is just a small effort by an NGO and the scale of the problem in Assam is such that it needs direct government intervention and more resources to handle the situation better. But there are others who feel it is not feasible to have several such centres with veterinarians and equipment as it would be drain on resources.
“One needs to understand that the Assam government is very much part of CWRC and it was formed through signing of a memorandum of understanding with the state. The recent episode with the injured elephant has highlighted the need to have large forklifts and other equipment of our own and we are planning to procure them,” said MK Yadava, principal chief conservator of forest (PCCF) and chief wildlife warden (CWW), Assam.
While there are differences on whether existing resources to rescue injured wild animals are enough or more needs to be done, wildlife experts and veterinarians are united in saying that the crowds at accident sites needs to be controlled better and media especially television channels should play a positive role when such incidents happen.
Experts are of the view that the female injured elephant shouldn’t have been removed from the stream as the water was keeping it buoyant and helping in minimising its pain while veterinarians were planning on ways to treat it. But constant media glare and demands from crowds that wanted the elephant shifted led to political pressure on forest officials to lift the pachyderm and transport it to a wildlife sanctuary.