Delayed rescue of elephant in Assam sparks debate of state’s preparedness

Oct 24, 2022 06:00 AM IST

On October 8, a day prior to the train hitting the herd of elephants, a rhino trying to cross the NH 715 that runs along the Kaziranga National Park, was hit by a speeding truck at Haldhibari. The animal managed to get up and walk away.

A speeding train hit a herd of wild elephants crossing the railway tracks at Titabor in Assam’s Jorhat district on the night of October 9. The accident killed a female elephant and her calf within minutes. But a third pachyderm, another female, escaped with injuries.

Delayed rescue of elephant in Assam sparks debate of state’s preparedness
Delayed rescue of elephant in Assam sparks debate of state’s preparedness

The impact toppled the elephant, which sustained injuries on both her hind legs, into a small stream. The cool water eased her pain a bit and the water’s buoyancy kept her afloat, putting less pressure on her legs, experts said.

Morning dawned with news of the accident as the injured elephant’s painful cries reached nearby villages. Hundreds gathered at the site. Soon, crews from local television channels arrived and began telecasting videos of the injured beast lying in the stream.

Questions were raised on 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 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 elephant, but when it failed, a bigger hydraulic crane from the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation 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 the legs 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 incident was the most recent to have hit headlines in Assam, it was not the only one. Every year, many wild animals, including elephants and, on some occasions, rhinos, get killed while crossing roads or railway tracks in search of food or to escape floodwaters.

On October 8, a day prior to the train hitting the herd of elephants, a rhino trying to cross the NH 715 that runs along the 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 forces wild elephants to leave reserve forests around winter every year and raid standing crops. When this happens, the pachyderms sometimes get hit by trains, get trapped in pits in construction sites or are killed by electrocution from low-hanging high-tension electric wires. On some occasions, villagers poison or use electricity to kill the elephants to save their crops.

In the past 10 years, human-elephant conflict has claimed lives of 800 persons and around 250 pachyderms, official data show. As per 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).

According to a 2017 census, Assam at 5,719 has the second highest population of wild elephants after Karnataka (6,049). This year, eight elephant deaths have taken place in Assam due to train hits—four of them within a span of a month between September and October.

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, as per the forest department. 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 last 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 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 trains, vehicles or are 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’s lacking at present in Assam,” said veterinarian Kushal Konwar Sarma. who is popular as an elephant doctor.

“Assam is a biodiversity hot spot 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,” Sarma said. “We need to be prepared to deal with this.”

The Assam government should set up a fully equipped and well-organised establishment where there are a large number of veterinarians able to deal with wild animals and enough facilities, including cranes, he said. 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, Sarma said.

At present, the state forest department has just three 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,” Bibhab Talukdar, CEO of Aaranyak. “If money can be spent on buying hundreds of drones to survey forest areas, why not use some to buy such big equipment?”

One centre, lot of pressure

It’s not as if there’s 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.

Since its formation over two decades ago, CWRC 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 the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), a non-profit engaged in wildlife conservation.

“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 a drain on resources.

“One needs to understand that 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 fork lifts and other equipment of our own and we are planning to procure them,” said MK Yadava, principal chief conservator of forest, and chief wildlife warden, 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 one is voicing that crowds at accident sites need to be controlled better and media, especially television channels, should play a positive role when such incidents occur.

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.

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    Utpal is a Senior Assistant Editor based in Guwahati. He covers seven states of North-East India and heads the editorial team for the region. He was previously based in Kathmandu, Dehradun and Delhi with Hindustan Times.

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