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Animal stories

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PANIGHATTA

There was a short article in the Statesman, which said:

 

Elephant Kills Man in Tea Estate

Siliguri, July 20: A man was killed by a wild elephant around 5.30 this morning in the New Line of the Panighatta Tea Estate in Mirik Block.
Mr Baradi Gaur (70) was sleeping in his room when three wild elephants appeared in front of his house. One elephant then flattened the house.
Everyone managed to flee except Mr Gaur who was pulled out by the elephant and hurled at a distance of 10-15 metres, Mr. Gaur died on the spot.
No sooner than the news of his death reached his neighbours, did they stage a blockade on the Panighatta main road from 7.30am/ The blockade was later withdrawn following an assurance by the local police.

‘Where is this Panighatta?’, I asked Naveen the vet in charge of our animal shelter in Kalimpong.

‘Its only about three hours’ drive from here,’ he said. ‘I know someone who lives down that way. The elephants are migrating, it seems. They come out of the forest.’

‘Shouldn’t we go and see what these wild elephants are doing?’

‘We could go,’ he said. His mobile phone was like another limb.Within no time he was speaking into it, making arrangements, calling a driver. We arranged to leave at 7 the next morning. Naveen was outside the kitchen at 6.30 helping Mumta to pack aloo paratha and chutney in a tiffin box. The driver was already waiting up on the road above the shelter.

The Tata Suomo was comfortable. It was a steamy monsoonal morning. The Teesta was foaming with mud, and brown. Her banks were lined with green forest trees. The road wound steeply down towards the plain, following alongside the mighty Teesta, and it was crumbled in many places from rain, and slipping soil, and rocks. There were army vehicles, coloured khaki, and jeeps laden with passengers, and trucks, decorated with tinsel, carrying bags of cement and river rocks. It was Saturday.

After two hours, the road flattened and the river broadened into a wide sandy delta. The air became hot and steamy. We were on the terrain, the Eastern stretch of the Great Gangetic Plain which extends into Nepal.

Siliguri is the congested, ugly town which services the hill stations of Darjeeling and Kalimpong. Outside a shop, two young women were waiting, who were friends of Dr. Naveen. They had been waiting an hour. He had organised them to buy bottled water and biscuits and chips, and vitamin C because I had a cold.

They smiled, and looked shy and climbed into the back of the jeep. He introduced them as Ila and Dipti. We drove straight West for a while, through the clutter of Bagdogra and then we swung to the right, driving through endless expanses of tea estates, with the foothills of the Himalayas in front of us, grey, swathed in mist. The earth was wet and steaming hot. In the rivers, women were washing sheets, and hanging them to dry on the railings of the bridges. There were herds of cattle and goats. The green tea shrubs stretched endlessly, canopied by higher trees which acted as protectors from the sun. There was the sweet pungent smell of the fresh tea bushes, and the smell of rotting jungle vegetation, like compost heaps. Everything was wet, and rotting and steaming.

We were going to the village where Manoj, cousin of Dipti, lived, very close to the place where the man was killed. As we were driving along, I asked Naveen whether we should stop and ask some of the teaworkers whether they ever saw elephants in this part.

There was a group of men, standing on a wide mud path, filling containers with water. The water was contained in a tank and they had come on their bicycles to fill the plastic carriers. I asked one of them in halting Hindi whether they ever saw elephants here.

He looked surprised that I should even ask the question. ‘Elephants walk along this path every night, and return in the morning,’ he said. ‘See the dung.’

We looked on the path and there was the fresh dung, tangled with straw.

‘Do the elephants give trouble to the villagers?; I asked him.

‘Yes, they give trouble,’ he said. ‘They come every night during the monsoon. We cannot go out at night. They are dangerous. Everyone is inside after six in the evening.’

Then Naveen asked him if he knew about the man who had recently been killed by an elephant, and he said he was just cycling back to that village, and we could follow him and he would show us the way. The men were dark, and they had the faces of labourers, and they looked Burmese, as though they had come from forests and tribal lands.

So we followed the man on his bicycle, as he juggled his water containers and swung to the left off the main road down a dirt track, then again to the right, down an even more narrow track. Soon we were in a village, which consisted of a number of simple dwellings, mostly huts with walls of woven bamboo.

He led us into the garden of a small hut. There was a group of men sitting at a table playing karam and a group of women sitting on the verandah, which was made of raised, packed mud swept clean. The house itself had walls which were constructed of sheets of closely woven bamboo which had dried and looked like basket ware.

Beside the bamboo house with a corrugated iron roof, a new, cement house was in process of construction. We walked down a pathway between the two houses and in front of us we saw what appeared to be a rubbish dump.

‘This was the house which the elephant destroyed two days ago,’ the man said. There were shattered roof tiles scattered over the ground, and mashed into the mud, pulverized bamboo matting, and a pair of underpants. ‘The elephant came to this hut, put his trunk through the wall, pulled out the man, and then pierced his head with his tusks,’ he said.

‘It was a deliberate, pre-meditated attack,’ Naveen said.

‘This same elephant has killed five people now,’ the man said.

He pointed to a smashed crop of maize and elephant ears. In the mud there were huge, sunken circular holes filled with water. Each was about two feet in diameter. ‘Here are the elephants’ footmarks,’ the man said.

You could see where the giant beast had crashed through the maize garden, through a bamboo fence, and into the next plot, between the banana palms. I thought how, in India, three hundred people are killed every year by elephants.

A little boy came up to me and said, ‘It is a very dangerous elephant.’

‘You can speak English well,’ I replied. ‘Do you learn it at school.’

‘Yes,’ he said, shyly.

‘Did you see the elephant?’

‘Yes, I saw him,’ he answered.

‘Did he make a noise?’

‘He made a lot of noise. He trumpeted about three times.’

Then we asked the headman of the village whether the Forest Department would remove the elephant because it had killed five people. But he said, there is only one man at the Forest Department, and he is not interested because we are only poor men.

‘We work hard all day,’ he said. ‘We need rest at night.’

‘If this is a tea estate village, for tea workers, shouldn’t the tea estate take action to ensure this elephant does not come back?’

‘The owner of this tea estate does not care,’ the headman replied. ‘He sits in Calcutta and he never comes here.’

We said we would try to visit the Forest Department and the tea garden manager. The village people brought out plastic chairs for us to sit upon. They brought some rough paper and we wrote a letter and ten people signed it. Then we went to the District Forest Office, but there was only a watchman there. He said that the officer was ‘out in the field’. Everything was green, and still, and empty and steaming. You could feel elephants, and dung and the footmarks and crushings of elephants everywhere.

And as we drove away, I thought of what the village people had said to us: ‘It is not the fault of the elephants. Humans have taken their land.’ And I thought that not only had the tea gardens taken the land of the elephants, but they had also taken the land of the local inhabitants, who now were dependent on the tea gardens, and their meager daily wages for their survival.

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