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"Three, Two, One and Zero" Prof. Parthankar Choudhury's Plea to Save Barak Valley's Elephants from Extinction

Three… Two… One… and then, Zero. This grim fate awaits the Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus) of the Barak Valley. The relentless decline of the magnificent herbivore would, for sure, enrich the list of fauna that have already been extirpated from the valley. Tigers, Rhinos, Barasinghas, Black bears, Vultures – the list is endless. Barak Valley’s ecosystem has been the silent witness to the localized extinction of species, one after another. Late Pawlen Singha, a conservationist friend, once quipped, “Can we afford the luxury of losing species, one after another?”

It’s worth noting that the Gangetic River Dolphin may also be following the same path. The last known sighting of a dolphin dates to 2015 near Katigorah when a miscreant killed it, and its body oil was sold at a high price. Since then, there is no concrete evidence of dolphins in the aquatic zone of the Barak River.

In the 1980s, a sizable herd of about 40 to 45 wild elephants traversed the Barail foothills, reaching up to the tea garden areas of Thailu, Burtoll, and Dewan Tea Garden in the eastern part of Cachar district. Unfortunately, no photographic documentation of that incident is available with me, although I had been an eyewitness. Over the last four to five decades, neither the forest department nor wildlife enthusiasts have been able to trace the whereabouts of this vanishing herd.

The last refuge for these pachyderms in the valley was the Patheria Hills Reserve Forest areas along the Indo-Bangladesh border. A local boy from the area, N. R. Talukdar, took an interest in studying how distressful their condition is in the locality. Eventually, he got registered for a Ph.D. with Assam University (in 2016) to investigate the ‘Habitat Studies and Conservation Status of Asiatic Elephants (Elephas maximus) in the Patheria Hills Reserve Forest of Southern Assam, India.’ When he began his research, there were seven (6 adults and one juvenile) females in the herd. He could gather from local people that a few years back from then, the single male elephant was killed by some aggrieved group in an act of retaliation. Talukdar completed his thesis, earned his degree, and shared recommendations with state forest authorities, but that’s it…!

Meanwhile, several publications on the ‘Patheria Elephants’ have appeared in various magazines and journals of national and international repute, but this has failed to evoke the required level of stimuli for timely protection of the ‘Gajarajs’ of Patheria. Over these seven years (2016-2023), an alarming decline has occurred, with one elephant succumbing every other year. And since the trend will continue unabated, it can be well apprehended that elephants will vanish from the area within the next 5-6 years, possibly by 2029, if not 2028.

Photo Courtesy: D J Nath

While investigating the reasons behind the phenomenal loss of four elephants in recent years, it can be mentioned that, on the first instance, the juvenile female got electrocuted in the low-lying electric wires at Medli Tea Estate (South Karimganj district) in August 2017. The remaining six females then got divided into two subgroups, three in each. By December 2020, the number came down to five, as one more elephant died due to a man-elephant conflict. Then, in 2021, the fifth individual died, as it developed gangrene on its skin, and vet care could not be provided on time. On the 22nd of October this year was Mahastami. On this day, across the valley, Goddess Durga was worshipped with full religious fervor. Her favorite son (Parbotisyo priyo putro) was also being worshipped in every pandel. It is during these festive days that the fourth Ganapati of Patheria had to succumb to death!

Efforts to address this fast vanishing of elephants have been ongoing in collaboration with state forest departments and the Assam State Biodiversity Board. Despite repeated discussions and deliberations, no visible actions are yet to be in place. There was a decision in the Assam State Biodiversity Board on August 6, 2022, that ‘In Patheria Hills Reserve Forest, a suitable adult captive male elephant will be temporarily allowed to mix with the existing herd of female elephants to save the herd from extinction in the locality (Resolution no-11). The meeting was organized to discuss the celebration of World Elephant Day, 2022, and was chaired by M. K. Yadav, IFS, PCCF and HoFF, Assam.

As a follow-up to that, a stakeholders’ meeting was convened in the fringe areas of the Patheria Hills on September 27, 2022, so that the male elephant (to be translocated from elsewhere) is accepted by the locals and no fresh conflict arises. On an invitation from the then Chief Conservator of forests, I had to attend the meeting. The discussion went smoothly, and everybody, including locals, had given their nod to the proposal. But nothing beyond that.

By now, more than one year has elapsed, and one more elephant has succumbed to death. Whether this note can mobilize action or if the countdown – Three… Two… One… – that has commenced will reach its foretold conclusion remains to be seen.

The author of this article, Prof. Parthankar Choudhury is the Dean and former Head of the Department of Ecology and Environmental Science, Assam University, Silchar

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