No Country For Wild Elephants

This long-form article covers roughly 500 years of history of wild Asian elephants in the central Indian highlands – a history that is still being written. It is an excerpt of a larger piece on central India I am working on. Given the recent happenings on wild elephants in India – and particularly central India – it is time we revisited our history to see how far we have come and where we’re headed. I have retained references because it is a work in progress. Views expressed are mine.

No Country For Wild Elephants

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon‐falls, the mackerel‐crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
-- Sailing to Byzantium (1928) by William Butler Yeats

In The Past

In the rolling hills of Chaiturgarh – about 50 km east of Achanakmar as the crow flies – machans over ten to fifteen feet high up on trees were very peculiar feature in central India where machans are barely five feet tall. The reason to build such machans was also peculiar: to escape from the wrath of the “rajas and demons” that wandered these forests. When they arrived, entire villages sought shelter in their treehouses. Yet it wasn’t kings, definitely not demons, nor quite man-eaters or carnivores that the people were afraid of. They roamed the eastern central Indian highlands to the north and east of Amarkantak – a region described as “perhaps the wildest part of country in Chhattisgarh” – and the hills of Mandla and Balaghat. The description of “shattered forest trees, the broken and crushed bamboo clumps, the hollows and footprints in a hundred marshes and watercourses”, and stories of how entire fields, which required hard labour of months, disappeared in a single night, point to but one animal central India of the present is not accustomed to: the Asian elephant.

In the late 1800s, elephants were common in the northern reaches of Maikal hills. Forsyth estimated a population of two to three hundred wild elephants in an area of about 1,200 square miles (over 3,000 sq km) in the hilly tracts of Maikal hills north of Bilaspur district – the eastern arm of the central Indian highlands. Forsyth ascertained that “these herds are not isolated, but are only the most westerly extension of a vast elephant region in the hills of Sirguja, Chota Nagpur, and Cuttack.”

Naturally, they interacted with humans. A little north of Chaiturgarh, around the village of Matin, elephant attacks had resulted in death of several persons, and in wide-scale devastation of rice fields. “They undoubtedly did very serious damage to the crops in the neighbourhood”, Forsyth observed, considering them “a serious obstacle to the cultivation of the country”. One of the objectives of his explorations in the “far east” of central India was to “ascertain their numbers, and propose means for their destruction.”

Elephants moved like shadows in the forests, feeding on forest fruits and shoots, and often raided the hill cultivation of the tribal communities and farms of agrarian communities. When they arrived, people mostly stayed put in tall machans, some shot poisoned arrows and used fire-torches to deter them from croplands. A solitary male was “shot in the trunk with a “baisar,” or a poisoned arrow, from a tree by the Bhumia, whose rice-field he was devastating below”, Forsyth recounts. A poisoned arrow is not sufficient to kill an elephant. “He wandered long in the neighbouring jungle”, he wrote, “growing thin and weak, and at last sank down helpless in a water-pool, where he had gone to bathe his miserable body”. A solitary elephant in Matin who had caused serious grievance and death of several persons was chased after by Forsyth with the help of Bhumia trackers, but escaped to live another day, possibly to the natural end of its life. An elephant cannot be killed by a single arrow or a single shot of the rifle. A missed-shot only enrages an elephant – far from subduing it – and can turn even more aggressive towards people. On the same day of Forsyth’s unsuccessful elephant hunt, a tusker, enraged by being shot at for half a day by trophy hunters, trampled a young boy who came in its path. Making a note of this, Forsyth wrote, “Shooting at wild elephants only increases the damage they occasion, by breaking up the herds and spreading their ravages over a larger area”.

The most historic story concerning a rogue “mad” elephant comes from Balaghat and Mandla, briefly outlined in the Balaghat Gazetteer (1906) as an incidence “which deserves more than a passing mention”. In 1851, this elephant was tracked from Chhindwara to Balaghat, where it passed into Mandla from the towns of Baihar and Bhanderi, and sought shelter in the Bhaisanghat hills of Kanha for many years until it “suddenly developed a most destructive tendency”, killing around 41 persons in Balaghat and Mandla – over 20 people in Balaghat within a week’s duration. The elephant was known to break down “every machan he met with” and pursued its occupants till they were bludgeoned to death. The made elephant was feared, so much that whole villages were abandoned on but a rumour of an elephant prowling around. Five of the eleven people Elwin interviewed in the 1930s distinctly remembered this incident. They were all young when the events transpired – someone lost a beloved relative, someone their crop, and many left their villages from fear. This event was, as Elwin put it, “a date by which stories can be checked, for all remember it”.

These are but a handful few records of human-elephant interactions in the Maikal hills. The old account hints at a sort-of love-and-hate relationship between the people and the elephants – they revered elephants, no doubt, as Forsyth and Elwin mention names of places named after elephants spread across central India; elephants also played a small but a significant role in ceremonies, such as among the Baiga. But the wild elephant remained in the shadow region. Given the density of elephants Forsyth reported, the volume of crop damage as well as loss of life could have been significant, yet I believe elephants weren’t really considered a threat as can be believed from second-hand accounts. I believe there was tolerance to a certain degree, partly because the forest was vast and human densities low.

At the behest of government officials, a khedda system, one of the two types of elephant capture technique, was established near Matin to capture herds of elephants between 1865 and 1867 – not as much to curb conflict as to promote cultivation so that the revenue generated by the farmer in the form of land tax can reach the colonial empire; Forsyth’s note on remitting the “annual tribute of the Thakurs” for many years whose crops the elephants destroyed only reaffirms my doubt that it wasn’t conflict between the people and the elephants that compelled the first operation to eradicate elephant populations from central India, it was for the loss of revenue the region incurred.

A khedda is one of the two harsh but an ancient technique of capturing herds of wild elephants in one operation. It was established to tame wild elephants for their service in wars, temples, and as draft animals for heavy-lifting work in timber harvest operations. Khedda was commonly practiced in the elephant country of Assam and West Bengal, and was adopted in other places to reduce the damage caused by wild herds.

The operation in Matin is quite dramatically described by Forsyth: “After identifying the herds, the elephants were rounded up with the help of trained elephants, called kumki, and a chain of people with drums and torches, and flushed into a large enclosure of “ring-fence of bamboos”. Beforehand, the trees around this fence were felled to obtain a clear view of the elephants at all times, and to ensure that the elephants did not break through, the enclosures were built in a place with plenty of water and fodder available. The khedda was manned at all times. During nights, fire was lit across the enclosure in a “ring of light”. In one corner of the enclosure, a stockade was built with “an immense arm of piled logs” stretching on both sides, like a runway. Once the elephants were driven into this stockade, the mahouts noosed and tied them.”

Major-General Sir James Johnstone was put in charge of the khedda operations. He had spent much of his time in north-eastern states of India, including Assam and Manipur – where he studied the khedda system – before being stationed in Kendujhar when he oversaw the operations in Odisha. Here he spent “nearly one half” of his time capturing wild elephants, the operation considered to be successful and profitable to the Government. From this exercise, the government earned £1,650 – about £1,80,000 in today’s economy – in addition to “removing so serious an obstacle to the progress of tillage and the realisation of the public revenue” – echoing my doubt on the real reason for eliminating elephants. Within two years, Forsyth recounted 117 elephants being captured (over 40% - 58% of Forsyth’s estimated elephant population), of which most were domesticated, 35 died from diseases, and about 50 were left in the wild while “a good many” had retreated in the eastern forests. The extirpation of central Indian elephants began more 150 years ago.

Soon after, in 1871, the mad elephant was shot by Captain Bloomfield in Balaghat. The origin of this elephant is a mystery. The gazetteer of the central provinces only mentions of “one wild elephant, which it is believed escaped some fifteen years ago from the establishment of the Raja of Nagpur” in the passing. Another account considers the elephant to have escaped from Ellichpur (present-day Achalpur) in 1851, with the raja of Nagpur failing to capture it. It is not sure if the elephant was a captive that went rogue, or if it was under training in a kraal – a large enclosure used to keep wild elephants – when it escaped and eventually went berserk. Or, that it was shot at after the escape, enraging its already short temper. Elephants would not wantonly kill humans unless they have experienced a violent event in the past. Several years before, one of Elwin’s sources narrated a story of “the first mad elephant” with a chain in one leg, claiming lives of several people. It apparently returned again with chain in both the legs – clearly a sign of being tamed – and was caught by a Baiga and poisoned.

If we go back into the earliest pages of history, Ain-I-Akbari, written in the 16th century, offers a window into the historic range of elephants in India. Ain-I-Akbari mentions presence of wild elephants in Agra, Allahabad, Sagar, Bastar, Malwa, Bijagarh, Raisen, Hoshangabad, as well as Jharkhand, Bengal, Orissa, and Hugli. He also mentions “Puttah” – adding that “the elephants of Puttah are the best”, to which Blochmann says “The name Puttah is doubtful, each MS. having a different reading”. In central India, they were everywhere: they were present in Kherla, now the district of Betul, situated just under the Satpuda ranges. There is a mention of “numerous” wild elephants in Bairagarh (now a bustling suburb of Bhopal) – the westernmost edge of the central Indian highlands. Their range extended beyond Indur (Indore) and Nandurbar along the Vindhyan ranges – all the way to eastern Gujarat (indeed, wild elephants were captured by emperor Jahangir in Gujarat. Down the pages of Ain-I-Akbari, in the chapter “The Grandees of the Empire”, Abdul Fazal mentions of a fight “which took place near Kantit (possibly present-day Katni), a dependency of Pannah” where, a certain Sheikh Jamal of Agra was nearly killed in a fight. In the footnote, Blochmann mentions, “the fight took place at Gasht, a dependency of Patnah, but this is a mistake of the editors. Sir H. Elliot has drawn attention to the frequent mistakes which MSS. make in the name of Pannah, to which Kantit belonged.” He adds, “There is no doubt, that above, on p. 122” – where he mentioned that the elephants of Puttah are the best – “we have likewise to read Pannah, which was famous for its wild elephants.” (emphasis on the latter mine). Once upon a time, elephants were present across the central Indian highlands than is usually considered – from the ramparts of Vindhya to the north, to the west where Vindhya and Satpuda join, to the south where the Mahadeo hills roll in an admixture of hills and plains, to the east, the Maikal hills.

History tells us that the elephant population was shrinking in central India since before the capture-and-tame interventions of the government – when the first translated volume of Ain-i-Akbari was published in 1873, Blochmann makes a short note that “Wild elephants have now-a-days disappeared in nearly all the places mentioned by Abulfazl” – that is, most of the plains of Ganga, particularly the Terai arc plains, and some parts of eastern central Indian highlands. Akbar was known to be fond of elephants and often recruited wild ones to his menagerie. One of the reasons mentioned is that captive breeding of elephants took up lot of time, manpower, and funds, because elephants were ready for a fight only after 20-25 years of age. If we shuffle through some more pages of recent history, we see their pace of retreat quickening.

Over 300 years after Akbar, in the 1870s, Forsyth wrote: “Really wild elephants do not come now so far west as this; the country to the east of Amarkantak, or at the most the Samni valley, a little nearer than that place, being their most westerly range in this part of India”.

The imperial gazetteer of central provinces (1908) mentions: “Wild elephants were formerly found in the forests of Matin and Uprora [Uproda] in considerable numbers. They have now abandoned these tracts, but stray animals occasionally enter the [Bilaspur] district.”

In 1927, Brander wrote, “In fact, at the present day it can hardly be considered as an animal belonging to these Provinces”, adding that only a few wild elephants survive in Bilaspur district. There just weren’t enough elephants to dedicate a chapter to them in the iconic Wild Animals in Central India.

Elwin Verrier only makes passing references to the most infamous elephant of the past, the mad elephant, in The Baiga (1939).

Not only were elephants almost extirpated from central India, they were slowly but surely being forgotten.

Not all blame can be put on hunting and capture alone. Reckless hunting was prohibited since the time Forsyth visited the far east in 1870s, when only rogue or problem animals were allowed to be killed. Capture was usually preferred as they were the “most useful of wild animals”. Khedda practice was banned under the Wildlife Protection Act implemented in 1972; a less robust system is now used by the Forest Department only in exceptional cases of conflict. Surely there were other forces at work. So far, we know people’s tolerance towards elephants was “in the shadows”, it may have leaned towards condemnation than compassion. What led to the decline in elephant population was a force that has endangered the Asian elephant across its range – it came in two waves; both came roughly between Forsyth’s introduction to the central Indian highlands in 1872 and the enactment of the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972.

To begin with, these hundred years were the most eventful in the history of India’s conservation movement. As we witnessed, elephants were already extirpated from most of central India and were now restricted to the eastern highlands – we will therefore focus only on this part of the country, specifically on Bilaspur, Mandla, and Balaghat districts, as examples. As we saw, these regions have not only showed presence of elephants but have also seen interactions between people and elephants.

The First Wave

The instigator of the first wave was human population. Central provinces expanded from 9 million to 11 million between 1866 and 1901, a span of 35 years – with a density of only 34 persons per sq km. Many of the regions had a density even lower than this average. The chiefship of Matin - well known for the khedda operations that “materially diminished the [elephant] herds” – now a little town north of Bilaspur split into over forty villages, once governed over 1400 sq. km of densely forested hills and rice fields. In the 1870s, the population of this region was 2,760 persons living in small villages – a density of merely two persons per square km. With a density as low as 2 to 34 persons per sq km, the highlands, except for handful-few towns of the central provinces, were thinly populated with extensive tracks of unbroken forests, allowing large animals such as the elephants to flourish.

Districts of Bilaspur, Mandla, and Balaghat reflect the rapid spurt in population of central India. In 1901, Bilaspur had a population of 9,17,240 persons over an area of approximately 8,270 sq km, amounting to roughly 111 persons per sq km. The density rose to 240 persons per sq km in a hundred years, and is now over 320 persons per sq km. Mandla and Balaghat grew equally quickly – from 30 persons per sq km to 154 within a hundred years in Mandla, and from 35 to 184 persons per sq km in Balaghat.

Rising human population meant more food production. In the forefront was the spread of agriculture – the first wave. At the same time, the forests were extensively looked upon as a resource. This was a time when the hunter-gatherer and semi-nomadic tribes, such as the Baiga who practiced bewar, were compelled to adopt conventional agriculture. The extraction of timber for railway sleepers multiplied the destruction of pristine forests: “In 1901 more than 11,000 tonnes of timber were exported from these forests”, reads the imperial gazetteer of central Indian provinces (1908). Just as the elephants were being driven or captured, their habitats were also shrinking.

Studies on land use changes since 1880s have shown drastic changes brought upon by agriculture and other activities. With India’s population growing six-fold in the 20th century – from 200 million to 1200 million – the forests were the first to be axed. As cropland area increased from 100 million ha (10,00,000 km) to 120 million ha (12,00,000 km) between 1880 and 1950, the total forest area decreased from 100 million ha (10,00,000 km) to 81 million ha (8,10,000 km) in the same duration. Studies by Dr Hanquin Tian and his colleagues showed that majority of the cropland expansion resulted from conversion of forests, grasslands, and shrublands. Between 1880 and 1970, the deforestation rate was around 2 million ha (20,000 km) per decade. The Green Revolution of early 1960s was the epitome for India’s shared-dream of advancing its agrarian landscape. The initial periods focused on physical expansion of croplands – as much as 16 million ha (1,60,000 km) was brought under cultivation between 1950 and 1970.

The influx of people into plains and valleys in early 1800s, the increase in population and demand for timber in the 1900s, the increase in conventional agriculture around 1950s, and the retaliatory killings and capture that spanned more than 300 years, had a compounding effect on elephants of central India, exacerbating the already-existing interactions. Beyond 1970, the forest area remained more-or-less similar, specifically because of the interventions of forest and wildlife conservation policies and laws, but, by then, the elephants of central India were long forgotten.

There are no memories of elephants in Satpuda, Vindhya, or a large part of Maikal hills anymore, save for the nomenclature of places – these names were likely adopted because elephants, in general, have always been quite popular across the country from early on, or, simply because the rocks resemble elephants! The wild elephants had nearly abandoned this land – or, the land abandoned them. For nearly a hundred years since the last khedda in Matin, the people lived rather at harmony with the remaining few.

The Second Wave

The second wave turned the page in human-elephant interactions. Just as forests were converted for agriculture and timber, the late 19th century was also a time of extensive mineral exploration. After the khedda operation in Matin, Forsyth said this region was “full of coal measures, which have since been professionally examined, and reported to furnish mineral of a highly valuable character” he wrote, yet the “remoteness of these regions […] must certainly put out of the question any immediate utilisation either of the coal and the rich store of timber which are now ascertained to exist”.

Although mines did not exist in Bilaspur at the beginning of the 20th century, the process had begun. “Prospecting licenses for coal over the area of the Korba and Chhuri zamindaris have been granted to European firms”, mentions the imperial gazetteer of central provinces. Yet it was difficult to access owing to the vast stretches of forest-clad hills. “If a railway be constructed from Calcutta”, mentions the gazetteer, “through the plains of Chhattisgarh, to Nagpur, the Korba coal-beds would yield an invaluable supply of fuel”. Indeed, railways had already reached Nagpur in 1867, in the next twenty years, the Bengal-Nagpur railway will come into existence – requiring timber for the sleepers and inviting a large population of labourers to clear and settle in the forests. Just as railway was required to connect potential mine deposits with the industrialised parts of India, it was also required to run the trains. Expansion of railways led to a spurt in the demand for coal for steam-run locomotives. Here’s what the numbers tell: the annual production of coal increased from 1 million tonne (mt) to 6 mt per year by 1900s, to over 18 mt per year by the 1920s.

After independence, coalmines grew like unhealing blisters in the landscape, fragmenting forests, polluting earth, air, and water, displacing animals as well as humans, and disturbing the general sanctity of the ecosystem. Every ton of coal extracted generates three to four tonnes of waste, requiring even wider spaces for its storage as a refuse.

If you are unable to visit the northern Maikal hills and the outlying eastern forests of Chota Nagpur and Surguja, log on to Google Earth™ and zoom in on the forested region above Bilaspur and Korba – the very same forests we came to know for their thriving elephant populations. This forest forms the corridor between the central Indian highlands and the Chota Nagpur plateau – one of the last frontiers of wild elephants of eastern Central India. Look carefully around the major towns and you will find the region dark as coal or washed in white: the tell-tale signs of mining operations and thermal powerplants. This region is also the corridor for commercial-scale mines for coal and metals, the highest densities crowding the eastern flank of the highlands.

The population of elephants that never quite revived were caught up in another storm. Mines in the states of Jharkhand and Odisha, where at least 10% of Asian elephant population exists, forced the elephants to migrate towards central India. The story goes that since the late 1980s, elephants started venturing into the states of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, particularly in the areas we formerly visited – the forests close to Bilaspur, Korba, and Surguja – from two directions in search of safe havens. Those that came to the forests of Surguja, Guru Ghasidas, and Sanjay Tiger Reserves were displaced by mines and forest fragmentations in Jharkhand, and those that came to Raigarh and Korba from Odisha were trapped because of the Hirakud Reservoir on Mahanadi River, destruction of forests for mining, and an increase in human habitations squeezing the life out of the narrow corridor that passed right through the reservoir.

Many reports consider this migration of elephants to be new to the region, only that they aren’t. The elephants were simply tracing back their historic paths – it was us who labelled them outsiders in their own ancestral country. Elephant census for the states of Madhya Pradesh still number less than ten, while for Chhattisgarh no records exist between 1993 and 2002, not because there were no elephants, but because we did not heed them. Between 2002 and 2012, Chhattisgarh saw an increase from about 122 elephants to 247 – the numbers doubled within four years, not because they could feed and breed in peace, but because they were forced to migrate from Jharkhand and Odisha, and became trapped.

“Mining for iron ore, manganese and chromate in the large scale in northern Orissa [Odisha] and southern Jharkhand is considered as the single largest threat to the conservation of elephants” – states the Greenpeace report on the study of human-elephant conflict in Hasdeo-Arand and Mand Raigarh coalfields of Chhattisgarh. Over the last five years, human-elephant conflict has led to the death of 199 people in Chhattisgarh (and over 198 between 2005 and 2013), damage of over 7,000 houses, and destruction of over 300 sq km of cropland. People with no experience of protecting themselves and their property from wild elephants suffer more severely, the report states. Villages in the eastern arm of central India, in the state of Chhattisgarh, have been asked to stop brewing or stocking of liquor at homes, lest the elephants catch the scent and come knocking. A newspaper article reads, “high on brew, these tuskers have run amok, damaging settlements and claiming over 50 lives last year [2016] alone”. News of human and elephant fatalities alike has become regular, and this has only reinforced our attitudes towards elephants as being outsiders.

Elephants are the first of India’s wild refugees.

Over 21 elephants were killed between 2006 and 2012 in retaliation to crop raiding or human fatality, often by electrocution. A Down to Earth report states that merely 50 of the 350 elephants documented in Saranda forest of West Singhbuhum district in Jharkhand are left, the rest are likely to have migrated towards central Indian highlands, in Chhattisgarh, where herds as large as 13 to 25 have raided villages or attacked persons who have never seen a wild elephant in their lives – and don’t know how to react to them.

Reaching Critical Mass

How much of a natural and cultural change a landscape goes through within a century! The locals have begun reinventing traditional and modern ways of mitigation. Tall machans are again seen in some tracts, torches are lit in the night, and chili powder and solar fences used to deter elephants. The government has sought help from NGOs and experts in dealing with similar situations from other states with a healthy elephant population, as well as that of mahouts who are often requested to subdue particularly aggressive wild elephants with the help of kumkis.

The nation-wide census of 2017 identifies five regions where wild elephants roam free. The “east central region”, comprising of the states of Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar, South Bengal, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh, connects the Chota Nagpur Plateau with the central Indian highlands – had they still been around, this would have been the sixth and one of the most important elephant conservation landscapes. According to the latest population estimates, there are about 247 ‘refugee’ elephants in Chhattisgarh, a number that has gone up from 122 in 2007 – majority of them in the eastern arm of the highlands, particularly in Surguja, Bilaspur, and Raigarh – regions where Forsyth first reported their presence. About seven elephants – a number that represents only the tip of the iceberg of elephants – have occasionally been traveling to the Sanjay Tiger Reserve in the northern region of the highlands via Guru Ghasidas National Park in Chhattisgarh – another population displaced by the coalmines in northern Madhya Pradesh and much further east in Odisha and Jharkhand.

There are several instances of vagrant elephants, often solitary, making their way in to the highlands. A young solitary male once ventured into Panna district in 2011, and was captured close to Sakariya village. He was the first in 300 years to make his way to Panna, once the “best” place to find wild elephants. A solitary young bull with handsome, slender but strong tusks who I like to call Kush, crossed Achanakmar Tiger Reserve and made it close to Phen Wildlife Sanctuary in October of 2014. Retaliation by the people whose crops he marauded – unbeknownst to him, of course – compelled the forest department to drive him back to the east, or so is generally believed. Had he travelled 15 odd kilometres more, Kanha would have had its first wild elephant in over 150 years. Kush, however, had something else written in his fate. With a turn of events, instead of tracing back where he came from – or was forced to come from – Kush found himself in a kraal, was named Raju, and tied in chains. Kush isn’t the only one to have explored this unknown far west.

In 2011, Rama sauntered through the eastern forests of Chhota Nagpur, a vagrant from the east central elephant population, following the forest tracts into the eastern corner of the central Indian highland region of Anuppur. At 12 years of age, Rama was a nameless, stress free, wild teenager elephant who followed by his own book of rules. His habits had upset several villagers as he pillaged crops on his wanderings, catching attention of the government. In the words of Mr Choudhary, then the Field Director of Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, “An SOS message came from a responsible citizen from Anuppur calling urgency of immediate capture of the trouble-creating angry young elephant to save the human lives”. As orders came in, Rama, unbeknownst to him, was given two choices, one, to be driven back to his motherland where, in spite of intense negative interaction with the people, his wild self was recognised and respected, or to be captured and tamed. I have left little to the imagination, for Rama, as he came to be known as, was indeed captured close to Chachai in Anuppur where he mauled a rescuer during the operation. Rama found himself in a kraal, a strong cage built out of the largest boles you can imagine, where his identity as a wild and care free teenager was changed to a quiet, sullen draft animal. “A grown-up elephant can’t be allowed to remain without work for an indefinite period”, writes Mr Choudhary, adding, “Now Rama has become one of the finest male elephants who obeys the command in a nice manner.” To experience a wild elephant become tame is something I cannot fathom. It is for anyone to imagine how hard it is to change a grown-up’s mind. And elephants are considered to be among the most intelligent of animals.

Rama is very much at home now in Bandhavgarh. I touched the tip of Rama’s trunk as he acknowledged me with his periscopic nose eight years after he was captured, Dadua, his mahout, instructing Rama to accept the apple I had to offer. Rama and I met often after that. He is one of the most promising tracker elephants in the northern highlands, working out of Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve with his friend and guide Dadua. Eight years is a long time, but not as long as 12 years in the wild. During his initial days of taming, Rama had taken life of two, but today, while I did not seek remorse for his actions, I do get a hint of sullenness in his wide and expressive eyes. To call it “rehabilitation” of a “stray” elephant, as Mr Choudhary does in his account, is to discredit the freedom of a wild animal which receives as much attention (and protection, but that goes without saying) as the other endangered animal – the tiger.

In 2017 arrived Lakshman, sauntering through the forests of Ambikapur. Around 15 years of age, Lakshman was also a nameless wild elephant trying to find answers to his own questions before his presence was also considered a concern. It is said that Lakshman was rescued since he had strayed from his herd and the wilds of the far east. Close to the Chhattisgarh-Madhya Pradesh border, a team of forest staff was already on his trail, tracking his movements for days on end. They began by first baiting the young elephant with jaggery and coconut, drawing him into the forests around Sanjay Dubri Tiger Reserve.

He started following them as he became accustomed to the baits, identifying the elephant trackers from their khakhi green uniform. In Sanjay, the kumki were brought to pacify him and soon Lakshman had thick ropes girdling his legs. A camp was built around him and his training – or breaking – began. It is no surprise why he was called Lakshman. He was to be the younger brother of Rama when he was shifted to Bandhavgarh for his training as a tracker elephant. With a boyish charm on his face, Lakshman seldom separates himself from a heavy branch he carries between his trunk and sharp, slender tusks, but largely remains to himself even in presence of other elephants in the camp. A former elephant tracker and trainer said an elephant cannot be tamed without being beaten. It is painful, he said, to go to bed with these images in the back of one’s head. He was injured by Lakshman when he was being shifted to the kraal – and has since left breaking elephants, taking joy now only in feeding and greeting them. In the heels of Raju also came a herd of 23 elephants including three calves. A very passionate article in Hindi stated that this herd came in search of their Raju – they came as far as Marwahi in Maikal hills in Bilaspur and wandered about in Mohali close to Amarkantak. The article amusingly mentions that the elephants should enter Achanakmar where they would be safer because the staff of territorial forest divisions were having sleepless nights.

The argument is: a captured elephant is better than a dead one. They live a life more content and rewarding for the work they put in to conserve other animals that are endangered. The conversation often ends at that, dismissing the irony of removing an endangered animal from the wild to conserve the other. But not always.

In winters of 2017, another young elephant ventured into Bhoramdeo Wildlife Sanctuary in the Maikal Hills adjoining Kanha Tiger Reserve. The same drill was followed, and Somu, another young, callow elephant with budding tusks, was captured and chained in Achanakmar Tiger Reserve for most of the following year. Somu’s trumpets did not fall on deaf ears, however. Conscious and well-meaning individuals in Chhattisgarh raised the alarm in the court, and soon Somu – and Raju – were in the newspaper for being ‘allegedly subjected to brutality by the state forest department staff’. The court ruled in favour of the elephants, and the choice that should have been given to them was finally offered: they were granted a new life – to be released and rehabilitated in Tamor Pingla, a large swathe of forest long being considered as an elephant reserve, the first in Chhattisgarh and the entirety of the highlands. Several vagrant elephants have been reportedly captured and tamed in the eastern flank of the highlands. While I sit here and write in one of the last elephant strongholds – nay, last resorts from the ever-expanding arms of mining – in central India, in Bilaspur, a small herd of five elephants were tracked and captured in Dobhidol in Sidhi district of Madhya Pradesh. The herd were ravaging through the paddy fields during August and September of 2018. The locals had taken upon themselves to drive the elephants away. Stuffing shrapnel in empty shotgun shells, the locals fired at the herd, wounding some on their flanks and their hind, agitating the elephants further. During one such skirmishes into the night, a man lost his life as a tusker found his grip around the man and mauled him. The forest department swung into an operation to capture these elephants, now gone “rogue”. Within two weeks, the elephants, much like Rama and Lakshman, Raju and Somu, and the male from Panna, found themselves in chains when the effects of anaesthesia wore off. During the transportation of the elephants, now under tremendous stress and pain, one of the calves died. The four, a large male, two females – one who lost her calf and the other with her subadult calf, were transported to Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve. While cases are filed against the capture and holding of wild elephants, they are being treated for their festering wounds from the guns and the chains that strangulated their legs like a python. Had the elephants been left to their own defense, or pushed farther back into Chhattisgarh, I was told that they would have died of septicaemia, a horrible, life-threatening bacterial infection that can not only kill the infected animal, but also spread across the populations. For the largest terrestrial mammal of India, their fate hangs by a thread, but there is hope now than there ever was. People have taken notice. This herd is now under the watch of the courts. But their capture was crucial if they are to survive. It is only after they are healed of their wounds would their fate be decided.

In spite of being the most revered of wild animals – indeed, you will find an idol or a frame of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, in almost every home and temple, even at a mining corporation office – in spite of people’s tolerance lasting centuries, the wild elephant has found itself unwelcomed in their ancestral country.

A Nascent Beginning

Under the ambit of Project Elephant, launched in 1992 on the lines of Project Tiger, comes a promising measure to address human-elephant conflict: the formation of two elephant reserves in Chhattisgarh, Lemru Elephant Reserve and Badalkhol-Tamor Pingla, both in the eastern arm of the highlands. Unfortunately, the project has found itself in the middle of a bureaucratic vortex for the last ten years. You may not be surprised at the reason: they fall in an area with rich coal deposits. It was Raju and Somu who spearheaded – or rather forced – the government to recognise Tamor Pingla as an elephant reserve and a rehabilitation centre, where they today roam. Project Elephant, however, is still in its nascent stage.

Starting on the lines of the promising Project Tiger launched in 1973, Project Elephant also comes under the Centrally Sponsored Schemes (CSS) but has received little attention except locally where elephants are present since historic times. Together with the Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitat (IDWH), the three programmes work hand-in-hand for protection, management, monitoring, and conservation of wildlife. Under the 12th five-year plan period, Rs. 1143 crore were allocated for Project Tiger, Rs 496.50 crore for IDWH, and Rs. 92.22 crore for Project Elephant. While the allocation of the budget for Project Elephant has increased from Rs. 5 crores in 2001-02 to Rs 21.50 crore in 2011-12, the amount released for human-elephant conflict hotspots such as Chhattisgarh has markedly gone down from Rs. 1.112 crore in 2009-10 to Rs. 43.7456 lakh in 2014-15. Based on the figures for the duration between 2008-09 and 2013-14, on an average, 56% of the released funds are spent for conflict mitigation – payment of compensation towards loss of human life or an asset, such as standing and stored crops and house, by elephants, leaving only 44% of the total funds for protection and prevention of conflict, and conservation of elephants that has seen a tremendous increase in their populations due to displacement in the states of Odisha and Jharkhand. In comparison, the three tiger reserves lying in the eastern central Indian Highlands, Achanakmar Tiger Reserve, Sanjay Dubri Tiger Reserve and Kanha Tiger Reserve have received Rs. 255.632 lakh, Rs. 323.685 lakh, and Rs. 3162.204 lakh, respectively, in 2013-14 for tiger conservation, provision of compensation in case of human injury or death or damage to assets, as well as for village relocations.

The reasons for such skewed figures are three. One, the elephants are not as localised as tigers are in the tiger reserves, in other words, there are no elephant-designated areas save those which are caught in a conundrum, such as in Medinipur in West Bengal. In some cases, elephants are indirectly being recognised as alien in their own homes, unlike tigers which have designated areas. Two, elephants are not considered an umbrella species like the tiger, and hence, in spite of their ancient association with humans, they are looked upon merely as symbols of gods and not as symbols of the god of education, wisdom, and wealth which is generally associated with Lord Ganesha. And finally, elephants can be tamed – are still tamed, and will be tamed in the future – and hence preferences, even today, lie in capture and taming of wild elephants than in their rehabilitation.

Elephants of central India are perhaps the definitive example of human-wildlife interactions spanning long and vast temporal and spatial scales, but also spanning vast transformations in human psyche. For the regions where elephants are considered “new”, mitigating conflict is an uphill task, what works in this part of the hill may not on the other, yet if history has to teach us anything, it reminds us that we were once indeed living in tolerance, if not harmony – and that a positive change is possible.

If only I could tell Brander that the elephants are returning to central India, that we undid what history did to elephants, that we can now have a chapter dedicated to elephants of central India, that we can see a loitering herd of elephants by a waterhole in Maikal hills.

But I would not get too far ahead of my imaginations. I spent most of 2018 in Bandhavgarh assisting the forest department deploy camera-traps for the 2018 tiger census. A week before Diwali, I was headed into the Pathreta circle asking directions at crossroads. On the turn to Reusa, a few people hurried to our vehicles to ask if we were here for the elephants. It had only been a month since the five elephants were captured in the neighbouring Sidhi district and confined in Bandhavgarh – I found this curiosity interesting, and we drove on. On entering the buffer zone, we were stopped by two forest guards from the adjoining Chhataini range of North Shahdol Forest Division as ran towards our vehicle, panting. They asked if we were here for elephants too. I laughingly asked what they were talking about. About a few yards off the gravelled road, on the sandy bank of a small stream, I was witnessing history: a hundred disk-shaped marks in the sand, their creases showing boldly that they were not made by walking-tree-stumps but by living, wild elephants. This was first time in recent history – at least a hundred-year-old history – that I was afraid of venturing into the forests of Bandhavgarh not for the fear of tigers, but wild elephants. Following their dung and the strong musky scent, Bhagchand and Rajesh, who’ve walked with wild tigers, we were witness to fallen trees, and trees with their barks stripped, and the playground of elephants by the sandy banks of the Son river, the sounds of trees creaking and branches breaking, and finally the sight of flailing ears and tails. And all of this in the backdrop of the coal-carrying trains plying between Singrauli and Katni after every five minutes. Bandhavgarh had its first herd of wild elephants – a family of over twenty-five individuals – taking refuge in the tiger reserve. It is said that they came looking for the four that are kept in an enclosure here. At the time of writing, they crossed the Son river and made it into Khitauli range.

Everywhere we went, we were asked by the local communities what we were going to do about the elephants. What would sarkar do if the elephants killed our family or friends? Who will compensate our crop loss? When would they be captured? Why are the elephants here? No one had an answer, for no one was prepared for this. I don’t have to imagine the reaction of the people if this mass exodus of elephants becomes a common phenomenon. This herd has been driven out of every place with high human settlements using large fires, and are, for now, safe in Bandhavgarh. They were not welcomed with arms wide open. They were welcomed with arms raised in alarm, expelling fire and fury. Does it matter what my conscience wants? Can we inspire wonder and compassion, and not condemnation and terror? I have no answers.

This is a crisis of proportions that are extends beyond the imaginary boundaries of one state, or a landscape.

It is only seldom that I fail to see a silver lining, but this time I give it in writing: Central India is no more a country for wild elephants, and the reason, ironically, might I add, is those who successfully upheld conservation of tigers above all – we, the people.

Over half-a-millennium has passed since Ain-i-akbari first mentioned elephants in central India, but they did not mention elephants just in the passing. In introducing “Hindustan” to the world, it says: “Mines of diamond, ruby, gold, silver, copper, lead and iron abound. The variety of its fruits and flowers proclaim its luxuriance. Its perfumes and melodies, its viands and raiment are choice and in profusion. Its elephants cannot be sufficiently praised, and in parts of the country the horses resemble Arabs in breed and the cattle are uncommonly fine." Funny how liberal, modern, and united we consider ourselves to be today, seeking riches not in natural heritage but in soulless minerals.


  1. Have been reading about the ingress of elephants and them staying back in Bandhavgarh. This is the first detailed account of the background of that event that I have come across. Thank you for providing what the news media unfortunately does not.

    The article ends on a pessimistic note. I would agree. But for the moment I do see this event as a silver lining. These stressed out elephants have found a safe harbour to breathe in. Down the line, of course, the dark ominous cloud will come into play. The local human population is not familiar with the mitigation measures to avoid human-elephant conflict and are likely to suffer once the elephants expand their feeding range to incorporate the adjacent agricultural fields. Neither the local forest department authorities, nor the local NGOs are likely to be any wiser. Let us see whether a balance is achieved, or these elephants are driven off from here also to ultimately join their domesticated brethren. Hope we learn to live with them and a new dynamic is introduced in wildlife interactions within Bandhavgarh. This homecoming does not promise to be smooth.

    1. Thank you, Mahendra ji. I did indeed struggle to not end it on such a note, but that year we saw things so differently that I felt a sense of hopelessness, this finest animal to walk earth claim back its territory, no matter the reason, being looked upon as a problem than a part of the ecosystem - no matter the reason, but things are looking brighter than ever as there is more and more acceptance of accommodating this giant, and this is very hopeful. The history is still written, but this is no short of a win for all the conservation efforts in Madhya Pradesh. On a personal note, I may have been pessimistic but I was always rooting for optimism that I see now, a silver lining.

  2. I have just read this article forwarded by a friend and found your comprehensive background and historical perspective on the elephants of central India fascinating and instructive. I live in Bandhavgarh and have had a house here for over 30 years. And as a resident I agree with your comment that for the first time I am wary of wandering through these forests - due to the presence of elephants. Especially the wandering young bulls who could be anywhere. It has been said that we love and revere elephants as a species but not as individuals in our backyards. A thought that came to me as I contemplated the ruins of my fence after an elephant reconnaissance party had come through to check out the village. It seems inevitable that the forests of Vindhyachal and Eastern Maikal are going to witness expanding elephant populations. And unless we create some fair and just system to deal with HEC, these elephants could well prove to be the straw that breaks the historic tolerance of local people to wild animal depredations.

    1. Thank you for reading, Hashim ji. Since I wrote this piece, several elephants have forayed into Madhya Pradesh - even Vidarbha of Maharashtra, most have been bachelor elephants or displaced herds. Even as we saw their 'homecoming' into MP, I lost count after 11 elephant deaths - tragically due to manmade causes - during the first wave of the pandemic, and you may have also heard about the tragic end of Ram and Balram, two bachelors whose friendship ended close to Bargi dam when the elder one died due to a live wire trap laid for wild pig, the other now is likely to become like Rama from Bandhavgarh that I speak about here. HEC - both ways, needs to be addressed urgently.

  3. Aniruddha very comprehensive historical background provided, as I personally have interest and on behalf of our NGO ( SAGE Foundation) is working in Sanjay TR and Kotma in MP as well as in Gadchiroli on HEC. Infact when Maurya empire was increasing and Chandragupta Maurya had the biggest Elephant regiment of 9000 elephants, with increase in territory the requirement of elephants too increased, earlier it was the jungles of Magdha and later the Jungles of Kundina also provided the elephants. EVen rock paintings in Bhimbhetka have elephants which proves presence in the area in 10000 years BCE. From my practical experience the pachyderms movement will happen more west wards and MP and Maharashtra will have more of them. With decreasing habitat in CG and a stable forest cover in MP & Eastern Maharashtra bordering CG the migration will increase. The current herd of around 23 in Gadchiroli has almost made the jungles of Malewada their home as of now, the next 2 months are important to ascertain that. Various factors are making the elephants move westwards, mining, habitat loss and a irrigation canal across CG border by Odisha to stop the migration back. The pachyderms are having a tough time in the coming years ahead.

    1. Glad you were able to visit my blog, Sagnik! Yes, I have missed a big chunk of info from the Mauryan times which I plan to fill-up in the formal publication. As for the present times, only three years have passed till the first herd stayed in the state of MP, since then, many have come and gone - my heart especially goes out to Ram and Balram whom I was keeping a track of through the news of their travels. I am not surprised, however. While we do call it migration, it is really a forced migration, and such migrations, under stress, lead to negative interactions the people have never experienced before, and are hard to manage. Elephants really do need an interstate effort, no state can work in isolation - coordination, cooperation and partnerships are paramount, it is nothing like tiger conservation - this is what this migration teaches us.

      Bhimbetka is unique, it has paintings of extinct Paleoloxodon - one of the largest elephants to exist - as well as modern Elephas, a whole history of two species of elephants. It just blows my mind how deep the history of central India and elephants is, yet we know so little about them and so little about what to do: do we welcome them or do we treat them as uninvited guests? I wish you the best for your work in MP and CG, the more the people engage in HEC mitigation, the better it is for coexistence.

  4. Hi Aniruddha, Today out of curiosity, I was searching for the historical records of Asian Elephants in Central India..Going through many articles and books (especially written by Dr. Vivek Menon and Dr. Sukumar), I found your blog and it is actually very useful information for understanding historical distribution of elephants in Central India, especially Chhattisgarh and MP. Looking forward for more details regarding elephant migration and settlement in Madhya Pradesh in recent 3-4 years. Elephants are equally important as tigers, and we need a lot of good studies and management recommendations for them in Central India.

    1. Hi Neha, I am glad you found this information useful! You are right in thinking that a lot has happened in the last 3-4 years since I first wrote this. We're having more elephants while the earlier herd has almost localised itself. I've not seen enough papers especially from CG but hoping the data from radio-collared elephants is published soon.


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