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The Elephant Man of Assam

The Elephant Man of Assam

Sentinel Digital Desk

Our Bureau

Well known as the 'Elephant Doctor' or the 'Elephant Man of Asia', Dr Kushal Konwar Sarma has been treating and taking care of elephants for over 30 years now. He renders primitive or on call treatment of elephants, including surgery or subjugation of rogue elephants. He handles over 700 pachyderms every year and has a record of subjugating 139 rogue bulls' under his belt. A professor and currently the Head of the Department of Surgery and Radiology of the college of Veterinary Science in Guwahati, Dr. KK Sarma was awarded the fourth highest civilian award, the Padma Shri, this year for his immense contribution towards wildlife treatment and especially Asia elephant conservation.

In a recent interview with melange, Dr. KK Sarma talks about his tryst with elephants. Following are excerpts.

  1. Please tell us about your childhood.

Ans: My childhood was very interesting. I grew up in a joint family. I had four brothers, and we were altogether 25-30 children in the house. Growing up, I was always surrounded by aunties, uncles, brothers, sisters, seniors and juniors. Like any other village boy, I would run around in the open areas, paddy fields, forests, etc and that was a memorable part of my growing up days. I would particularly like to mention I was close to an elephant named Lakshmi who used to be my childhood friend. Unfortunately, she passed away early. She wasn't our elephant but belonged to a merchant in our locality. However, she was with our family during the lay off period. My father got transferred and I was living with him in a nearby town when it so happened that Lakshmi passed away because of an infection.

  1. Please share with us about your educational journey.

Ans: I did my primary schooling in my village at Deulguri primary school and high schooling from the nearest high school Boroma High School where I passed my matriculation. I got admitted to Cotton College in the year 1976 where I completed my pre university in 1978. I joined Veterinary College, Khanapara in 1978 and completed my B.VSC (Bachelor of Veterinary Science) in 1983. I continued with Masters in Veterinary Surgery and joined the Veterinary College, Khanapara as a teacher. I later pursued my P.hd as an in-service candidate and completed that in 1994.

  1. When did you realise your love for elephants?

Ans: Lakshmi was my love. I had spent a significant amount of time with her in my childhood. I remember that I rode her across the river and often used to see the birds 'Balighura'. These birds hatch their eggs on sand. After her death, Lakshmi became a distant memory to me. During my time while I was acquiring my master's degree in Veterinary Sciences, I became fond of my mentor S.C. Pathak, an elephant doctor. So, the kind of company around me made me realise my love for elephants. Maybe it was around 1986-1987 when I realised my love for elephants. Somewhere it was always inside me and it only took the right kind of company to remind me and bring it out in me.

  1. You were recently awarded the Padma Shri. Do you want to share the experience?

Ans: I have been enjoying my association with wildlife since a very long time – be it rhinos or other animals, I always love to work for them. But elephants have always been special to me and of course, anybody involved in wildlife healthcare in India, in Assam particularly, would find elephants special. On January 25, at around 12 pm, I received an unexpected phone call from the Home Ministry of Delhi that I have been chosen for the Padma Shri. It was an overwhelming and unbelievable piece of news for me.

  1. You have also received injuries caused by elephants. Would you like to elaborate any of your experiences?

Ans: I would not call them injuries because one cannot categorize small incidents into injuries. These are delicate in nature. It's natural to have some confrontation with the animals when we try to inject them with medications; this kind of reaction is entirely normal. But, yes I was attacked by bull elephants because I tried to subdue them. I was attacked a lot number of times. However, I always had narrow escapes and fortunately was never injured. One of the Forest Range Officer of our State, who happened to be my brother-in-law as well, lost his life in one such operations and that incident, till date, remains a tragic incident of my life. Otherwise, I haven't faced any physical injuries as such.

  1. Would you like to share any memories associated with the elephants?

Ans: There was this one time I remember when an elephant named Lakhi Maai embraced me with her trunk. This happened in Himmatnagar, Gujarat. I was attending to them as a member of the Elephant Appraisal Committee of the Central Zoo Authority. My responsibilities were more oriented to examining the elephants in circuses, in zoos, etc. In Himmatnagar, while I was done with my examination and started talking, an elephant gently embraced me with her trunk. Everybody around me – the handlers and dignitaries – were anxious as they thought that the elephant would attack me. But I could sense her touch – it was affectionate and not aggressive. On examination of her papers, I found out that her name was Lakhi Maai which denotes that she was from Assam. I read through her papers, she belonged to a family called 'Hussain' in the Darrang district in Assam. Later, I looked at her structure and realised that this was the elephant I had treated 12 years back and I kept visiting her for many years. Later, she was sold to a circus. But incidentally we both happened to be at the same place on that day and she recognized me after 12 years and I did too. That kind of affection continues to exist.

  1. What are the major problems faced by elephants in the last few years? What are the new problems that have come to light?

Ans: When we talk about the problems associated with elephants, they are divided into two categories – captive elephants and wild elephants. Problems are independent of each other for them. Until the year December 1996, the captive elephants in Assam, particularly in the north-eastern region, most of them were engaged in logging operations. In the year 1996, the Supreme Court of India banned all logging operations. This in turn led to a sudden panicky condition among the owners because the elephants suddenly became jobless. Hence, they sold their elephants at throwaway prices. The elephants moved to different places like Rajasthan, Nepal and to Kerala, mostly. Primarily, the elephants are jobless and as a result of that the owners don't have funds to support the elephants.

To keep elephants in Assam, one doesn't need a lot of money but at least the essentials – like paying the salary to the owners, buying the chains, etc – are necessary. The owners often avoid the healthcare of the elephants like regular de-worming, food care, etc. These are the areas where our captive elephants are not getting enough care.

The plight of elephants owned by the forest department is different as they have their vets or we go and help them. We don't have enough elephant vets or wildlife vets in our State owing to the fact that this is not a lucrative business and people don't want to join it. On the other hand, the biggest problem for the wild elephants is loss of habitat and fragmentation of habitat and this is only increasing with every passing year.

  1. What do you think is the solution to this problem?

Ans: The human- elephant conflict that has arisen out of loss of habitat or fragmentation of habitat, like increase in human population, etc, which has no immediate solution. The magnitude of the problem is vast; hence the solution has to be genuine, research based and investigative. Every common man can easily understand and realise that the elephants need space. Any conflict between humans and elephant is basically a competition for space. Human population is growing; they are entering the forests and depriving the elephants of their legitimate space. If we really want a solution to this problem, first we must control our own population. We must respect the wild animal's space and not encroach upon their territory. In some cases, if there is a possibility to reclaim a habitat, we should do it so that the animals get palatable food and perennial source of water. Tea gardens are harming the environment primarily due to the narrow terrains, usage of chemicals, etc. We should not forget that we must help the owners of the elephants as well.

  1. As a Veterinary surgeon, what is the suggestion you would like to offer to the people today?

Ans: The veterinary profession is a great instrument by which we can contribute to the wildlife conservation and wildlife welfare. While talking of welfare, it is necessary for captive animals. The welfare of wild elephants is getting freedom, free habitat and for that, every common citizen can respect the laws of the nature, avoid usage of things that come from the wood, felling of trees, unnecessary use of air- conditioners, fridge, car etc that are polluting the environment. People can adapt some habits like riding a bicycle to nearby places, carrying cloth bags for shopping, etc. These habits can ultimately contribute to the welfare of the environment. I do not buy the idea of encroaching upon the animal's property and claiming themselves to be the inhabitant of the forests, because the real khilonjiya (inhabitant) of the forests is the wildlife, flaura and fauna. A man can never be a local in the forests. If there is any khilonjiya in the forests, then first it's nature.

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