Yesterday was my last day with Dr. K. K. Sarma and his health camp team: Kalita (elephant owner and management expert), Manav (assistant vet to Dr. Sarma) and the ever-inspiring elephants of Assam.
Interestingly enough, I find myself somewhat desensitized to my foreign surrounding. That is, until I get into a vehicle, but that is a story for another time. At all other times I feel no borders between us. I am fortunate that my companions speak such fluent English; they can’t say the same for my Assamese. My attempt to casually respond in conversation brings polite smiles or confused looks. Everyone has been very kind to accept my effort to communicate in their native tongue.
The two privately owned elephants we visited today had recently returned from logging in a nearby province. Well, not so nearby. One of the elephants, 65-year-old Jaymala, walked more than 150 miles in a few days to return to her owner’s home. She was a bit underweight from her labors and the walk, resulting in a strong tongue lashing for the Phandis from both Jaymala’s owner and Dr. Sarma.
Apparently the Phandis had pushed to get home after completing the logging job in order to be with his family. Although one can understand his desire to return home, he was reminded that while employed as Jaymala’s Phandis his first and foremost responsibility is to her welfare. A discussion between Dr. Sarma and the owner followed, focused on the challenges of finding good staff. I soon realized that no matter how different our customs, staffing issues appear to be universal.
In addition to her regular Phandis, Jaymala has a young mahout in training. I believe he falls into the category of Ghansi; the grass cutter and assistant to the Phandis. He could not be older than thirteen years but moved with confidence while attending to Jaymala. It was obvious that she was very comfortable with this boy, standing millimeters from him as he prepared her daily ration of ceremoniously-folded banana leaves dipped in a rice mixture.
The rhythm of the food preparation was mesmerizing. Focused but unhurried, the Ghansi cut a long banana stock in half and chopped off the end. Precisely driving his multi-purpose knife a few inches into the end of the stock, he then used the curved knife to pry the stock in half lengthwise. With a thud, the knife was driven into a nearby stump, freeing his hands to fold the banana stock, including the large feathery leaves, much the same way kuchi is folded. The stock was folded over onto itself and the leaves wrapped around the stock. Then the organic bundle was dipped into a bucket of liquid rice mixture and placed ever so gently into Jaymala’s mouth.
Calm and comfortable, Jaymala chewed as her Ghansi prepared her next ration, opening her mouth as he completed the process of making the next bundle. When the boy became distracted by the visiting veterinary team, Jaymala would reach out attempting to take a banana leaf herself. Obviously she knew this was not allowed and readily accepted the Ghansi’s verbal instruction to leave it alone.
My observation was that Jaymala had trained her Ghansi quite well. When he slowed his process all she had to do was attempt to help herself and he would get right back to work. I am unaware of the length of time devoted to this process but it went on for the entire time we were there and would continue until the heaping pile of fresh cut banana leaves and bucket of rice mixture were consumed.
Later we met up with 55-year-old Anguronala in the town of Goalbara. She was on military grounds, behind a guarded gate, grazing peacefully when we arrived. Recently she had been brought to this area, hired as a koonki to drive away a problematic wild bull that had killed a couple of villagers. The koonki represents a second chance for wild elephants who cause damage in human settlements. In many cases the koonki can drive the wild elephants, including a bull, away, which results in their lives being spared. If a problematic elephant cannot be driven off, the government has only two options, both equally unacceptable: capture or kill.
Anguronala showed the wear and tear consistent with logging elephants, including an old injury that resulted in a deformity to her back leg. A large log had rolled into the leg, causing a fracture below the knee. I saw a few other elephants with this same deformity, which reminded me of the injury that left Shirley crippled while she was performing in the circus. In each case the crippling injury could have been avoided if the elephant lived in a natural setting and was not forced to engage in harmful commercial activities.
So many logging elephants have such injuries from being struck by heavy logs while working. Of course the injuries are avoidable — the answer is not to log — but the owners claim that the elephants have to work. Believe me, I am brainstorming with colleagues to come up with ways to help elephants out of this highly dangerous activity. It is a huge challenge but there are many experts who are working to find a solution.