My recent story on rampaging elephants in eastern Nepal, published in The Kathmandu Post on Saturday.
A Trunk Full of Misery
BAHUNDANGI, JHAPA, OCT 17 - Beneath the idyllic charms of lush paddy fields, looming green hills, rickety buses, and old wooden houses, lies a feeling of fear and trepidation. Here, in this impoverished village on the eastern fringes of Jhapa, night brings a horror that cannot be conquered by the human spirit, nor can it be subdued by wishing it away.
For a decade-and-a-half, residents of this village bordering Darjeeling district in West Bengal have endured the terror and mayhem of wild elephants that venture into their village mostly during the summer. “They come in droves, sometimes numbering 60 to 70,” says Shyam Karki, a school teacher. And leave behind a trail of wanton destruction and chaos.
Ask Gauri Maya Tamang, whose husband Surya Bahadur was killed by a rampaging pachyderm in 2005. Surya heard about the arrival of an elephant near a tea plantation a few metres away from his house. The 38-year-old went with other villagers to drive away the elephant that was dismantling a banana tree. Surya was the first to reach the place. But when the giant turned its head and chased the villagers, Surya was the last person, and the first within the reaches of the tusker’s trunk.
Gauri replays the story in anger more than in sorrow. The previous night, Surya had hosted a dinner party for his sisters—one of whom had more than an average fear of elephants. Surya went to chase the behemoth to ward off his sister’s fear. But it cost him his life. With her 21-year old son’s support, Gauri now shoulders the responsibility of bringing up three teenage children. “Life is hard without their father,” she says, standing in the doorway of her tin-roofed house built on a small patch of land.
Wild elephants are infamous along this belt of the subcontinent for their crop-raiding, especially during the harvest season for maize and rice. Elephant herds migrate from the Dooars jungles in northern Bengal to eastern Nepal. There have been border tensions because of the pachyderms’ relentless plundering.
Bahundangi—a village on the banks of the Mechi with a population of 50,000—has lost at least 24 inhabitants to the unruly giants in the past 15 years. According to Kul Deep Giri, the village secretary, this year alone, nine have been injured, 13 houses demolished, and nearly Rs. 10 million worth of crops have been destroyed by the elephants. “There’s not a single house which has not been damaged (by the elephant) in some way or the other,” says Arjun Karki, a local social worker.
There are other complaints apart from the loss of life and property. Anup Karki, secretary of the Nepali Congress’ Village Committee, says everyone knows this is an elephant-terrorised village, which makes it difficult for them to “sell their lands”. “Everyone wants to leave; unfortunately, no one wants to buy our land,” he says. In the shop where he is sipping tea; other villagers nod in approval. The presence of the pachyderms has brought on another vexing problem: The eligible bachelors in the village have a tough time finding brides as “no one wants to send their daughters to a village terrorised by elephants”.
It’s not that efforts haven’t been made to stop the elephants from entering the village. From shouting and screaming at the top of their voices, to beating drums, to even keeping bees as a deterrent (a study in Africa had shown that elephants tended to avoid bees. Unfortunately, African bees are more aggressive than the ones found in Nepal)—everything has been tried. Now, a nine-km long electric fence is being constructed along the Mechi river.
For those living on the frontier, the 1,880 km long porous open border between India and Nepal is both boon and bane. “Our life depends on the open border,” says Arjun. He points out that the necessities of the villagers’ daily life—from rushing to a hospital in case of emergency to buying daily supplies—depend on the towns across the border. But for those who’ve lost their kin to the marauding elephants which trample everything in their path as they cross the Mechi into Nepal, the open border is a reminder of misery and pain.
Eighty-year-old Dhan Bahadur Thapa is one of the victims. His wrinkled, sun-bronzed face is a portrait of pain: he lost a newly-wed son and daughter-in-law to the elephants. Nine years ago, his son Shambhu, then 21, fell in love with Durga, a 16-year old from Duwagarh, Darjeeling.
Shambhu found love across the border, but death too came from across. Two months into the marriage, an elephant trampled upon Durga first, then on Shambhu. “At first, it grabbed Durga and killed her,” recalls Dhan Bahadur. “We thought at least Shambhu survived but he didn’t.” Toothless and wheezing, his wife Jag Maya sobs at each mention of her son. The landless couple’s sole property now is a pair of male-buffaloes that they rent for a living. Their remaining son works in the Gulf. “We don’t know whether we will be alive tomorrow, for elephants can come in any time in this part of the world,” says Dhan Bahadur.