By Krishnendu Mukherjee
KOLKATA: It was a hot afternoon in Kurseong's Tukra Basti on June 23, 2002. The sun was beating down on Napania forest, when an elephant charged out, pulverizing everything that came in its way. What happened next is beyond imagination and still seared in the minds of those who witnessed it. After demolishing several huts, the elephant rushed at a 60-year-old villager. It lifted the old man with its trunk, ran amok for about 30 metres swinging him around like a puppet, threw him on the ground and then pounded him to pulp. Then, it apparently ate the man's flesh.
As forest guards and police scampered for cover, utterly helpless before the jumbo's rage, it went on a killing spree, crushing six more persons "with more power than needed to kill a human" in an hour. "The elephant used its full strength to grind the victims into paste in almost all cases," recalls head of forest force N C Bahuguna in his book 'The Man Eating Elephant', released recently by the forest department.
Bahuguna, as North Bengal's chief conservator of forests in 2008, collected witness accounts of the horrifying incident and turned it into a book with inputs gathered from his experience on habitat loss and the consequent man-elephant conflict. He writes that the elephant, a female, killed 13 people, including two in Nepal's Bamandangi village in two days and consumed human flesh to avenge the death of its calf that was shot dead in front of its eyes by some villagers.
Experts say that a female elephant turning rogue is among the rarest of the rare cases, and Bahuguna's tagging the elephant a 'man-eater' is even more controversial.
Elephant expert and author Dhriti Kanta Lahiri Choudhury said a detailed investigation is needed before coming to such a conclusion. "I have never heard of an elephant turning man-eater. There have been instances of brutal killings by elephants, but being herbivores it's impossible for them to digest human flesh," he said.
Among the witnesses Bahuguna quotes is S K Dutta, then manager of Marapur tea estate, who saw the elephant "use its jaws" to kill 50-year-old Issue Xalxo. "Dutta reported that he had seen the elephant munching on the flesh of Xalxo. No other witness reports seeing the elephant eating the humans it killed. The bodies of the victims could not be recovered in their entirety and his statement added to the mystery of the missing body parts," Bahuguna says in his book.
Further confirmation came when the killer jumbo was finally put down on the morning of June 25, 2002. According to the book, as forest staff approached the carcass, they were surprised to see flies swarming its mouth. "They inserted a stick in its jaws and dug out a small piece of bony flesh, weighing approximately 50 grams from the space close to its outer gums," the book says.
"It's only then that we found that it was a lactating mother. It's a true incident. The elephant wouldn't have survived long after consuming human flesh as its digestive system wouldn't have supported it," said Buxa Tiger Reserve field director Sandeep Sundriyal, who was the DFO of Kurseong then.
Legendary elephant handler Parbati Barua said she has never experienced any such incident in her career. "We sometimes give elephants medicines wrapped in fish. But the moment an elephant gets the smell of fish, it throws it out," she said. WWF-India's Terai Arc landscape team leader Anil Singh pointed out that an elephant's dental structure won't allow it to chew flesh.
Man-eater or not, how could a female elephant turn rogue and go on a killing spree? Bahuguna says the vets suspected it to be a case of rabies. In fact, they decided not to open the stomach as exposed nerves of the dead animal could be highly infectious.
Hunter Ranjit Mukherjee, who gunned down 31 rogue tuskers between 1974 and 2003, says: "A rogue has to be a tusker. If a tusker is driven away from its herd and is lonely, it can turn rogue. If a male jumbo is in musth (a period of sudden sexual aggression) and is without a mating partner, it can wreak havoc. But, a female elephant can only kill a human accidentally, like if he comes under the debris of his house damaged by the elephant," he says.
Barua says even though it has been scientifically proven that elephants do have emotions and rush to defend if someone hurts their herd members, such a behavior is unprecedented. Singh cited a recent incident in Odisha where a sloth bear killed seven persons in 24 hours after villagers burnt its cubs alive.
Bahuguna remarks that humans are to blame for the elephant's unprecedented behavior. Even though it is mentioned as a 'rogue' in forest records, it went berserk to avenge the death of its calf that was killed by villagers on June 22, 2002, when the herd was crossing Mechi river along the India-Nepal border.
"They have witnessed their home being encroached and giving way to crop fields. The vast stretch of wilderness in Dooars that provided them a fortress-like safety was converted into fragmented forest patches. That day, most of the herd had already reached a safe place, and only the mother and its calf were stuck below a ridge. The villagers, out of panic, shot the calf to death. The mother was watching helplessly, hoping its baby would escape. It's the mob that turned the jumbo into a vengeful animal, giving her the epithet 'killer beast'," says Bahuguna.
His book, which was released during the Van Mahotsav celebrations in Falakata, names the people killed by elephants in India and witnesses mentioned in the official report of the 'man-eating elephant'.