By Prithvijit Mitra
KOLKATA: The Bengal forest department may seek help of experts from Assam to revive elephant capturing in south Bengal.
Once a frequently practised method to check man-elephant conflict in North Bengal, north-east and in some southern states, it was popularly known as 'mela shikar'. Restricted by the Wildlife Protection Act since 1977, 'mela shikar' is now a lost art and has survived only in the folklore of north-eastern states. Keen to prevent the straying of Dalma elephants in the districts of Bankura, Purulia and Burdwan, the state has recently sent a proposal to the ministry of environment and forests seeking a revival of 'mela shikar' in a more animal-friendly way.
"We are not going to use the archaic method that involved lassoing elephants. We will tranquillize them and then train them in groups. It will be done by trained mahouts, using minimum physical force to ensure that elephants are not hurt," said Vinod Kumar Yadav, chief conservator of forests, central circle.
Jumbo population in south Bengal has grown threefold in the last 20 years. This includes around 30 lone elephants that are no longer a part of the Dalma herd. It now crosses the Damodar river and travels through Raniganj, Durgapur and Burdwan — areas that were previously out of the corridor. The jumbo corridor now spreads across 3,000 sq km in three districts.
The state forest department has around 50 'kunki' or trained elephants in North Bengal. These could be pressed into service for the capture. To tame the captured jumbos, more than 20 mahouts would be necessary, according to Yadav. "Three mahouts will be needed to train each captured elephant. We have enough mahouts to do the job. But we are considering the possibility of getting experts from Assam who are seasoned trainers," said Yadav.
In 2012, the forest department had sought permission to revive capturing. It was put on hold after a section of animal rights activists and conservationists raised an objection, calling it a cruel practice. "Between my father and myself, we must have captured more than 1000 elephants till early eighties. Tranquillizing elephants is good enough, but the training method is more or less the same as mela shikar. Some amount of cruelty is inevitable. It's true that you need to beat the captured animals with sticks to scare them. But then, even school students need to be disciplined. The method does not involve only cruelty. It's a process of taming the animals. But, if it is done over a period 3-6 months with adequately skilled mahouts, taming is the most effective way of controlling man-elephant conflicts," said elephant expert Parbati Barua.
She added that to turn a wild elephant into a kunki you need to train it for another 3 years. "The problem is finding the right trainers. There are still a few 'phandis' in north Bengal. They will have to be found out."
The forest directorate is yet to decide on a venue for the training of captured elephants. It could be done partly in north Bengal. Twenty to twenty-five people are killed every year in Bengal by marauding jumbos that trek from Jharkhand to Bankura, Purulia and West Midnapore. Director of 'Project Elephant' A K Srivastava, however, said the state's proposal was yet to be received.