Wild Ways

How a golf course in Assam’s forests is the elephant in the room

It is suspected that four elephants and a leopard have died up till now.

 |  Wild Ways  |  6-minute read |   16-10-2015
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The embodiment of Lord Ganesha, the elephant god and patron of holy beginnings, has had many obstructions. In the psychological realm, good beginnings have been obstructed by the lack of will or money, a wavering nerve, a pet peeve, or the predicament of superstition. In the physical world, the only embodiment of Ganesha - the Indian elephant - has more obstructions than can be counted.

The list is long, but it is also growing. Physical barriers to the elephant are many - and this is an animal that needs to move to survive. It needs to forage for food (each animal will eat more than a tonne a day), and water to drink and bathe in (nobody has made bathrooms and showers for elephants yet!). Traditionally, barriers have included railway lines, which have caused the death of not just elephants, but elephant families; solar or other fences that have bisected the habitat the animals move in; trenches and roads that have been built either to obstruct elephants or out of sheer ignorance; mines with pits that act as death traps. Now, you can add a golf course to the list.

The Numaligarh refinery in Assam has set up a golf course in Golaghat, within the Kaziranga National Park's "no development zone". This golf course falls right in the midst of a habitat that has been the elephant's for years. And the wall of the golf course is taking a bloody toll on the animals. In the past few months, it is suspected that four elephants have died trying to cross this wall. So has a leopard, which got impaled on the wires on the wall. The wall has been in existence since 2010, and may well have silently killed many more animals. Yet, those behind the wall pretend there are no elephant pathways around, and certainly no elephants.

Earlier this year, a divisional forest officer documented a herd approaching the wall. Bewildered, the elephants almost seemed to be shaking their heads at its existence. After gingerly and incredulously extending their trunks, sniffing and gauging, the herd then attempted to break down the obstruction, using their heads as clubs. For several minutes it was a veritable duel between the pachyderms and the perimeter. In a tragic consequence for the clan, not the cement, a young calf died after trying to break the wall.

It almost seemed like a perverse advertisement for a brand of cement or human engineering, in the form of bloody animal sacrifice.

Last week, another video documentation was done. This revealed an elephant painfully picking its way through a broken portion of the wall. For this animal too, the risk of losing its life, like that of the leopard, was real.

How could the state of Assam, which boasts of the renowned Kaziranga, allow this? Do we need a golf course in the middle of elephant land? And if we do, should we make it, lazily, with no provisions for the animals to pass?

For centuries, people have existed in this state with elephants. I am friends with tea estate owners who leave gates open at night to allow elephants to pass through. I know of villagers who cheerfully put up with crop-raiding by elephants, but never think of killing the animals. My family recounts how once, while travelling in Assam, an elephant herd was found to be standing on the road, after the car turned a bend. The driver got off and prostrated to the elephants from a distance, begging for passage. The animals seemed to understand and all of them moved towards the side of the mountain, making way for the jeep.

All of this stems from a deep sense of historicity, and a sense of shared cultural landscape between the human and the haathi. Those who dismiss elephant-human interactions - or tolerance - as romantic, irrational and slightly laughable, fail to understand that this heritage is also practical. Through simple measures, many have evolved physical means to avoid conflict with elephants, and developed psychological strength to tide over conflicts, if they do arise.

Erecting a wall on an elephant path - even if done so out of ignorance - is stupid, but keeping it there and pretending the elephants don't exist is far more foolish. While the forest appears to stretch on forever to the untrained urban eye, and some may think of themselves as exciting pioneers teeing off in the "middle of nowhere"; the "nowhere" is actually somewhere for the elephants. Studies have shown that elephant families and herds have specific paths and sociologies, leading to the nomenclature of elephant corridors. Elephants don't do random walks; instead elephant families - both in Asia and Africa - map corridors out, including food sources, waterbodies and places for refuge. Calves travel with their mothers and are taught routes, some of which also include "elephant graveyards", or places where elephants have died. It's a bit like your mom teaching you the way to school, with a lesson on which turns to take and which roads to avoid.

While the forest, paddy fields, grasslands et al may look green and vast, and some may think elephants will take the next highway, on several occasions, the option doesn't exist for the animals. And just like elephants don't have bathrooms for water supply, they also don't have signs with shortcuts to their corridors.

Pretending the wall is not a problem in a state with a nuanced understanding of elephants is denying the history and sentient wisdom of the state. Also, in doing so, we run the risk of making it an elephant versus a golf course issue, which it is not. It is, squarely and clearly, an issue of bad planning in an area which is a small remnant of a living, wild habitat. Elephants have nothing to do with golf, but we have everything to do with the future of elephants.

Instead, as humans have erected the wall, humans now need to find a way to let the elephants pass.


There are ways to do this. Many areas allow animals to pass. But this is done by being tuned to the forest, not by bringing the city to the forest. In Assam itself, the Indian Railways has made bridges over railway lines for gibbons to cross (in Tinsukhia), and many farms and tea estates have trenched out paths for elephants. Others - nearly 5,000 citizens - suggest removing the wall. A case is now on in the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which has put a stay on the wall's construction. It is a tragedy though that it is acceptable to bring the city to the backyard of one of India's best known national parks, with a hubris that excludes wild animals who have no other options.

Saying there are no elephants, as those associated with the wall have been claiming, is an insult to the intelligence of the elephants. More so, it is an insult to the intelligence of sentient human beings.

If we were to speak the language of those who ignore the elephants in elephant land, I must ask: would you let in the haathis if they played golf?


Neha Sinha Neha Sinha @nehaa_sinha

Neha Sinha is a wildlife conservationist, and lover of the weird, wonderful, wordy and wild. She works with the Bombay Natural History Society and her views are personal.

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