"Haathi ayo, haathi ayo" my grandmother yelled in the middle of the night to wake the family up. My uncle and my father sprang from their beds and ran to the porch. They found their mother staring at the shadowy fields strewn with rice plantations. A soft breeze that carried a pungent smell did not hint at anything unusual until the sound of an elephant’s trumpet filled the air.
My cousins and I also gathered on the veranda of the house. Our stay was not going to be too long. My uncle rushed us inside and told us to remain indoors, as he started searching for the colourful firecrackers popularly known as "chocolate bomb". We heard voices of our neighbours and villagers on the street. They too had figured out that an elephant had entered the fields in the vicinity.
After a couple of hours, my father and his brothers came to tell us that the elephant had finally returned to a nearby jungle, but after damaging a lot of crops. The villagers had scared the animal off by lighting tyres and hurling firecrackers.
The next morning, immediately after breakfast, my cousins and I took off to the fields looking for the late-night visitor’s footprints. We scanned the green rice fields for spots that were disheveled. There we found muddy craters. We jumped from one crater to another and tracked the trail till as far as we could.
When we returned home from our adventure, a group of familiar faces had gathered to discuss how the elephant had destroyed a hut near the jungle and killed two people. The dead were Adivasis. This incident took place in Patharghata village in the outskirts of Siliguri town in north Bengal, a couple of decades ago. Many such nights followed over the years when my family would wake up fearing an elephant attack.
Elephants brought death and misery. Poor farmers, who hoped for a good harvest, would wake up in the morning to find their fields destroyed. Some brave ones, in their desperation, set up camps on the fields to keep a night vigil. They would carry a lantern and wait in the cold smoking tobacco leaves. The wind blew fiercely while they waited in anticipation for the animal’s sound. When elephants came, they would shout and wake the village up.
A lot has changed since then. There are less rice fields now. The tea-gardens that lace the city have suffered losses and are shutting down fast. Many families who were poor earlier have made a fortune from real estate businesses. High-rise apartments have sprouted. There is a lot of money here to be made, my childhood friends tell me.
Developmental activities, such as building of roads and railway lines have taken place near villages alongside the Mahananda wildlife sanctuary, which still has many elephants. There used to be tigers too, but there are either very few now or none. Over the years, forest officials in the region have been grappling with the problem of timber mafia and poaching. The forests, as a result, have grown less dense and the man-elephant conflict has become worse.
A recent video that went viral earlier this week in India showed an elephant running amok on the streets of Siliguri. The animal had visible injuries on its trunk and back. People, who found themselves in danger, threw anything they could lay their hands on at the animal. Eventually, forest officials came, tranquilised the elephant and took it away on a truck.
The north Bengal region is an important elephant corridor but not a peaceful one. Hundreds of elephants criss-cross over the 5,000sqkm of forest area. A railway line that connects Siliguri to Alipurduar town, a little over a hundred kilometres away, mostly passes through the forests. As a result, every year, many elephants get killed in collisions with trains.
Forest authorities have found this to be an extremely tough challenge. Measures such as power fencing and elevated railway tracks have not been fool proof. They have also installed watch towers across the forest to track the movements of elephant and stop them from entering human settlements. But none of the steps have significantly stemmed the man-elephant conflict that has raged for years.
And as the city expands, which it is doing at a fast pace, this crisis is likely to get worse. Many areas that were earlier tea gardens are now being developed by builders for housing apartments. Some of them even advertise the view of the forests and the tea gardens in their pamphlets. There are not enough public awareness campaigns to warn new settlers in the area about the issue.