On 25th June, Manwar Ali, a resident and former worker of the tea garden where we live, was attacked and killed by a wild elephant. The elephant, a lone tusker, had entered the Bara Line - a workers' colony - early in the evening, and it had hidden itself quietly for some time before the people living near Manwar's house saw it. They gave chase, as they usually do, frightening it away with crackers and strong lights, and by making a lot of noise. Tea garden people are resigned to sharing their living space with elephants.
A tractor with powerful lights was driven around to send the elephant back in the direction of the forest. The chase ended - or so it appeared - and people went back home. Manwar Ali turned off to the side street where he lived, and stamped the dirt off his chappals. At the sound, the elephant came out from where it had been hiding, unseen, and hurled him to the ground, into the tea area. Manwar rolled into a little drain and hid there. The elephant sniffed around him once, and walked away. Manwar got up, and walked until he found someone. He told him what happened, and asked to be taken to the hospital. It was around eleven thirty in the night. People gathered at once and they took the poor man to the garden hospital, where the doctor examined him. He didn’t have any external injuries. However, the doctor recommended that he be taken to the hospital in Birpara town. Someone was sent to call the driver of the ambulance, but before he rushed back with him, Manwar died. He must have sustained heavy internal injuries. His head had hit against a tree trunk when he fell.
The shock was terrible. What a sudden, unexpected, fearful and painful death. Manwar's brother had been with him less than an hour before, in the big group that always runs behind elephants - keeping a safe distance, of course. No one tried to injure the elephant or to harm it in any way. It killed without a reason, and without any provocation.
The Assistant Manager alerted the Wild Life squad in the area, who turned up soon enough, but not before they expressed the fear that they might get beaten up by angry tea-garden workers. It has been known to happen. There was no trouble. The people were agitated, but not aggressive.
The state pays a compensation of Rs.One Lakh in the case of deaths caused by wild elephants. The Squad paid a small part of the sum as an advance towards funeral expenses.
There are so many cases of elephants killing people. According to a report in The Times of India dated 5 June 2008, 250 people die on an average every year in the country's eastern states in the man-elephant conflict. There is a website called 'Elephant News India' where I spotted the link to this article, and it carries 18 stories of man-elephant conflict for the month of June alone. Now there is one more.
Elephants are dangerous animals, and we in tea gardens have a healthy respect for them. There are as many elephant stories as there are tea planters. They are part of our lives, the tall tales that are told and retold over evening drinks in friends' bungalows. I don’t feel like recounting even one here now.
Visitors to tea gardens get really excited when they hear about elephants coming out for an evening round from the nearby forests. 'Don’t say you that you wish you could see an elephant,' my husband always tells them. That elephants can kill, and for no apparent reason, is something visitors find hard to believe. That they can destroy huge areas of cultivated land, including vast areas planted with tea, sounds impossible. My husband has more to say about elephants. They are huge, but light-footed. They can chase their quarry at great speed, running at something like 40km an hour. They have tiny eyes in proportion to their bodies, and weak eyesight, but their sense of smell more than makes up for that. An elephant is a master at concealment. It can hide in the darkness, even in the shadow of a tree.
The night after the attack, everyone was worried. A killer elephant generally returns to the place where it has struck. Manwar's brother, his closest surviving relative, was filled with sorrow, but he had no anger. He had a sad story to recount to my husband when he met him in Bara Line early in the morning. Their uncle was killed, over twelve years ago, at almost the same spot, and by an elephant. He'd been carrying a little child in his arms. The child was lightly flicked aside out of harm's way by the elephant before it struck the man down and killed him.