On 19 July 2021, I received a report from a forest official in Sukna, a village in the Kurseong subdivision of Darjeeling, that a tusker had been killed in a fierce battle with his competitor. The fight had stood for six days and had taken place inside an army-restricted-area near Sukhiyakhola of Sukna. The tusker that met his demise was the well-known Kanchera (T4), killed by Ashwathama (T8), a resident tusker of the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary in West Bengal. This massive, dominant bull has ruled over the entire Terai landscape for the last 20 years. Kanchera (T4) was unique for his challenging nature and was probably the second-largest bull recorded from the Kurseong division of the Terai region. His sudden demise has not only shocked me but left me to ponder the challenges of solitary bulls in Terai and the entire Dooars landscape of North Bengal. Have these bulls truly adapted to living in human-dominated landscapes? Or, is this a result of climate change?
For the last 12 years, I have studied and documented the elephants of the Terai stretch, which is a part of the Eastern Dooars Elephant Reserve (EDER) and probably the highest elephant concentration zone in the entire North Bengal landscape. The Terai stretch is situated between the Teesta and Mechi rivers and is where the highest compensation amounts are disbursed to victims of wildlife depredation in North Bengal. My special interest lay with bull elephants and the local communities of the region.
We all know that elephants are social animals and live in large herds led by a matriarch, known in the local language as Kulmata or RaaniDhui. The matriarch provides structure to an elephant herd, and her experience and knowledge get passed down to future generations. On the other hand, bull elephants of a herd can be considered as the key to healthy propagation.
When an elephant is born, he or she is completely dependent on their family to survive. This will continue for females until the end of their lives, whereas bull elephants are forced to leave the herd at the age of 14-17. Without proper guidance, they struggle to survive, making the ones that do overcome these challenges extremely strong and healthy. Little wonder that bull elephants have more experience and better adaptation skills than female elephants.
When bull elephants leave their herd for the first time, occasionally, they merge with other bulls or may even leave with other same-aged bulls from their herd. This adolescent bonding between bulls is the first step towards survival, and they later form all-male herds called Malijurian, in the local language, for better chances of survival. These male herds are usually led by aged bulls and are most active during the crop season.
The Terai stretch of North Bengal is a highly fragmented region with three individual forest divisions – Kurseong, Darjeeling and Baikunthapur. The region is a foraging zone for 130-150 elephants. As per my latest survey in 2019-21, these are mostly the native and kinship groups, but there are at least 20-22 solitary bulls and around 20 elephants who can be considered opportunists. These bulls mostly forage in between these three divisions, but they are often seen crossing the Teesta river and have been recorded from the Dooars.
In the Terai stretch, amongst the bulls, there are a good number of tuskers while maknas or tuskless bulls are concentrated in the Kurseong division. There are 3-4 individual tuskers in the Kurseong division along with three iconic maknas. Inside the Darjeeling wildlife area, there are 4-5 tuskers with three maknas. In the Baikunthapur division, there are five individual tuskers and two maknas. All of these individuals are solitary, aged bulls.
Bulls are often seen merging with migratory herds during the crop season. For example, solitary bulls from the Mahananda WLS in the Darjeeling division and a few from Baikunthapur can be seen following large herds during monsoon and winter seasons. They then move towards the Kurseong division in pre-monsoon and stay there for at least 7-9 months. They only stay inside Mahananda WLS during the dry months of February, March and April because of the perennial water source and favourable bamboo thickets along the Darjeeling foothills. I have seen few individuals like Ashwathama (T8), Nawab (T10), Lama (T6), Kanfuta (T2) and Banda Makna (M2) journey towards the hills for water and varieties of shrubs and herbs like gurja lorong and pari lorong, which are seasonal elephant forest fodder.
These loners are highly adaptable in any landscape, whether it’s dominated by humans or when presented with other challenges. They are seasonal visitors of Kurseong during the crop season. I found that in Kurseong, apart from tuskers, maknas are quite regular in the fragmented forest patches of Bagdogra, Panighata and Tukuriyajhar. But in the Bamonpokhri area, which lies along the border of Kurseong and Darjeeling divisions, it is mostly tuskers that are strays and crop raiders. Only a few of them are dependent on forest fodder like Ashwathama (T8) and Kanfuta (T2) and are rarely noticed in the foraging and extended practising zones of the Kurseong landscape.
Under the Cosh
Adolescent bulls are a common sight in the Terai stretch. At least 20-22 adolescent bulls are regular visitors to the Kurseong division. During paddy and maize season, bulls from Mahananda and Baikunthapur stay within fragmented forest patches and form temporary opportunist groups with other resident or emerging bulls. The simple motive here is to understand the landscape and habituate with people, and the only way to do that is to follow experienced bulls and learn from them. These opportunist bulls often merge with herds for sexual benefits and utilise crop-raiding opportunities to feast on high nutrient fodder, thus extending their musth period. This is a major cause of conflict in this fragmented landscape.
It has been observed that most of the casualties happen during the harvesting period when seasonal groups arrive. Opportunist bulls from surrounding divisions who are not familiar with the landscape come in contact with the local communities, leading to difficult human-elephant conflict situations. There are also anthropogenic pressures at play forcing elephants in the Kurseong landscape to alter their behaviour. The continuous pressure in forest areas – firewood collection, excessive grazing, mining, shrinking forest habitats and expanding army areas, colonies, tea gardens and highways – leads to decreasing water levels, an absence of natural fodder and more.
When put under such undue stress, these animals have no option but to force their way into human-occupied spaces, and paddy, maize, pineapples become accessible dietary options. This has further repercussions as such a high nutritional diet leads to a large rise in reproductive hormones amongst bulls, making them highly aggressive and prone to conflict with humans and among themselves. The sad demise of Kanchera (T4) at the massive converging tusks or Chipa Daat of Ashwathama (T8) is a visceral outcome of the same.