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The Mystery Of The Migrating Giants

The Mystery Of The Migrating Giants

Tracing their evolutionary, historical and cultural routes, Shyamal Datta and Dr. Bibhuti Lahkar write sensitively about elephants, the gentle giants of the Eastern Himalaya.

Each spring, wild elephants traverse hundreds of kilometres, through rapidly fragmenting corridors, to reach the grasslands of the Manas National Park. Photo: Shyamal Datta.

The sun began to rise from beyond the dark foothills of Bhutan as I lay watchfully on a dirt track. Behind me was my trusted friend and guide, Raju, who knew these thousands of square kilometres of grasslands like the back of his hand. I was convinced that Raju, a Bodo tribal, could hear and smell elephants from afar. As if on cue, he signalled to me to be quiet since the pachyderms were approaching.

It was February 2013, and I was in the Manas National Park to photograph the migration of Asian elephants Elephas maximus that have moved for millennia through this exquisite grassland habitat following the availability of food. With me was Dr. Bibhuti Lahkar, Head, Manas Landscape, Aaranyak, a Guwahati-based NGO, who has been working on the conservation of these grasslands for over 15 years. Besides being an elephant aficionado, Dr. Lahkar based his doctoral thesis on these very grasslands.

Within five minutes, a large herd of elephants led by a matriarch, emerged to move from the grassland towards the open forested woodlands where they would rest and feed in the shade of tall trees that offered respite from the sun.

Each spring, the fresh succulent green grasses that sprout, trigger elephants to travel long distances, down from the hills of Bhutan and even from north Bengal. Their journeys often involve travelling hundreds of kilometres to reach this feeding bowl. Given that each individual adult must eat roughly 150 kg. of plant matter and drink 100 litres of water everyday, their motivation to undertake such journeys is easy to understand.

But how do they find their way and for how long have they been using these migration routes are questions that encourage elephant experts to search for all manner of clues, including the practice of counting dung piles and monitoring dung decay. Such methods help field biologists to estimate elephant numbers, and discover the foods upon which they rely from month to month and year to year. What, for instance, do they eat between May and December, when they are not in Manas? What distances do they cover each day, how high do they climb?

Counting dung piles and monitoring dung decay is one of the many techniques that field biologists use to estimate elephant numbers. Photo: Shyamal Datta.


It is to answer such questions, all of which are vital to elephant conservation strategies, that three elephants from north Bengal were radio collared in 2009. Sadly, all three animals were later found dead in Assam’s Kachugaon Reserve Forest. The cause of death remains uninvestigated to date.

The other significant issue remains that of human-elephant conflict. The districts of Udalguri, Baksa and Chirang are at the forefront of some of the most serious human-elephant conflicts in India. Do such incidents coincide with the sprouting of the new grasses in the park?

Studying the stretch from eastern Nepal through north Bengal to the Manas Tiger Reserve south of the Bhutan foothills, suggests that a contiguous forest corridor existed not too long ago. Is it possible that some 300 years ago, migrating elephant herds once moved from Nepal through the then prevalent corridors into Bhutan, and then through Manas’ grasslands? Could they then have moved eastwards to Udaluri into the present-day Arunachal Pradesh highlands? In the recent past, virtually all these forest corridors have been encroached and damaged. Elephant herds are now possibly restricted to the Bhutan foothills in summer, only moving down to the grasslands in spring.

Lying belly-down on the grass with my camera, I wondered if the herds we were watching were descendants of those herds of yesteryear, somehow continuing the tradition of migrating hundreds of kilometres in search of food.

Questions about their long-range migrations can be projected beyond the Upper Assam North Bank landscape to the Karbi-Anglong Landscape and Dehing-Patkai ranges along the south bank of Assam’s Brahmaputra river. These areas are home to massive herds of elephants that prefer woodlands and deciduous forests. But where did these populations originate?

Borders neither authenticated nor verified.


The author and wildlife writer Nirmal Ghosh, in his book Lord of the Grasslands, says that a free ranging herd would typically require about 250 sq. km. of wilderness in which to roam for food. Ghosh’s anecdotal account of the story of a bull elephant portrays an image of how herds moved from Kaziranga in Assam to Arunachal Pradesh and back. Herds also moved to Nagaland and Myanmar (Burma) along what used to be called the Mikir Hills (Karbi-Anglong). Were these the same herds or were they separate, isolated families? Might answers be found in the archives of the Northeast?

In Elephants: A Cultural and Natural History, Karl Gröning and Martin Saller write, “No other animal has left such a rich and plentiful succession of traces of its prehistoric physical existence over a period of millions of years, nor provided deeper insights into evolutionary processes over the vast span of Earth’s history, as the elephant.

A surfeit of source material exists today to validate the use of elephants as commodities of war and big game hunting in 15th century India. Elephants formed a significant military arsenal in the history of Assam and archival records point to instances of elephants being exchanged as war indemnity between the Mughals and the Ahom kingdom. Could migrating herds along the northern, forested banks of the Brahmaputra have provided armies of yore with combat elephants?

In 1663, Mir Jumla, the Mughal general, commanded an expedition in Assam, defeated the Ahoms and signed a treaty in Ghilajhariaghat, imposing an indemnity of 15 tuskers and six female elephants. Within one year of this treaty being signed, the Ahoms were forced to send 90 more elephants in three installments.

In 1935, an Englishman named P. D. Stacey, who called himself an ‘Elephant Catcher’, chronicled his accounts of elephant hunting and capture in his book Elephant Gold, published in 1963 from London. His notes too provide fascinating anecdotes of elephants and elephant hunting in 19th century Assam.

In India”, he says, and I quote, “elephants were not always protected as they have been since the introduction of the Elephant Preservation Act of 1879.

During the 30s, we were ourselves capturing a very large number of elephants.

In fact,” he continues, “by the removal of some 900 elephants in 1934-36 from the forests of the Naga and Mikir Hills, we almost cleaned out elephants there.

Regarding the elephant herds of the North Bank he says: “In Assam, it is the North Bank forests with their backs to the Bhutan and Tibet foothills and the isolated Garo Hills which hold out the best prospects for elephant herds remaining up to strength. The same is probably true of the foothills of North Bengal.

These and other chronicles provide insights into the sheer number of these gentle giants that were enslaved for trade and commerce. Given that elephants seem to have been captured in large numbers annually in the plains bordering the foothills of what was once referred to as NEFA (North Eastern Frontier Agency) and Bhutan, one can reasonably deduce that these were from the same herds that migrated up to the foothills of NEFA longitudinally, from the North Bank forests.

So argues Stacey.

But what about the chronicles of the South Bank forests and Myanmar?

The Morans – a tribe of Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts of upper Assam – have a history of devoting their lives to the capture and domestication of elephants. According to a local resident, “Elephants are our cultural property and we have been living together with them since time immemorial. Our ancestors came to this land with elephants.”

Elephants find an important place in the socio-cultural, religious and economic life of the Moran people. Although Morans are reputed elephant catchers, trainers and caretakers, the tradition of rearing elephants, not just as beasts of burden, but also as family members, makes this tribal group unique. The Morans live in close proximity to elephants and from all accounts, they still respect their migratory corridors. Presumably, this would be the Tinsukia-Digboi-NEFA-Myanmar landscape and its corridors.

Today the estimated population of elephants in Northeast India is pegged at around 11,000 according to wildlife expert Dr. Anwaruddin Chowdhury. Current estimate of elephant numbers in Assam, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh suggests a figure of 8,000 elephants within these states, yet elephant corridors have been afforded no legal sanctity. In Dr. Lahkar’s view, if a legal safety net is not provided to current elephant corridors, no amount of legislation against encroachment or hunting, or policy edicts for that matter, will be of help.

Between 1989 and 2003, at the height of the Bodo agitation along the north bank of the Brahmaputra, elephant corridors and elephant reserves suffered immensely. No one really knows how many elephants were massacred during those dark days. Today Dr. Lahkar suggests that there are indeed some signs of revival, but big tuskers are rarely, if ever, sighted.

A dream project, he suggests, would be to reconnect all the forests along the length of the erstwhile corridor that stretched between north Bengal and Arunachal Pradesh three centuries ago. This one contiguous forested corridor would deliver immense benefit to human populations by protecting them from the worst impacts of climate change, including floods and landslides.

Of late, lone elephants have been noticed venturing into fringe villages in search of food. This could be an indication that herds are still somehow managing to survive by accessing food from extant forests.

But that situation is about to change very soon.

Gestation lasts for 20-22 months in elephants after which a single calf is born. Calves in a herd are known to wean from other females in the absence of their mother. Photo: Shyamal Datta.


Dark clouds loom ahead for these silent, gentle, long range animal convoys – an international airport is being built on the Bhutan border bang in the middle of their centuries old forest path, near Gelephu. In the Manas Tiger Reserve, both on the east and the western reserves, serious ongoing encroachments are poised to disrupt the existing corridors along the foothills of the north bank of the Brahmaputra river.

Dr. Raman Sukumar in The Story of Asia’s Elephants says that it was not easy to trace a final evolutionary path of elephant populations across Asia. In a study carried out by him and his team of scientists, using genetic analysis and fossil evidence, Dr. Sukumar recreated a fascinating story of the evolutionary migration of elephants out of Africa, where they originated, to South and Southeast Asia.

Two distinct groups of Asian elephants arose out of this maelstrom according to Dr. Sukumar. One group named A-clade, is presently distributed in the Himalayan foothills, Myanmar and Indochina. The other B-clade, more ancient, is seen mainly in east-central and south India, Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra, Sri Lanka and Borneo. At one point in the millennial timeline, when the climate and environment were conducive, one group migrated northwards from Southeast Asia to Northeast India and the other walked in the opposite direction. All is presumed to have taken place around 1.6 million years ago.

The thought again struck me… could it be that the herd I was observing on that cold, foggy dawn, led by the imperious matriarch, were the descendants of A-clade?

“Nature’s great masterpiece, an elephant; the only harmless great thing.” ‑ John Donne, British poet (1572-1631). Photo: Shyamal Datta.

Palakapya, a sage who lived in the Anga kingdom during the Vedic Age is generally regarded as the pioneer of elephant lore or Gaja Shastra in Indian mythology. Supposedly, he was born from an elephant, and lived, wandered and ate with them. Call it wishful thinking, but in our view those that live today in Anga – present day Northeast – could conceivably resurrect the love and respect their ancients once had for elephants. If this highly welcome development were to take place, we might actually find communities motivated to repay thousand-year-old debts that once defined the relationship of co-existence their ancestors shared with elephants.

Authors: Shyamal Datta and Dr. Bibhuti Lahkar, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 4, April 2015.


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April 17, 2015, 02:40 PM
 Elephants must be given right of passage. To read more about the 10 vital steps that must be taken to ensure the future of this amazing gentle giant, go to https://www.sanctuaryasia.com/magazines/cover-story/9603-ten-ways-to-save-elephants.html