Final Day in Assam

May 22

Yesterday was my last day with Dr. K. K. Sarma and his health camp team; Kalita (elephant owner and management expert), Manav (assistant vet to Dr. Sarma) and the ever-inspiring elephants of Assam.

Interestingly enough, I find myself somewhat desensitized to my foreign surrounding. That is until I get into a vehicle, but that is a story for another time. At all other times I feel no borders between us. I am fortunate that my companions speak such fluent English; they can’t say the same for my Assamese. My attempt to casually respond in conversation brings polite smiles or confused looks. Everyone has been very kind to accept my effort to communicate in their native tongue.

The two privately owned elephants we visited today had recently returned from logging in a nearby province. Well, not so nearby. One of the elephants, 65 year old Jaymala walked more than 150 miles in a few days to return to her owner’s home. She was a bit underweight from her labors and the walk, resulting in a strong tongue lashing for the Phandis from both Jaymala’s owner and Dr. Sarma.

Apparently the Phandis had pushed to get home after completing the logging job in order to be with his family. Although one can understand his desire to return home, he was reminded that while employed as Jaymala’s Phandis his first and foremost responsibility is to her welfare. A discussion between Dr. Sarma and the owner followed, focused on the challenges of finding good staff. I soon realized that no matter how different our customs, staffing issues appear to be universal.

In addition to her regular Phandis, Jaymala has a young mahout in training. I believe he falls into the category of Ghansi; the grass cutter and assistant to the Phandis. He could not be older than thirteen years but moved with confidence while attending to Jaymala. It was obvious that she was very comfortable with this boy, standing millimeters from him as he prepared her daily ration of ceremoniously-folded banana leaves dipped in a rice mixture. The mesmerizing rhythm of the food preparation was spellbinding.

Focused but unhurried, the Ghansi cut a long banana stock in half and chopped off the end. Preciously driving his multi-purpose knife a few inches into the end of the stock, he then used the curved knife to pry the stock in half, lengthwise. With a thud the knife was driven into a nearby stump freeing his hands to fold the banana stock, including the large feathery leaves, much the same way kuchi is folded. The stock was folded over onto itself and the leaves wrapped around the stock. Then the organic bundle was dipped into a bucket of liquid rice mixture and placed ever so gently into Jaymala’s mouth.

Calm and comfortable, Jaymala chewed as her Ghansi prepared her next ration, opening her mouth as he completed the process of making the next bundle. When the boy became distracted by the visiting veterinary team, Jaymala would reach out attempting to take a banana leaf herself. Obviously she knew this was not allowed and readily accepted the Ghansi’s verbal instruction to leave it alone.

My observation was that Jaymala had trained her Ghansi quite well. When he slowed his process all she had to do was attempt to help herself and he would get right back to work. I am unaware of the length of time devoted to this process but it went on for the entire time we were there and would continue until the heaping pile of fresh cut banana leaves and bucket of rice mixture were consumed.

Later we met up with fifty-five year old Anguronala in the town of Goalbara. She was on military grounds, behind a guarded gate, grazing peacefully when we arrived. Recently she had been brought to this area, hired as a Koonki to drive away a problematic wild bull that had killed a couple of villagers. The Koonki represents a second chance for wild elephants that cause damage in human settlements. In many cases the Koonki can drive the wild elephant, including a bull, away which results in their life being spared. If a problematic elephant cannot be driven off the government has only two options, both equally unacceptable; capture or kill.

Anguronala showed the wear and tear consistent with logging elephants, including an old injury which resulted in a deformity to her back leg. A large log had rolled into her back leg causing a fracture below the knee. I saw a few of this same deformity which reminded me of the injury that left Shirley crippled while she was performing in the circus. In each case the crippling injury could have been avoided if the elephant lived in a natural setting and not forced to engage in harmful commercial activities.

So many logging elephants have such injuries from being struck by heavy logs while working. Of course the injuries are avoidable, the answer is to not log but the owners claim that the elephants have to work. Believe me, I am brainstorming with colleagues to come up with ways to help elephants out of this highly dangerous activity. It is a huge challenge but there are many experts who are working to find a solution.

So Much To Learn

May 17

I have spent the past several days traveling with Dr. K.K. Sarma, Ph.D. and his team of skilled veterinarians, assistants and driver, to various elephant health camps in Assam. I have seen and learned so much. The experience gives me hope for the elephants in this region.

Dr. Sarma is an Associate Professor in the Department of Surgery and Radiology at the College of Veterinary Science, AAU Khanapara, Guwahati, Assam, India. Spending time with such a dedicated professional has caused me to realize that although we may be spread across this planet, elephant caregivers share the same mind, the same vision; a more humane and healthy existence for elephants.

Years ago, I held a hardline opinion against providing assistance for elephants held in captivity in Asia. But several years ago my opinion changed as I came to believe that regardless of how I feel personally about the deprived life captivity provides, elephants suffer in captivity and require our assistance. A person who influenced my change of mind was Mr. A. Christy Williams who at the time was completing his studies focused on wild elephant populations in the Northern National Parks of India.  After being much impressed by Christy’s work I decided that The Elephant Sanctuary should do what we could to initiate a pilot program to assist privately owned elephants in need in Asia. We collaborated with Christy and later Dr. Sarma to create a Mobile Veterinary Care program in Assam.

This program has been supported by the Sanctuary for years. It has been seriously successful thanks to Dr. Sarma’s expertise and dedication to elephant health care. You can always tell a true elephant devotee, they will drop everything at a moment’s notice, at great cost to themselves and their bank account, to assist a needy elephant.

About five years ago Christy informed me that Dr. Sarma’s camps were increasing in demand. He was traveling great distances on a regular basis and Christy felt that a valuable addition to the project would be a reliable vehicle. Not only was Dr. Sarma not being paid for his services, he used his own vehicle for travel. Christy wondered if the Sanctuary would consider entering into a formal agreement to support Dr. Sarma’s work for another five years.

This request came at a time when the Sanctuary was experiencing increased support as result of the National Geographic documentary which featured the reunion of Jenny and Shirley. This proposed commitment by the Sanctuary would require a large upfront expenditure to purchase a 4-wheel drive vehicle for the Mobile Veterinary Care work. I saw this commitment as a way of paying forward the support we were experiencing. There was no question in my mind that the Sanctuary was well advised to increase our support of Dr. Sarma’s important service.

In addition to setting up elephant health camps, where elephants arrive in mass at a predetermined location, Dr. Sarma tends to individual elephants whenever called upon.  Over the 20 plus years that Dr. Sarma has provided free veterinary care to the elephants of Assam he has developed a well-deserved reputation. His work is extensive; he assists as many as 400 elephants in this region resulting in a wealth of experience. On any occasion possible, time off or after hours, you will find Dr. Sarma in pursuit of better health care for the elephants of Assam. Teaching at the Veterinary College is his profession but caring for the elephants of Assam is Dr. Sarma’s passion.

Attending three days of scheduled camps and a bull recovering from partial paralysis of the left side of his body, has meant driving great distances. From Guwahati we drove to our first camp in Lamari, then Satsimalu, and then Biswanath Chariali in the Sonitar District. Driving through the countryside of Assam plays tricks on me because it looks and feels just like the landscape of Hohenwald, Tennessee. This elephant country with its lush vegetation, humidity, streams, rivers, pastures and forest lands is a mirror image of The Elephant Sanctuary. I do wonder how I found the pearl of place in America which so resembles and perfectly fits the needs of Asian elephants.

This past week I have been fortunate to document Dr. Sarma and his team attend to forty-four elephants…so far; calves, datals (tusker), maikis (mikee) females, and makhanas (mock-naw) naturally tusk less males, ranging from a few months of age to 60 years. The camps are well organized, well attended and attract more than the elephants that it is organized to help. The locals come out in droves and unlike any public gathering I have ever observed involving elephants, all of the by-standers are respectful, quiet and reserved.

The level of respect shown to the elephants, their mahouts and the veterinary team was an eye opener for me. Imagine close to 20 elephants, many of them mature males, gathered in an area half the size of a football field. Each elephant is assigned a number. When their number is called out the elephant and mounted mahout jockey into place. Other elephants, some riderless, left untethered and munching on cut banana trees, shift to make room for the next patient.

As result of the elephant gathering, a sea of local people congregated to watch the open-air clinic. At first I was concerned about the crowd of people but quickly noticed that they respectfully keep their distance. Not once did a person, adult or child, need to be reprimanded for getting too close, becoming a nuisance or teasing an elephant. This phenomenon alone caused me to look on the people of Assam in admiration.

In this culture the elephant is a God, which may begin to explain the respectful attitude I observed.  But it is more than that. As time passed some of the village children and men would move in closer, especially when an elephant reclined on its side to receive an injection or have the foot pads examined. Crowded around in complete silence, their curiosity was palatable. Although shoulder to shoulder, watching intensely, they were never in the way.

At the camps a full body examination is conducted. Eyes are checked, fecals done, and any wounds or problems discussed and treated. In the case of logging elephants, the mahouts provide details about any trauma or accidents that their elephant may have sustained during the course of their work. The mahouts are very engaged in the discussion about their elephant’s health and appear completely receptive to recommendations made by Dr. Sarma and his team.

Surprisingly, contrary to what I had expected to find, the elephants appear healthy, in good weight, calm and cared for. I saw little of the scaring and wounds that I feared I would see. According to Dr. Sarma the biggest problem he encounters is parasites. Thanks to the trust he has developed with the mahouts and owners, Dr. Sarma is allowed to provide worming medicine, inoculations for tetanus, Vit B shots and mineral supplements.

At one of the camps three of the elephants were pregnant. The Phandis of these mothers-to-be proudly posed for a photograph, displaying the bag of mineral supplement provided by Dr. Sarma. Even though each man remained silent, their faces could not hide the pride they felt for their elephant.

The elephants of Assam have an obvious advantage over elephants living in captivity in other areas of the world. These elephants, although in human care, live in wilderness areas. They spend the majority of their time grazing and foraging on natural vegetation, walk and sleep on natural substrate and are sheltered from the sun by the forest canopy. With the exception of the privately owned elephants that are taken to neighboring countries for logging, the elephants of Assam are not overworked. Most are used for anti-poaching patrol of the National Parks to protect not only rhinos but other treasured and endangered animals.

Participating in Dr. Sarma’s Health Camps have caused me to consider what more we can do to help him help the elephants of Assam. I am thinking that a small laboratory would be a welcomed asset. It would not need to be lavish, even the basics would enable Dr. Sarma and his team to do even more. Fecals are done in the field but blood must be transported back to Guwahati to be processed. Given his own lab, I believe Dr. Sarma would be able to conduct additional non invasive testing in a timely manner, all under his direct supervision.

When I get access to internet where I can upload photos I will.

Namaste