|When the sun sets....the beast rises|
It's not uncommon here. Every evening, all house chores like preparing the dinner, dining and doing the dishes are done before 6 O’ clock. After the meal, family gather around a small fire and indulge in the usual gossip that all Bhutanese families are so infamously known for.
But for my folks who reside in the southern most part of our country-particularly in Hangay, sispoo Dungkhag, their ears are also required to be extra attentive in the evenings to listen the sound created by the incoming elephants from across the border. In the evenings, being extra vigilant is very important to avoid direct conflict with the wild beast.
My father, a government officer, recently got transferred here. The best and the immediate investment he made in coming here was to buy a Foglight touch. It’s a prized possession.
It’s a life and death situation for folks here when elephants intrude our village at night to feed on anything they feel eating. Every tom, dick and harry of my village possesses one Foglight touch each. The touch helps them spotlight the beast in the dark southern night and help make neighbors aware of the elephants.
Crops are eaten and damaged almost every night and it goes without saying that a threat to the very life of the community people is imminent. At least 7 death has been recorded since 1995.
Yesterday evening was a bonanza, at least for me. It was my first encounter with the wild elephants. I had seen them on National Geographic Channel in the comfort of a soft couch to lean on and a cup of hot coffee savoring each sip that I took. Things are pretty different here. The wild beast and human beings take on face to face.
My uncle and I were working on his diary report when he heard a sharp “crack” sound beside our house. The elephants were feeding on bamboo plants.
We went out and walked towards our cow shed. From there he switched on the touch and the beast appeared in front of our eyes. They are as tall as two storied house, brown in color and were closer to each other. Only my uncle, grandfather and I were at home. The rest of the family had gone to attend a Puja in a nearby village.
When I first saw them, my knees began to shake and I immediately hide behind my uncle like a small kid. But later I joined them yelling together at the top of my lungs and throwing stones to chase them away.
My grandfather, who is known for his calm and gentle demeanor for ages, turned into a roaring machine in minutes after he spot the elephants. He yells, he shouts and yells again at the wild elephants. After thirty minutes of stoning, yelling and blinking the touch light at them, the wild elephants finally changed the direction and left our house only to move into the interior part of the village. The yelling continued and the fog light blinked everywhere in my village as if a night party has just started in an open space.
The government has erected solar fencing which stretches 11 km from the outskirt of Hangay village till Jogimara near Jaldhaka river bordering Darjeeling district. But the fencing has not done much to prevent the intrusion of the wild elephants. The entire fencing runs with the power generated by two solar panels which the community people think is not enough to chase away the beast.
Almost seven months ago the local community had requested the concern authorities to add two more solar panels which they believe would help keep the elephants away. The authorities had agreed then to look into the matter but nothing has happened till now.
The photographs I took with my nokia phone amidst the chaos are blur but the worry of losing the crops for wild beast and the fear of being killed someday are deeply engraved in their hearts and minds.
The Fear of wild elephants has compelled the community people to build concert building to protect themselves from the wild elephants. In order to build these concrete houses they are selling their inherited land and has put in all their savings. The construction is in full swing. There are 18 new concrete houses under construction in my village only.
My village was once known for being the rice cultivation hub in the Dzongkhag but now it is turning into a free grazing land (500 acres) or ‘no man’s land’ sorts of. ‘Cultivating rice is like digging ones own grave’, says my uncle. If cultivation had to happen like before, more worry and fear is imminent. In addition to it, the parents and their children won’t meet each other. The parents have to look after their paddy fields at night and during the day their children will be attending their school.
The only time when they see their children will be in the early mornings but the children will be still asleep. My uncle joking says that neighbors won’t ask how ‘tall’ is your son or daughter but instead they would ask how ‘long’ they have grown into. Because fathers are always away from home at night and they have always seen their child lying on the bed in a deep sleep while they return back from their field.
Thanks to the recently commenced BOB office near our village that Bhaiya Lal Munda, late 50s, will no longer lose his earnings to the elephants again. He had once hidden his savings wrapped in a plastic bag and tucked inside a small wooden granary. Then, one night a hungry elephant had broken the granary and gobbled down the grains along with the money bag. Munda went on to search for it everywhere in the village but to no avail. Now, Munda will deposit his savings in the BOB lockers and not in his wooden granary.
The Community is now planning to build huge stone walls in all the entry points from where elephants enter our village. Now more materials will be used… like cement and thick wire fencing and Petroling will be increased.
The primitive stone walls had once worked for the community. It had reduced the number of wild visitors drastically. The People had volunteered to look after the entry points and for six long months the villagers had experienced sound sleep at night. The Petroling was purely on a voluntary basis. The Families who couldn’t provide man power use to provide battery and touch lights to the volunteers.
Slowly People had discontinued the practice in the hope that elephants won’t return. But now it has only increased in number of wild elephants and the frequency of their visit in our village.
Until the concrete wall is built, volunteers begin to guard the entry points or additional solar panels are installed to drive away the wild elephants, my dad will religiously re-charge his prized Foglight touch every afternoon, my old grandfather is all set to roar at night again and my uncle is working diligently to bring more substantial development in the village like collective diary farming.
He is also looking into bio-gas commercialization, organic vegetable growing and marketing possibilities for the collective benefit of the villagers. He says, ‘lets not waste our energy talking about elephants because no one is going to help us, let's focus on bringing more development in our village.”