Texas based Andrea Gutierrez has studied animal language and in particular the elephant in ritual and in human relations in India (both medieval and contemporary). She quotes a Sanskrit text on elephant training: “… rice balls [are] hand-fed by an uneducated young man who signals [to the elephant] in ‘northern language’ with the aid of/using a sharp forked goad…” (kavai muḷ karuviyiṉ vaṭamoḻi payiṟṟik kallā iḷaiñar kavaḷam kaippak (Mullaippāṭṭu vv. 35-36)
Ancient Indian texts talk about the modes of training. Gutierrez quotes “Words that are made soothing for the sake of destroying the elephant’s fear and for quieting the elephant’s anger are ‘upalāpana’ (soothing speech). When he communicates meaning taught to the elephant through action, this verbal direction is known by elephant trainers by the name ‘prajñāpana.’” (“helping one recognize”/indicating). When there is threatening with words for the sake of training/teaching for producing tranquility (sāmajanmaḥ) [in the elephant], the direction is called ‘tarjana’ (threatening/frightening); this is declared by King Soma.” (Mānas. 4.3.586-8)
Founder of the Assam Elephant Foundation, Kaushik Barua was born into a business family in Assam but his family was closely connected to elephants and elephant capture. His paternal grandmother’s family used to be the largest capturers of elephants in Asia and they used to capture elephants to supply to Britishers for the timber industry and, to the forestry personal for protection. For his father it was more of a sport rather than a profession, konwn locally as mela shikhar where one had to go out and lasso an elephant.
As a child growing up, Kaushik had dogs in the house and in their backyard there were elephants and this was when Gauhati was a town in the early 70s. Says Kaushik, “When you are exposed to a certain thing over and over again for months and years and weeks and days and hours. You start learning about that thing. That is how the elephant bug bit me.”
The elephants in his backyard were captive elephants, which would visit his home every monsoon, around April. “They used to come in and stay with us till October. From October onwards the elephant catching season used to start. For my father it was a family tradition. I also did it, but I did not like it. I was born in the transitional period when the new school and old school were transforming and trying to blend in with each other.”
For Kaushik, elephants and dogs were never a separate species. His father was into infrastructure construction involving building of irrigation canals, dams hydropower projects. “We used to be in the thick of the extreme interiors of thick, dense and evergreen forests. Much before vehicles and other transport went in, the first things to move in there were the elephants. As result my relationship with them rekindled, after a break in college.”
Around 1992 - 93 Kaushik started learning about elephants by reading books and observing them and the biggest lessons happened when he was around them. Around that time the government elephant capture operation tender had come out and Kaushik bid for it. “I had captured elephants, but somehow did not like it. Then I took it on myself that these family members of mine were in trouble and so I needed to do something for them. I don't see any difference between elephants and my daughter and my wife or my dogs. They are all family to me. And as it happens when one family member is going down the other family member tries to help.”
So Kaushik started using the ones in his home, to chase wild animals away from the paddy fields. “We used to use these specially trained elephants called Gumkis who would drive the wild herds away into the forests again. So, the devastation is controlled.”
Kaushik believes that human elephant conflict is manageable. “You can't control it but it can keep it at manageable standards. I got in touch with a few veterinarians in South Africa were conducting courses for veterinarians. I told them that I was not a veterinarian, but was interested in their course. They said absolutely fine because they had many ranch owners who have wild animals in their farm who were also attending this course.”
So, in June 2004, Kaushik went to South Africa and spent 90 days there and learnt about capture methods and evacuation methods, where the animal is secured in a way where one knows it is safe yet restrained without injuring itself or the rescue team.
He was engaged with elephant capture and translocation from one national park to another including zebras, lions, Roan antelopes, warthogs. When the Indian Rhino vision 2020 started in 2008, he had done many trans locations of white Rhinos in South Africa. “This was to be the first of its kind, project in India IR 2020, to move rhinos from Kaziranga in to Manas to prevent poaching. They wanted somebody to plan, capture operations and run the logistics and I said I would do it. I started getting involved and with all that in between leopards and tigers came in.”
Over a cup of coffee with Bibhab Talukdar, Chair of the Asian Rhino Specialist group, Kaushik discussed using his dogs for tracking. “I used to do a lot of Schutzhund work where you teach dogs tracking and bite work. Bhibhab said we should do something for Rhinos using dogs. I wanted the best breeds, so we picked up Belgian Malinois which is an amazing dog. It is the same dog species which the US and the United Kingdom special forces use. Now the CRPF Cobra and the NSG uses them. But we were the first to actually use Belgian Malinois for anti poaching work. The first set of dogs were of course imported because India did not have that many dogs. And after that, we started a breeding program where we started training our own dogs.”
Wildlife tourism needs to be more inclusive in terms of animals covered says Kaushik. People want to see the Taj Mahal, then the tiger and in Assam the Rhinos and tea gardens. “Rhinos are, of course, a threatened species. We need to be very careful with them. We have brought them back from a very disastrous situation. At the same time, we also need to save the other species. The elephant is actually responsible for the rhinos and tigers in Kaziranga. Because the elephants are there, the park people can patrol the interiors of the park.”
Kaushik recommends having specific elephant zones and then zones where humans and elephants with a bit of give and take can actually stay together and a complete no elephant zone.