Thursday, 9 July 2015

Jahangir's Elephants

A bridge at the start of the trail, Teknaf Wildlife Reserve.

The Teknaf Peninsula is ruggedly beautiful. With the rise of the rocky range that divides the land strip between the Naf River and the Bay of Bengal it’s impossible not to feel elated, to know that Teknaf is quite the destination.

It’s an environment unique in coastal Bangladesh for hosting wild elephants. It’s really something to consider how the bulky beasts negotiate such uneven terrain. A significant section of the range has been declared a game reserve.

Jahangir Alam, 18, has been working as a guide for 10 years.
To search for the elephants, one could do worse than enlist the assistance of 18-year-old Jahangir Alam, a local and the youngest of eleven siblings, who works as a guide at the Teknaf Wildlife Sanctuary.

Although Jahangir has no training, the sanctuary is his backyard. He’s been guiding tourists since he was 8 years old. Along with income from a brother who went to Malaysia by trawler some years ago, income from guiding helps the family.

“People arrive nearly every day,” he says, “Many ask for me.”

View of the Teknaf Range.

Into the woods...

By Jahangir's estimate there are 30 elephants in the reserve and he commonly sees a family of ten, though pachyderms offer no guarantee of being cooperative for tourists. The best season to see them is winter when they are more active of a daytime.

I ask if the animals are dangerous and he mentions three villagers were trampled to death a few months earlier while defending their paddy. “Elephants are ‘heavy’ dangerous!” he says.

Yet Jahangir insists there’s no risk: elephants are by temperament gentle and he’s often been within five metres without incident. “They don’t harm us if we don’t disturb them.”

It’s quite a trek that follows, into scrubby parched forest initially following valley contours where small bridges ford thirsty streams.

The day is hot, the humidity burdensome and I’m wishing I’d brought water. Even before the climbing begins I’m ignoring discomfort and breathing heavily.

Visitor Centre, Teknaf Wildlife Sanctuary.

Hot. Humid. Sweaty.

Of course we’re hardly the first to set off in search of elephants. Just as nowadays in village and town government tenders, for bridge building, school outfitting or some other task are an appreciable element of local economies, once there were also tenders for elephant catching, in order to domesticate them.

Offering royalties of up to 750 rupees per elephant, according to the Chittagong District Gazetteer, the so-called “kheda” operations, named after the corral in which wild elephants were trapped, were commonly slated for the Hill Tracts and Teknaf in the months of winter.

“Elephants are not like cattle that they can be goaded down to a desired place,” states the Gazetteer, “No force can be applied; they move on their track at their own whims and pleasure.”

A kheda operation would involve up to 100 people, including 50 skilled labourers able to build a camouflaged stockade in the forest in 8 – 12 days. The best sites were at junctions of two or more established elephant tracks, even better if situated in a valley between two peaks. They might wait weeks for elephants to appear.

Boats, fishing nets, low tide on the Naf River... view to the mountains of Myanmar.

The Teknaf Range

Fire lines and loud sounds like gunshots were used to make the elephants “blindly and senselessly” proceed into the trap. Care had to be taken however, because “once scared no earthly force can control the herd.”

Once trapped the elephants would routinely turn on and kill their leader, blamed by the rest of the herd for their fate. However if the herd leader was strong others might die in the course of fighting back. In the panic of the trap baby elephants could be trampled to death.

The trapped elephants would then be starved and given no water for 24 hours to make them “weak, tired and calm.” Then, using mahouts on trained female elephants called “kunkis” one by one the wild elephants would be noosed, legs tied.

“The leader of the trained brigade is always a strong, healthy, powerful and skilled tusker,” reads the Gazetteer; and this male elephant would fight the captured individuals, eventually establishing his claim as the new group leader.

Elephant evidence on hilltop.
A kheda operation in 1965 in nearby Ukhia Upazila netted ten elephants; in the 19th century up to 150 elephants were caught for domestication annually.

As we climb steps of rock and dirt and negotiate uncarved slopes slippery with leaf litter, from heat exhaustion I’m ready to collapse.

Perhaps with greater knowledge of the climate, Bangladeshis, according to Jahangir, rarely seek to reach the hilltops. “Bengalis can’t climb,” he says, “They walk a short distance. But when foreigners come they always go to the top. I take them.”

The lower hills of Teknaf Wildlife Sanctuary.

Yet our situation is reversed. Gasping for air, I’m struggling to look composed while Jahangir climbs the hills as readily as if he was on an escalator at a shopping mall in Dhaka. He is yet to raise a sweat. “We are forest people,” says Jahangir, “We live here.”

Jahangir's one regret is that when foreigners come he has difficulty communicating. “I want to speak more to them but I can’t.” He only had the opportunity to complete study to class 2.

From the first summit the view is impressive. In front the Teknaf range continues with higher, more artistically shaped rocky peaks. There’s little evidence the Bay of Bengal is just beyond them. On the Naf side are sweeping views across the salt fields of the plains to Myanmar’s mountains on the horizon.

Mangroves on the Naf. View to Myanmar.

Along the ridgeline the path is narrow. I wonder if I actually want to meet an elephant up there; and I’m set to ask Jahangir if the animals climb so high when we sight elephant droppings.

But being a hot day the elephants are not so foolish to climb the hills. “They’ll be at the waterfall,” says Jahangir, who’s ready to continue some distance beyond the next hill. Yet without drinking water I decide it’s best to be satisfied with the views for now. We head back.

When I ask Jahangir how much he wants for his guiding, he suggests a rather paltry sum. Greed is certainly not among his faults.

“It’s fun to see the elephants,” he says, describing how when they take dust baths and are lying on the ground it’s sometimes hard to imagine the elephant is even there.

Teknaf Wildlife Sanctuary scenery.

Teknaf Range.

This article is published in The Daily Star, here: In Search of Teknaf's Elephants

Naf River.

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