Stories from the Field

Author Janie Chodosh recently visited with one of our India Elephants on the Line partners, Dr. K.K. Sarma, a veterinarian who works with wild and captive Asian elephants. Dr. Sarma often is called upon to help elephants in distress. Ms. Chodosh submitted the following feature, which includes a story of an elephant in distress in an Udalguri District tea estate in Assam, India.

The Man Who Speaks for the Elephants by Janie Chodosh

“I live for the elephants. Without the elephants I am nobody.” -Dr. Kushal Konwar Sarma

Imagine this: You are at treating a Labrador retriever in your busy veterinarian clinic when the phone rings. A panicked caller tells you that a ten-foot, eight thousand pound bull elephant in musth (think of musth as a male elephant in a really bad mood, which makes him do things like destroy trucks, knock down trees, and occasionally hurt people) has come into a nearby village. The caller wants to know if you will come and help.
For many, if not most, people (myself included) the idea of facing down an irritated, four ton animal is something that would make them run the other way! Not so for Dr. Kushal Konwar Sarma. Dr. Sarma has been capturing and treating rogue elephants (the ones whose bad moods have gotten out of hand) for thirty years. In fact, he has treated 125 just such elephants— the world’s record.

Like the Lorax, the storybook creature who speaks for the trees, Dr. Sarma speaks for the elephants. When he attends international conferences on elephant conservation, researchers introduce the organizations for which they work, such as the World Wildlife Fund. When it is Dr. Sarma’s turn to introduce his employer, he says that he works for the elephants.

Although his credentials are as the head of the Department of Surgery and Radiology at the College of Veterinary Science in Guwahati, India, he is more than a vet. Dr. Sarma is an activist, an educator, an advocate, at times a mother to an orphaned elephant calf, a leader, an adventurer, and a writer. He has a deep passion and desire to protect not just elephants, but the land upon which they depend. “Without forests, we go down, too,” he told me, this April when he visited the United States for the first time and I had the chance to meet him.

Capturing and treating a rogue elephant is a physically demanding task, but at age fifty-seven, Dr. Sarma has the energy for it. With his deep brown eyes, thick mustache, and baseball cap, there is a youthful vigor to the elephant doctor who says that in his thirty-year career he has never taken off a Saturday or a Sunday. And, when after a full day of interviews, I asked him if he was tired and needed a break, he replied, “With elephants, I never get tired.”

Dr. Sarma still remembers the first rogue he treated, a captive elephant called Manik that had escaped his mahout, or handler. Until the day, thirty years ago, that Dr. Sarma tracked and treated Manik, there had been no procedure for how to capture these angry bulls. (It is, in fact, not anger in the human sense of the word that causes musth in a bull elephant, but rather a rise in testosterone, a hormone produced primarily in males.)

It is not just captive elephants Dr. Sarma cares for, but wild ones too. One story that stands out for me is that of a young wild tusker that had been electrocuted at a tea plantation. As Dr. Sarma tells it, the forest warden for that district called him at six in the morning to say that an elephant had been electrocuted. Since the location of the incident was far from Dr. Sarma’s office, it took him several hours to arrive.

By the time Dr. Sarma finally got to the scene, some two thousand people had gathered to see what was happening. People in India love elephants, and Dr. Sarma felt great pressure to save the animal. The situation, however, seemed hopeless. The local vet told Dr. Sarma there was nothing they could do. To add to the pressure of the human audience, a herd of elephants stood in the forest about 200 meters away, and they too, were watching!

With an animal of this size lying on the ground, thrashing its massive limbs in pain, it was not easy for Dr. Sarma to to get close enough to inspect the creature and see how he, the elephant doctor, could help. Dr. Sarma solved the problem by planting poles in the ground around the elephant to keep him still. With the animal subdued, Dr. Sarma moved in and got hold of its ear. Imagine an elephant’s ears and all those folds and ridges in its skin. Those folds and ridges are veins and arteries—blood vessels—an ideal route to inject life-saving medicine. For those readers who like to know such things, the medicines Dr. Sarma injected were balanced electrolyte solution, antihistamines, corticosteroids, calcium borogluconate, and inorganic phosphorous. After Dr. Sarma gave the medicines, the elephant seemed more comfortable, but the real problem had just begun! How was he to get an elephant that was weak, dehydrated, and exhausted, to his feet? The solution? A forklift.

Dr. Sarma convinced a terrified local forklift driver to help him, and he got into the cab with the driver. With a lot of effort and delicate maneuvering the two men were able to help the elephant to his feet. After a glance in Dr. Sarma’s direction, a glance that Dr. Sarma said was all the payment he needed, the elephant turned and wandered away into the forest.

Although Dr. Sarma could make a lot more money working full time with dogs and cats in an air-conditioned office, it is not money that motivates him. Dr. Sarma’s heart is with the forest, with the land, with the people, and most of all, with the elephants.

After three days spent talking to Dr. Sarma, I got the picture of a man who does not require much to be happy, yet at the same time, a man who requires everything. Dr. Sarma requires a future in which we as humanity find out best selves and protect the last of the greatest creatures on earth.

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