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Remembering Rabha da

When I first attached myself to the Amaribari forest range to understand how people and elephants move in this landscape, it was through the peaceful and protective eyes of Rabha da. In early September a few years ago, a very skittish and unpredictable young elephant was moving through the tea estate complex of Sonitpur. He had broken a house and a school in search of grain. As always, the Amaribari forest department was on it to direct it away from humans towards Sonai Rupai WLS. Rabha da put on his glasses and his khaki gear — he was always in uniform in the field. After this, he put on his black tactical vest - one that had many pockets and then picked up his trusted single-barrelled gun. He then slung a torch snugly around his chest, rechecked all the pockets and hopped into the vehicle, ready to go.

We got off the Bolero pick-up in the Dhulapadung TE and made our way towards the elephant that was in the centre of a large patch of tea. He opened a bottle of water, took a few sips and put it into this tactical vest. Soon, the elephant was in sight. I stayed well behind him — unsure of how they deal with this. He instinctively and smoothly gave a loud ‘hurrrr’ call which the elephant seemed to understand very well — for it immediately responded by turning his head around looking at us, and then beginning a walk in the opposite direction. 

I learnt over the course of many such experiences spanning several years that individual elephants recognized Rabha da’s voice and were compliant almost only to him. The elephant picked up pace and began crisscrossing the landscape. We followed. The lowering of the sun on the horizon had no effect on the 39-degree heat and super-humid, completely saturated air. Rabha da also picked up pace and nudged the elephant away from the nearby labour lines with his booming voice and bursting an odd cracker.

Soon, the elephant got the message and stepped down from the ghat at Tarajuli TE crossing the Gabhuru River, into the forests of Sonai Rupai. Rabha da stopped and wrung the bandana and shirt that he was wearing - leading to an unending stream of sweat. This sweltering heat seemed not to affect him at all. Looking at me look at him and at our drenched shirts, he smiled and said, “this is our work!”, and laughed joyfully and contently. 

Over the years, his thorough understanding of the region and how elephants move through the landscape has been the crux of the forest department’s strategy to reduce these conflicts. Anybody who worked on conservation in the region would tap into Rabha da’s expertise — railway officials trying to reduce elephant accidents on tracks, scientists studying elephant ecology, thousands of local people living in these tea estates calling him to know about the elephants whereabouts on a daily basis. He was the go-to man. His personality comprising humility and dogged persistence shone through, irrespective of how strenuous the conditions were.

Combined with his thorough seriousness about work, he also had a great sense of humour — very often when we would be waiting for elephants to emerge from a thicket, he too would engage in our silly banter and laugh. 

Despite his deep familiarity and confidence, or rather because of it, he never took uncalculated risks when dealing with elephants. He knew which parts of these tea estates had steep escarpments from where you could closely look at, and direct elephants away without putting yourself at risk - especially around the notoriously convoluted low-lying hulas of Addabarie TE, a favourite of elephants. He was a leader that led from the front, in all our times on the field. 

What was most striking about working with Rabha da was to see him always at ease, at peace. Even when he was in charge of elephant drives, where there were mobs and crowds of hundreds of people, many of whom were inebriated, tens of elephants scattered across a tea estate, crackers, pipas, people screaming and shouting — he was calm but quick. With his eyes on what needed to be done, he knew where to place whom and how to manage this chaotic situation. These field days would evolve into long field nights, tramping through mucky paddy fields till dawn.

When we were radio-collaring elephants in the tea estates of Sonitpur, he was part of the core team responsible for identifying a potential herd of elephants, positioning the team, and creating the strategy. In this attempt, we successfully managed to dart and sedate a female elephant. However, before we could approach her, an old friend of Rabha da, Ramu the wild tusker who resided in these parts appeared on the scene. Ramu nudged the female away into a densely forested hula. Knowing that we needed to follow them to successfully collar her — Rabha da quickly hopped onto a captive elephant and we descended down a steep, slippery slope into a three-feet-deep swamp. The captive elephants had a tough time navigating it, and we decided to call the operation off as this was too unsafe for us to be in, especially with a large angry tusker around. However, a new challenge cropped up. The captive elephants on whom we were seated found it extremely difficult to climb up the slope that we had come down because their heavy footsteps had made the already slick muck into a mudslide. Rabha da, as unfazed as always - calmly directed them to walk along the swamp for a distance - a very unintuitive idea as it took us deeper into unknown territory. Then, amidst the dense bamboo thickets, he pointed out a small hathidandi. A path used by elephants. To us, this barely seemed like something used by a dog — but deferring to his judgement we nudged the elephants up that small gap and found it opening up in a few metres. In no time, we were back to safety. Throughout this project, Rabha da was our guardian angel looking out for, and making sure that the team was safe. He was instrumental in the successful collaring of Tara and Phul, two elephants who have contributed greatly to our understanding of their species.

I can say with certainty that every person who has entered the Amaribari forest range office has been the recipient of Rabha da’s unassuming smile and soft eyes glinting behind those glasses. I cannot help but look back at the many tropical hot days and cold winter nights in the shadows of the hills of Arunachal and the shining stars — hearing the deep rumbles of elephants in Gautemala grass patches in tea estates. Rabha da’s loss is very heavy on our hearts, and I hope that he is smiling down from the happy grazing grounds to a region that he loved so much. A huge personal loss to me, and to this land.

Mr Jatin Tanti, a local resident, Mr Biren Rabha and Mr Koleshwar Boro both working with the Assam Forest Department lost their lives to a wild elephant on 28 April 2024. 

Arjun Kamdar

29th April 2024


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I'm a wildlife conservation scientist working on the link between economics, ecology, and sociology. 

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