Hailing from Assam, Dr Kushal Konwar Sarma is the Head of the Department of Surgery, College of Veterinary Science, AAU, Khanapara. Widely known as ‘Elephant Doctor’, he was recently awarded the 2019 Padma Shri Award by the Government of India for his outstanding contribution in the field of wildlife treatment and Asian Elephant conservation. According to reports, Dr Sarma has travelled around 5 lakh kilometres, mostly in the jungles of Assam, and has spent countless weekends, treating and taming nearly 10,000 elephants.
How do you think this award will boost the work you are involved in?
I am blessed and honoured to be bestowed the Padma Shri award; it was unexpected. This award has given a big push to my work, encouraging me to take up more elephant conservation work. It has, in a sense, increased my responsibility towards elephants. I hope that this honour will also inspire more people to work on elephant conservation, or wildlife conservation in general.
How and when did you start working with elephants in Assam? How many elephants have you helped till date?
Since my childhood, I had an emotional connection with elephants. We had an elephant named Lakshmi at our home with whom I used to play around. When I reached high school, she died of an infection. I was shaken by her death. I would dream of elephants almost every night. That time, I did not know that elephants were going to become part of my destiny.
After completing higher secondary from Cotton College, I took admission in the College of Veterinary Science. After graduating, I pursued masters in veterinary surgery. That was when I came across elephants once again, after all those years. Treating elephants was part of our curriculum, and my past bond with Lakshmi made me more dedicated towards treating them. It has been more than 30 years now, and every year, I handle over 700-800 elephants. I never tire of helping elephants. It actually brings me immense joy.
Share a little about treating elephants in the forests, and the challenges you have to face?
Challenges for treating elephants vary from place to place. Many people think that anyone can tranquilize an elephant. But it is the job of a theoretically skilled and sound person. My biggest problem right now is that I do not have a good field-worthy vehicle for wildlife programmes. It will be really helpful if I get some funding for the same. Also, when you are working on wildlife, technical challenges are common. But personally, I don’t think it is a very big challenge. Educating people about elephant behaviour is the newest challenge that we have come across.
You spend your weekends treating elephants. How do you balance professional commitments and personal life?
On weekdays, I need to be present at the department of my college, and so, on weekends, I along with my team, spend in the service of elephants, either sick or those gone rogue across Assam. I have also travelled across East India to look after elephants in different forests and parks, which come under the administrative authority of different State governments. To be honest, sometimes it gets tough to manage both. But I don’t like to compromise with my professional duties, and I don’t mind spending most of my holidays helping and caring for elephants in the fields.
Your thoughts on the man-elephant conflict in Assam? What do you think will help to minimize the conflict?
Man-elephant conflict cannot be stopped immediately, since the issue has developed over many years in Assam. Primarily, I think the growth of human population is responsible for the same. The growing human population has invaded the forest. Things will get worse if we do not take serious measures to stop forest invasion in Assam, and other states in the Northeast.
Humans just go and encroach upon forests, and deny animals their rights to the land. Right now, it is a competition for space. Physical barriers and fences are unlikely to work against elephants as they are major herbivores. People need to understand that every mature elephant needs 200-300 kg of grass every day and equal amounts of water to thrive. Since the forests are getting smaller and smaller day-by-day, they do not get enough food inside the forest, which affects their behaviour and forces them to come out to sugarcane mazes and paddy fields, looking for food. We have to stop expansion that come at the cost of destroying wildlife habitats.
Can you share a little about your ongoing projects?
I am directly or indirectly involved with many projects relating to veterinary. As a faculty of the college, we have to work on many sponsored projects of the Veterinary College. Also, I am working with many NGOs in the region who work on man-elephant conflicts. Some of my ongoing projects are currently operational with the Corbett Foundation in Kaziranga. In addition to that, I have some projects lined up with the two agencies namely World Wide Fund (WWF) and United States Fish and Wildlife Service. These organisations have helped me with funding many times. I make use of funds allotted by the authorities of these organisations, and combine with funds from my own pocket to run projects successfully.
Wildlife conservation is a highly technical subject, and the veterinary profession can contribute immensely to the same. But, we do not have an institution in India. I appeal to the authorities to establish at least one institute of wildlife health in India, so that we can train the new generation. If the government can do that, it will be my greatest achievement.
By Manjum Mahanta
This feature was first published in Eclectic Northeast March 2020 issue