While the science around elephant individuality and personality are emerging, there are exceptional individual elephants significantly modifying their behaviour and making a life for themselves alongside humans. This is the story of Ganesh and his friends in the Narengi Army cantonment in Assam, North East India.
Asian elephants thrive in India not merely because they are protected, but because significant sections of human society regard them as fellow-beings, or incarnations of Lord Ganesh, allowing a coexistence culture to persist. It is difficult to imagine these magnificent creatures inhabiting a landscape entirely dominated by humans. However, at the edge of Guwahati, a bustling city with a 1.2 million and growing human population, in northeast India a group of young bulls have adapted to living in and around the Narengi Army cantonment, amidst a sea of human activity.
Over the last century, this landscape has rapidly changed, displacing elephants as it was urbanised. But over the last few years, elephants have begun to recolonise their old habitats, despite all the human modification. The Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary remains protected, creating a block of natural habitat for elephants to shelter in, amidst a sea of human settlements, agriculture, urban infrastructure, industrial activity, and an army cantonment! The story of the elephants here is one of both challenges and successes, highlighting the delicate balance between human development and wildlife conservation.
The cantonment area is shown as a marked zone on the map, bordered on the west by Guwahati City and on the north and south by the Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary
The most well known of these elephants is a young adult male, fondly named “Ganesh” by the locals. He’s been radio collared and closely monitored by researchers and the Assam Forest Department, who know him reasonably well!
The most notable trait is his daily movement within and interaction with the Army Cantonment area. Unlike most elephants who attempt the occasional crop raid in agricultural fields, he specialises in raiding fruits and vegetables from the various army canteens within the cantonment. He has been observed feeding on a sack of stinking onions, which is rare for elephants who are usually very finicky feeders!
He routinely walks around busy streets, investigating bikes and cars - almost checking out the newest models. He even picked up a helmet once and tried to eat it - either mistaking it for a fruit, or trying to enjoy the salt from someone’s sweaty head!
Ganesh, also locally known as Maharaj by a few communities, one day entered the busiest parts of Guwahati city, the G.S. Road, but even in such times he has always been calm and very rarely shows bystanders any aggression. Ganesh is often seen on the golf course within the cantonment area, grazing on the fruit trees and flora; when he exhausts these, he heads towards the kitchen, sometimes chasing out the cooks and stealing bags of flour or grains. He was once seen on the basketball court playing with a basketball, and in a children's park playing with car-tyre swings pacing back and forth between them and kicking the swings with his back legs while trumpeting enthusiastically.
Ganesh has ventured into an army school and even a hospital, casually wandering around the corridors for about an hour. It was a strange sight - even captive elephants are rarely seen walking around inside tile-floored and well maintained polished buildings, let alone a wild one!
Strangest perhaps, was how he crouched to exit the school building. Crouching is quite uncommon among wild elephants as this could put an unusual amount of pressure on their internal organs. “Optimal Foraging Theory” (Sukumar 1990) suggests that elephants will take greater risks to get more nutritious food (such as food crops or even stinking onions!) and meet their daily requirements in a few hours of feeding, rather than spending 14-18 hours feeding on lower nutrition food in the forests. But at the same time, this behaviour is not necessarily shown by all elephants, but is more related to individual idiosyncrasies (Srinivasiah et al 2012). All of the research so far has been more in agricultural landscapes, but understanding how individual elephants adapt to urban or semi-urban areas is going to be an interesting and important area of research in the years to come.
The perceptions of local people towards cantonment elephants - particularly the fruit and vegetable sellers and Ganesh - is interesting. A love-hate with ups and downs that is typical of most relationships! Some vendors adore him and enjoy their interactions with him, evident from their numerous social media posts immediately after the interactions! But others fear him, and routinely call the forest department to chase him back into the forests. Elephants living close to or within populated areas are never going to be simple, and managers always have to play a careful balancing act.
Ganesh in the cantonment, without the usual crowd of people around him!
While Ganesh’s intrusions are exceptional, all around the city of Guwahati (and perhaps many parts of the country), garbage dumps are an elephantine problem! These are usually at the periphery of human settlements, encroaching into elephant habitats. They naturally attract elephants to human habitation, and increase human-elephant interactions putting both people and elephants in greater danger. Good waste management and disposal are therefore vital in reducing negative human-elephant interactions.
Engaging with the local community is a key part of managing these interactions. In Ganesh’s case there is regular communication and cooperation between the forest department, locals and the army officials. This is vital to manage these individual elephants and their interactions with people in a relatively stable state. It is vital to ensure local community participation is a key part of managing all human-elephant shared landscapes.
While Ganesh's case is undoubtedly unique, there are such “urban” and highly habituated elephants in multiple locations around India - Ramlal in South Bengal, Padappaya in Central Kerala, Bharathan in the Nilgiris (Tamil Nadu). They seem to be adapting to living alongside people relatively peacefully. Having access to a large pool of resources created by humans, while also not jeopardising the long term prospects of staying in the landscape. They almost never attack people and avoid getting captured since there is minimal threat to human lives. There is very little formal research into this area, but we hope this will change soon!
An almost rare sight of Ganesh feeding on natural vegetation within the Cantonment area
By Seema Lokhandwala and Tarsh Thekaekara.