In conversation with Padma Shri ‘Elephant Doctor’ Kushal Konwar
‘My biggest problem is I do not have a good field worthy vehicle,’ Padma Shri Dr Kushal Konwar
At the outset, let’s talk about your childhood. Please tell us about your parents, your education.
I was born in a small village called Barama in Kamrup district of Assam on March 1, 1961. I did my schooling in my village and my 10+2 from Cotton College. In 1978 I took admission in College of Veterinary Science and did my graduation from there. I did my masters in veterinary surgery and in 1986 I joined as a lecturer in the surgery department. I completed my PhD in 1994.
My mother’s name is Giribala Devi and my father is Late Lonkeshwar Sharma. My mother is a homemaker and my father was in pharmaceutical department. My mother guided me and my father supported me.
What were your childhood interests?
I had an emotional connection with a childhood friend, which was an elephant, Lakshmi. She died of an infection after which I went through a hard time. That incident shook me. Lakshmi was always in the back of my mind. After Lakshmi’s death, I would dream of elephants almost every night.
I did not know that it was going to be my destiny. It has been more than 30 years and every year I handle over 700-800 elephants. I can never get tired of helping these elephants. It brings me immense joy.
What do you think about human-elephant conflict? Can we stop it at all?
We cannot stop it immediately since this has developed over the years. Primarily, the growth of human population is responsible for it. The growing human population has invaded the forest. Things will get worse if we do not take serious measures to cut down human population. There has to be a long term and strict policy for population control. We just go and encroach upon the forests and deny the rights of the animals. It is a competition for space. We must stop growing.
Physical barriers and fences are unlikely to work because elephants are major herbivores. Every mature elephant needs 200-300 kg of grass everyday and equal amount of water for drinking. Forests are getting smaller and smaller day-by-day and habitats are getting degraded. They do not get food inside the forest which affects their behaviour. Hence they come out to sugarcane mazes and paddy fields.
How many elephants have you treated so far?
I deal with rogue elephants. When elephants develop high testosterones, they lose control over themselves and become hostile. They tend to kill people and damage properties. I control these animals by tranquilization. It is a very risky job in our kind of area. I have 139 elephants subdued till today.
What are your suggestions to the villagers to mitigate conflict?
I would request villagers who are prone to such conflicts to not grow crops that invite elephants. There are other crops that do not interest elephants. One can grow those crops instead and stop encroaching forests.
What is your opinion on ‘Plan-Bee’? Do you think it is helpful?
Elephants are very intelligent animals. Bees in eastern India are not that offensive. In South Africa, bees are very potent so the elephants are afraid of them. Elephants do not care much about bees in eastern India. Initially they will get scared but they will soon get adapted to the sound. So this plan to keep elephants away from the track will not work here.
How does climate change affect elephants?
Climate change is happening and it is visible. Elephants represent green earth, so elephants should be there in order for the earth to remain green. Elephants are very important for the expansion of forests. Wherever they deficit, a forest grows. Climate change can be reversed or stopped only by regeneration of forests and elephants can help greatly.
Since you deal with so many elephants every year, do you have proper equipment and vehicle to do your job smoothly?
Wildlife conservation is now a highly technical subject and the veterinary profession can contribute immensely in this. We do not have an institution in India. So I appeal to the authorities to establish at least one institute of wildlife health in India so that we can train the new generation in wildlife healthcare. That will be my greatest achievement if the government can do that.
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 and most importantly a field worthy vehicle for my work. I do not need a lot of fund but just a little bit to get some good diagnostic equipment.
How do you manage the expenses? Do you get help from authorities?
I have received great help from these two agencies - World Wide Fund (WWF) and United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
Funding has never been an issue for me. I get from certain authorities and the rest of it I manage myself.