In a rare incident of "drunken frenzy", a herd of nearly 70 wild elephants from Dalma sanctuary in Jharkhand ransacked tribal liquor dens and left three persons dead during four days in the course of their continuing migration to Odisha via West Bengal.
Known for their love for local country-made brew like Mahuli and Handia, the jumbos would pick up liquor pots with their trunks, gulp down the drink and make merry at the cost of villagers. In their search for earthen liquor pots, the herd smashed more than 30 houses in Odisha and killed one person at Bhalubasa village near Midnapore and two in Odisha near Mayurbhanj.
What followed later had the forest officials from Odisha tear their hair. Unable to put up with their "hang-over, the inebriated elephants" just dozed off on the border areas of Odisha covering the forest ranges of Betnoti and Rasgobindpur under Baripada forest division of the State.
"The celebrations of Prathama Ashtami (a local festival) are on in full swing across the tribal-dominated border areas overlapping the States of Jharkhand (left), Odisha and West Bengal", he said. "That is why the tribal peoples had stored a lot of liquor," he added.
Widely found throughout North India, Mahua is a mainstay of rural and tribal livelihood and is used for its fruit, flowers, and wood. The tree is so useful that the tribal people of India consider it to be sacred.
The flowers (left) of the Mahua are exceptionally sweet, and are a high quality source of sugar for honey bees and for making a traditional alcohol that is used in ritual ceremonies. Mahuli or country-made liquor brewed from the flowers of Mahua tree and Handia, a drink from fermented rice, are essential components of revelry in the region. This herd of about 70 elephants could not have it better when it crossed the country-made liquor dens at Bhalubasha in West Bengal.
According to B Padhi and BK Mohanty, Range officers, Betnoti and Rasgobindpur, which are the worst hit by the jumbo menace, "the situation became alarming, when these rampaging elephants began to fall asleep hither and thither, throwing local life completely haywire."
However, these helpless officials had no choice but to simply wait for their migration. "We are relieved that the herd has slowly begun drifting out", they said.
Expressing concern, Panda said during the past one month at least 85-90 houses have been damaged, of which 70-75 per cent have been due to the country-made liquor. "These herds are also very fond of local variety of paddy and wheat, in sharp contrast they don't touch the high yield type", he pointed out. The department is presently assessing the extent of damage caused by the herds and accordingly compensation would be paid.
Elephant experts say such incidents are becoming more common. With pristine forest increasingly rare, especially in the area where this latest incident occurred, Indian elephants no longer avoid contact with humans, said Dr Amirtharaj Williams, Asian rhino and elephant program coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund. "These herds are effectively semi-urbanized. There are elephants who are getting a taste for food that humans prepare because it is tastier, stronger-smelling and often more nutritious and that includes rice- or molasses-based drinks. Some go looking for it."
Around 400 people are killed each year by elephants in India and nearly a million hectares of farmland damaged. Around 100 elephants are killed by villagers each year.
India's booming population and economic growth have placed the historic grazing lands of elephants under enormous pressure. To avoid exhausting fodder in one area, the herds migrate. Attempts to create safe corridors for the animals' travel have foundered on bureaucratic sloth and lack of enforcement.
Latest estimates put India's elephant population at around 21,000 – the largest in Asia. About half of these are found in north-eastern states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya (see map at left).
The Guardian, "Elephants on drunken rampage kill three people", accessed December 6, 2010
NY Daily News, "Drunk elephant herd goes on deadly rampage after getting hold of fermented rice drink", accessed December 6, 2010
The Pioneer, "High in spirits, tuskers make merry, run amok", by Moushumi Basu, accessed December 6, 2010