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India’s elephant girl takes on the herds

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Nirmala walked several miles to lead the herd away from the city

Fourteen-year old Nirmala Toppo has become something of a minor celebrity in the eastern Indian state of Orissa.

In June, panic gripped the industrial city of Rourkela one night when a herd of wild elephants entered residential areas from dense forests nearby.

Nirmala, forest department officials say, acted as a real-life “pied-piper” when she managed to drive the herd back to the forest, much to the relief of the residents.

She walked many miles with the herd, guiding it out of town, in the process getting blisters on her legs which later turned septic.

“The infection is now gone and my wound has almost dried up,” she told BBC Hindi from her hospital bed where her treatment was organised by the local Red Cross Society.

Pitch invasion

State forest department officials sought help from Nirmala, who is originally from the neighbouring state of Jharkhand, when they could not get the elephants to leave the city.

Forest official PK Dhola says: “When the herd entered the city, we tried our best to contain its movement. There were 11 of them, including two calves. We managed to make the herd go into the local football stadium, but we were not sure how we could drive them back to the forest. It was a difficult task.”

Mr Dhola says that was when the department decided to seek Nirmala’s help.

“We knew of a tribal girl who lived in Jharkhand, who talked to elephants and was able to drive them back. We called up her father and she arrived along with some other tribal people from her village.”

The herd was made to go into the local football stadium in Rourkela

The state government paid the girl for her services, he added.

Nirmala says she talks to the herd in her local tribal dialect – Mundaari – and persuades the animals to “return to where they belong”.

“First I pray and then talk to the herd. They understand what I say. I tell them this is not your home. You should return where you belong,” says Nirmala who is a Roman Catholic.

Her mother, she says, was killed by wild elephants and that was when she decided to learn the technique to drive them away.

In her work, she is assisted by her father and a group of boys from her village.

“We surround the herd. Then I go near them and pray and talk to them.”

‘Lady Tarzan’

But some are not convinced by Nirmala’s methods.

However, others explain such behaviour by saying that tribal people and elephants – or for that matter, other wild animals – have been cohabiting in the forests for ages.

Niel Justin Beck, a member of the district council in Jharkhand’s Simdega area, where Nirmala comes from, says due to their co-existence with the wild animals, the tribal people know how to deal with them.

“In Jharkhand, we call Nirmala a lady Tarzan. Whenever marauding elephants enter a village or destroys crops, the local forest department officials never turn up.

“It is then that the villagers approach Nirmala for help. And she is able to successfully drive away the herd after talking to them.”

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Attacks prompt Nepal to cap wildlife growth

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Attacks by wild animals have caused lives and property to be lost

Officials in Nepal have said they will now have to put a cap on the growth of wildlife including endangered species like tigers and rhinos.

They say it is a result of significant increase in loss of human lives from attacks by wild animals.

The problem is especially acute in buffer zones between human settlements and national parks.

In recent years, Nepal has developed a successful protection programme for many endangered species.

The Bardiya National Park in the west now has more than 80 elephants, almost 10 times as many as there were in the 1990s.

In the Himalayas, the numbers of endangered species like snow leopards and red pandas have been growing as well.

And the country has nearly 24% of its land area as protected areas, including national parks, conservation areas and wildlife reserves.

With all these achievements in nature conservation, however, Nepal has also witnessed a rising number of human deaths and property losses because of wildlife.

In the last five years, more than 80 people have been killed by wild elephants while 17 of the animals died in retaliatory killings, according to forest ministry officials.

Elephant protest

Last month, local people in Chitwan, southern Nepal, staged a strike and demanded that a rogue elephant be killed after it had taken the lives of three people.

A few months ago, a leopard in western Nepal caused terror as it killed more than a dozen people within a matter of weeks.

In eastern Nepal, herds of wild elephants continue to rampage, demolishing human settlements and raiding crops.

National park boundaries are no barrier to animal movement

Meanwhile, common leopards are increasingly attacking children and livestock in the hilly region.

Further north, in the trans-Himalayan region, locals continue to complain about snow leopards preying on their livestock.

Although forest ministry officials are yet to compile the latest data on these losses, they do admit that such incidents have gone up remarkably.

“Before, we used to record about 30 human deaths because of wildlife attacks annually but in the past few years the figure appears to have risen significantly,” said Forest Ministry spokesman Krishna Acharya who, until recently, headed Nepal’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation.

He added: “The time has now come for us to determine how many such wildlife species we can have in our protected areas.”

WWF’s Nepal country director, Anil Manandhar, said the problem had become quite serious.

“This is now something that could become the biggest threat and setback for Nepal’s success in wildlife conservation,” he explained.

Buffer zones

Wildlife experts say human settlements known as buffer zones around national parks have become flashpoints for human-wildlife encounters.

“The numbers of rhinos and tigers are increasing in the national park and they are moving out in search of food and space. Meanwhile, the increasing human population needs more of the natural resources available, and that competition creates conflict,” said Mr Acharya.

Most of Nepal’s national parks and protected areas are either in the Himalayan region or in the Tarai area, the southern plain land that border India.

Yet, wildlife-related loss of lives and properties are also increasingly being seen in the mid-hill region, geographically located between the Himalayas and Tarai plain land.

Rhino numbers in Chitwan National Park have shot up in recent years

Conservationists point at the growing number of attacks on children and livestock by common leopards because this region has seen huge success in community forestry.

“We have been hearing complaints from farmers that community forests have more wildlife than in some national parks and therefore they are suffering losses of lives and properties,” said Yam Bahadur Malla, country director for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Nepal.

He also suggested it was necessary to scientifically demarcate the boundaries of national parks, as some species involved in the attacks were sometimes found outside the existing boundaries.

Forest ministry officials, however, said the chances of expanding existing protected areas were very slim because Nepal had already made huge swathes of land available for nature conservation.

Mr Acharya said the details of plans to limit wildlife growth were yet to be worked out but he added that one of the ideas would be to relocate some of the wildlife species.

“We have listed nine such species that can be trans-located from where there are quite many of them to where there are very few and such species include animals involved in conflicts with humans,” he said.

Mr Acharya also hinted that Nepal will now not commit to protect more wildlife than the amount its protected areas could sustain.

“For instance, we have said we will double the number of tigers to 250. But as we cannot expand our protected areas, we will not be able to commit more than that,” he said.

“Nor can we add new conservation areas.”

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Baby Brother to the Rescue

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Apparently…

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This is real

Elephants… Overweight?

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You don’t often associate elephants with obesity.

Reading an article on BBC News this morning, I was surprised to find that elephants can be obese.

Obese elephants given slimming help

Authorities are on a drive to help the animals lose weight

Authorities in India are being presented with an massive task: managing the weight of obese elephants kept in temples.

In parts of India, elephants are kept in temples for religious reasons – taking part in ceremonies and festivals.

Efforts are on in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu to get these over-pampered tusked animals to slim down, officials have told the BBC.

Almost all the elephants kept in temples in the state have been found to be obese.

Accordingly, officials are temple officials are reconfiguring the diets of their temple elephants on the advice of veterinary surgeons.

“The female temple elephant – 15 year-old Parvathi – is overweight by 500kg and efforts are on to reduce it,” said Pon Jayaraman, executive officer of the Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple told the BBC Tamil service.

Another elephant in the Kallazagar Temple weighs 700kg more than the optimum for its age, according to Ravindran, the “Mahout” – or custodian – of the 48-year-old female elephant -Madhuravalli.

But veterinary surgeons point out that obesity and captivity go hand in hand.

Elephants eat up to 200 different varieties of food in the jungle, including fruits, flowers, roots and branches, but in captivity their diets often lack variety.

The experts also point out that the elephants in the wilderness are never exposed to foods such as rice, millets, salt and jaggery (an unrefined sugar set into blocks).

Uphill trek

Wild elephants wander, trek uphill, cross streams and walk on a variety of terrain. They also compete with other wild animals for resources.

A senior forest veterinary officer in the state observed: “In captivity, elephants eat constantly, and that coupled with lack of exercise makes the animals obese.”

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