Letter from Assam — From the August 2013 issue

The Homeless Herd

An Indian village battles an elephant invasion

The men of Nohotia hustled along the top of a twenty-foot earthen embankment and peered across a darkening floodplain of cabbages, eggplants, and mustard flowers at the gigantic shapes emerging from the line of trees that marked the edge of the Brahmaputra River. Bleary-eyed men with hand axes sat beside small fires, splintering tree trunks into the night’s fuel. A flaming tire hung from a tree, roaring and sputtering. In the village, women in bamboo houses simmered fish curries to feed the men on the battlements. Two weak spotlights swept the fields. The embankment had been built to hold back the Brahmaputra during its annual flood, but now it was the last line of defense against the elephants.

As the color drained from the fields and a white mist gathered, the air filled with low rumbles and the treetops began to sway and thrash. “It’s like a storm coming,” said Dhruba Das, a pensive, chain-smoking thirty-two-year-old specialist in mitigating human-elephant conflict (HEC).

The villagers shouted in Assamese and banged on dhols, two-sided drums worn around the neck, trying to make us sound bigger and more numerous than we were. Some were talking into banged-up cell phones, which are cheap and ubiquitous in rural India. I trained my headlamp into the gloom. The sounds got closer. Brittle rice stalks crunched. Banana trees cracked and snapped. There was a snort, then a shriek like a giant screw being driven into a board.

A gunshot sounded from a hundred yards down the embankment. Three men in khaki uniforms stepped into the firelight near me, working the bolts on ancient rifles. Holding the guns at their hips and pointing low over the trees, they fired off a few rounds.

There was a moment of quiet. We held our breath. Then a Mesozoic roar ripped through the night, a noise I didn’t know any animal could make.

“They are frustrated,” said Dhruba. “They don’t like the gunshots.”

“What happens now?” I asked.

“They will wait a few hours, then try again. They are very patient. And they know that people can’t keep up this kind of thing for too long.”

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’s most recent book is Shadows on the Gulf: A Journey through Our Last Great Wetland. His article “Fast Fish, Loose Fish” appeared in the May 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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October 2019