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Recession for Elephants

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Pensioners at the Andaman Islands get Rs 3,000 worth of foodstuff, but joblessness is rising.

In the Andaman Islands, there are three categories of elephants—employed, unemployed and pensioners. If the elephant is unemployed and kills two people, you shoot it down. But if it is employed, it continues in government service.  

Earlier, many elephants were employed in timber companies. After the Supreme Court banned timber export from the islands, felling operations reduced drastically and elephant unemployment rates shot up. Almost all elephants were from Bihar and the Northeast, but post-joblessness, no one wants to take them back. Surendra Varma, Research Officer with the Asian Nature Conservation Foundation, estimates the elephant population to be 98. While most are jobless, the others mostly work for the government’s forest felling operations and like all government servants, have the same retirement age, 60. Post this age, they receive a monthly pension of Rs 3,000 worth of foodstuff. 

In Mayabunder, a town in North Andaman, 16 elephants work for the Forest Department. Of these, six are in Austin Camp 2. Dhanimala, at 58, is the oldest elephant here. She is quite weak, and the vet has ordered the camp officer to give her a light workload. Sanjeev, Dhanimala’s colleague, is a robust 37-year-old male elephant. He has killed two labourers, but his reputation as a diligent worker has prevented officials from sacking him. “He doesn’t like drunk people or people abusing him,” explains Biswas, a forest ranger. Sanjeev also chased a labourer for hours after a burning beedi was thrown at him. Not all male elephants enjoy such impunity. In 2007, local newspapers reported how an unemployed elephant on heat was brought down by more than 60 bullets, after he killed two people on Rutland Island.

At night, females are left for free grazing, while the males are put in a shelter since they tend to be rebellious and wander over long distances. A government vet regularly checks on all elephants. Females, he says, make difficult patients. They refuse to get their body temperature taken from their derriere.

For the forest camp officers, these elephants have personalities as distinct as human beings. The only child, eight-year-old Rani, constantly plays ball with bits of wood.