Till the mid 1990s, Chongkham village, with its 50-odd households, in Arunachal Pradesh’s Changlang district, was one of Asia’s richest. Its roads were unpaved but imported Toyotas and Nissans rode on them; there was even a Mercedes there. Families dwelt in sprawling mansions and bought properties in state capital Itanagar and faraway Kolkata. Each household also owned at least two elephants. Recently, the tusk of Chongkham’s last elephant was stolen, indicating how time reverses everything.
The residents, the majority of them from the Khampti tribe, had used the pachyderms for logging. Thanks to the vast stretches of forests that the people of Chongkham had owned, timber brought in enormous wealth. Most families owned saw mills and plywood factories. But the Supreme Court’s ban on felling trees in 1996 marked Chongkham’s downturn. Logging operations ground to a halt, and though families shifted to other businesses, with many purchasing tea gardens, they had no use for their elephants any longer.
Khamptis’ association with elephants is legendary and dates back hundreds of years—they were famous for their traditional skills in capturing wild elephants and training them in extracting logs from dense forests, ploughing farmlands and even plucking tea leaves. But now they started selling off their jumbos till only Babu, owned by KK Muklom, a businessman who now resides in nearby Miao town, was left. The 29-year-old Babu had long tusks measuring 28 inches each.
Two weeks ago, thieves sawed off Babu’s tusks. The village went into mourning, with residents putting up black flags and observing a fast earlier this week. None has been arrested so far.
Villagers suspect Babu’s mahout’s complicity in the theft. “Someone known to the elephant must have been present when the tusks were being sawed off, or else the elephant would have kicked up a ruckus,” says Nirmal Nath, the vet who examined Babu. Elephants’ tusks do grow back, but at about seven inches a year, and the growth slows down as an elephant crosses 40 years of age. Babu’s owner Muklom plans to retain his ‘tuskless’ elephant.