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Protected Trees, Hungry Trunks

With a Supreme Court ban on logging in place, the workhorse elephant is finding itself chronically unemployed.


SOOTEA, India — Just a few months ago, Bahadur was a thriving worker, helping lumberjacks tote dozens of logs out of the forests of northeast India.

These days, Bahadur is just another unemployed elephant. Instead of carrying logs, Bahadur and his master trudge from door to door, begging for spare change and bananas.

"Never in 35 years has my elephant seen such bad days," said Padmeshwar Doley, standing with his huge pet. "There isn't even any jungle to take him grazing."

Bahadur is one of hundreds of elephants that have gone jobless in the wake of the Indian Supreme Court's ban on commercial logging in the country's seven northeast states. The court imposed the ban four years ago to save the region from ecological disaster. India's northeast, once so heavily forested that headhunters thrived in its woods, has been stripped by a frenzy of clear-cutting.

The ban clobbered the logging industry in the region. Since 1997, most of the people it once employed have gone into other occupations such as construction and road building. The elephants have not been so lucky.

At its peak, the timber industry employed hundreds of the animals to pull log-laden carts over great distances to mills. The lucrative business cemented many a bond between master and beast.

These days, the unemployed elephants can be seen standing on street corners, wandering about town, rummaging for food. They're useless to the erstwhile loggers and expensive to feed; owners can't even give them away.

Laboti, a 22-year-old female elephant, once bored deep into the jungles of Assam state to drag home enough lumber each day to build a house. In a good month, she earned $800 for her owner, Aneshwar Miri. As is the case with the rest of the state's 1,000 registered--or domesticated--elephants, Laboti carries a huge appetite. Each day, the jumbo devours more than 150 pounds of grass, tree bark and her favorite fruit: bananas.

With the logging ban in force, Laboti whiles away her days in the courtyard of her bungalow in the tribal village of Nameri. Every so often, Laboti lumbers down the pathways, providing rides for the village children.

"It wouldn't be fair to ditch the elephant in her bad days," said Miri, who now earns most of his money farming rice.

Just before the ban, Miri turned down a $15,000 offer for Laboti. Now, he said, "We cannot even sell her off--there are no buyers."

Large-scale destruction of this region's woods began around 1980, when members of Assam's indigenous tribes started moving into the virgin forests. In the beginning, the clear-cutting even had a political agenda: Some tribal leaders wanted to clear and settle the land, then declare independence from India. The appetite for wood in the rest of India was enormous, and forest rangers often looked the other way during illegal cutting.

"It was a free-for-all," said Bibhab Talukdar, a green activist in Assam. "Anybody could come in and chop down trees after greasing the palms of the foresters."

Even as domesticated elephants were helping clear the forests, their wild brethren were rampaging through the devastated habitat. Each year, herds of elephants in northeast India stampede through villages and farms. Experts blame the destruction of the elephants' habitat, saying it has forced the animals out into the open.

Each year, a handful of people are killed by crazed elephants. In 1993, more than 50 people were killed during one week in the Assamese district of Sontipur.

"They were so close I could smell them," said 26-year-old Kailash Saura, a plantation worker who saved himself from a stampede recently by diving into a ditch.

With so many of the animals now unemployed, some have even been hired to guard villages by herding away stampeding elephants.

For all the travails befalling the elephants of northeast India, many owners still retain sentimental ties to their oversize pets.

"For generations, our family has been keeping elephants," said Deben Hazarika, owner of two adult animals formerly used in logging. "In those days, it was a question of family honor. It still is, to some extent.

"We cannot even imagine disposing of our prized family possessions. . . ."

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