Jharkhand girl Nirmala Topno, 16, says she understands elephants and they understand her. Residents of Odisha's steel city Rourkela, nearly 450 northwest of capital Bhubaneswar, saw this unique bond play out before their eyes last week.
Nirmala Topno and her team. (Uttam Kumar Pal/HT)
Nirmala successfully steered a herd of 11 wild elephants that had ventured into the city, which houses SAIL's Rourkela Steel Plant, and created a flutter into the Saranda forest nearby.
She had 11 team members for help, but people who saw her at work said she was the lead player and her tools were: patience, courage and just a mashaal (flame torch).
The elephants from Saranda had been wandering around the edges of the city for the last couple of months. Last Thursday, the herd of six females, two males and three calves made its way to a hillock uncomfortably close to the steel township.
GRASS IS GREENER IN THE STADIUM: The six females, two males and three calves stick together. (Uttam Kumar Pal/HT)
Excited locals began feeding the herd jackfruits and trudged up the hillock to leave water, encouraged by the friendly nature of the elephants.
The forest department, however, realised it had an elephantine problem on hand. They tried driving the herd away, but failed. Friday saw the herd stay put on the hillock.
On Saturday, however, the elephants marched to Birsa Chowk, the heart of the city. Panic-stricken auto drivers and fruit sellers in the area alerted the police, who sounded out forest officials.
The elephants spotted the grassy patch of Birsa Munda Stadium nearby inviting and trooped in. As luck would have it, they stayed inside the stadium even as the authorities began planning their exit route. By some accounts, they were confined.
JACKFRUITS WENT UP THE HILL: Locals carry food up the hillock that the herd made its home for two days before marching into the heart of the city. (Uttam Kumar Pal/HT)
Excitement gripped the town and thousands gathered outside the stadium, feverishly clicking pictures.
THE GIRL WHO TALKS TO ELEPHANTS: Nirmala Topno after successfully steering the elephants into Saranda forest. (Uttam Kumar Pal/HT)
Aware of Nirmala's exploits, forest officials decided it was time to rope her in. Nirmala and her team, residents of Siharjor in Jharkhand's Simdega district, barely 30 km from Rourkela, arrived and planned a late night operation.
With Odia news channels providing wide coverage through the day, hundreds of enthusiastic locals too wanted to be a part of the drive that quickly acquired the unofficial tag of "Operation Gajaraj".
"This became a problem," Nirmala later told freelance photojournalist Uttam Kumar Pal, who diligently tracked the high drama triggered by the elephants.
"We began operation around 11.40pm on Saturday and managed to steer the elephants away from the city, but the presence of locals scared and scattered the animals."
The nightlong operation failed after the elephants gathered their wits around 4am and went back to the hillock. Back to square one for the forest department.
Nirmala was thoroughly exhausted, but not willing to give up.
Local wedding photographer Sanjay Pradhan who stayed up all of Saturday night for "Operation Gajaraj" told HT over phone, "She was amazing, walking up to the elephants, talking to them and even scolding them. When one elephant raised its truck, she stood composed and looked into its eyes with a mashaal in hand from barely five metres away."
Nirmala, who finally managed to steer the elephants into Saranda forest around 2am on Sunday - aided by less intrusion from locals, had a simple explanation for her courage and poise when facing elephants.
"Elephants are very intelligent. I have lived with them, grown up in their presence. Elephants have showered water on us when we bathed in the forest. I am not scared of them," she told Pal.
HERD IN THE STEEL CITY: The herd of 11 wild elephants inside the Birsa Munda Stadium in Rourkela on Saturday. (Uttam Kumar Pal/HT)
Nirmala, in fact, thanked the herd after it took her guidance to go back into the forest. "They were very peaceful."
Her team shares the same bond with elephants. Fellow elephant whisperer Esaw Samad told HT, "We have been doing this for three years."
The team gets paid. "We were assured Rs. 12,000 for this job," said Samad.
Pal said, "This is not much, given the size of the task they confront."
Last week's mix of fear, excitement and entertainment has ended for now in Rourkela, but authorities know chances are elephants could pay decide to pay another visit.
I TOO WANT IN ON OPERATION GAJARAJ: Enthusiastic locals tried to help Nirmala and her team, but ended up making their job tougher. (Uttam Kumar Pal/HT)