A troupe of trained elephants has taken up drama to save their brethren in the wild, performing tear-jerking plays with elaborate death scenes to arouse the sympathy of villagers.
The conservation officials behind the performances hope to defuse a low-level war between dwindling numbers of endangered elephants and growing numbers of humans.
Villagers are increasingly encroaching on forest land, while elephants are increasingly barging into villages, killing dozens of people each year, often by trampling on them.
The villagers’ tactics involve building makeshift electric fences from electric pylons around villages, which electrocute elephants on contact. A dozen elephants have been killed in this way in the east so far this year, conservationists say.
“The objective of using trained elephants to enact electrocution scenes is to evoke sympathy for their wild friends,” said Manindra Biswas, an official from the Forest Department of West Bengal.
The play opens with six elephants looking tense after hearing gunfire. One elephant walks up to a prop wire, touches it, and crumples into a heap. This starring role is often played by an especially talented elephant-actor called Mainak.
The five elephant friends desperately try to revive their fallen comrade. In the final act, the elephants realise all is lost, salute their dead friend, and walk away. Humans are at hand to narrate the moral of the story.
Hundreds of villagers have enjoyed the free, half-hour-long play since the run began last month, Biswas said, although it is too soon to know how much difference the play will make.
“The elephant play is something unique, but there needs to be a more concerted effort to save the elephants which is surely lacking now,” said Shakti Ranjan Banerjee of the New Delhi-based Wildlife Protection Society of India.
About 50,000 wild Asian elephants lived in the country a century ago. That number had dropped to around 21,300 in India’s reserves in 2005, according to the environment ministry, although numbers have been rising in some areas.
Much of the decline comes as the elephants’ forest habitat is destroyed to make way for agriculture, homes and
infrastructure, although illegal poaching for ivory still continues.
Only about 120,000 square km (46,340 square miles) of the country’s landmass — less than four per cent of the total — is suitable for elephants, according to a survey by the environment ministry last year.