By Lily Lavender Wolf
Courtesy of Dr. Kushal Konwar Sarma
Dr. Sarma wrote: A kiss to darling Vishnupriya
On behalf of Wildlife Watch, I was privileged to conduct an e-mail interview with the famous and beloved doctor, Dr. Kushal Konwar Sarma. Here’s what I learned:
The language of elephants. It is an intuitive one, relying on a sort of sixth sense and empathy. Animals are largely emotional, hiding nothing, and anthropomorphic feelings are often rightfully attributed to the beautiful beings. They all have specific personalities, as we know humans do, and it shows that you do not need to be of a singular species to relate to your fellow person. After all, with their own personas, I believe that animals are people, too.
Dr. Kushal Konwar Sarma is the beloved doctor who has presided over the healing of thousands of elephants in India’s wildlife community. He bonds with each elephant as a dear friend, reportedly beginning with Laxmi, an elephant his family cared for since the start of his life. BBC Hindi’s Dilip Kumar Sharma writes in an article that at age seven, Dr. Sarma would ride Laxmi around his home village.
When I asked Dr. Sarma if Laxmi was the inspiration behind his lifelong care for elephants, he responded, “Laxmi was deeply imprinted in a hidden chamber of my mind, but subconsciously. This took me about 20 years to realize, when I could see a vivid image of my beloved friend in each elephant that I handled as a doctor.” As Sharma writes, “This love and bond with elephants has cemented his career as the go-to doctor in the state.”
Just how deep does Dr. Sarma’s appreciation of these mighty beings go? Having spent not just his career as a veterinarian, but his life growing up in the village Barma in India’s northeastern state of Assam, his connection to elephants runs strong. Of elephants, Dr. Sarma writes, “Most of them are majestic, friendly, benevolent and tolerant. People will do good to know that this iconic species has lots of similarities and bonding with humans. [They] can communicate with lots of infrasonic or sonic signals, [they] like songs, rhythms, and also like to dance and can appreciate paintings.” He speaks of elephants indulging in the arts and joys of life as much as we as humans do.
When it comes to the healing work he does as a doctor, I asked what specifically he’s called to do, and he mentioned a wide range of tasks from trimming tusks, sewing up lacerated wounds, giving injections, keeping the elephants calm from the pain of these shots, and recommending medications when appropriate. He said, “I organize preemptive health camps in forest departmental elephant camps; there are elephants numbering 30-60 in each of five parks in Assam, and many places across the country, primarily engaged in anti-poaching patrols. I touch and talk to them, offer some sweet treats. They recognize me as a friend.”
Dr. Sarma with Bijili Prasad, the oldest living elephant at 86
I also asked what the greatest threats to elephants might be. While the BBC article details monsoon season and the flooding that threatens the lives of elephants, I assumed that hunting and poaching would be among the top threats, but Dr. Sarma said, “The uncontrolled human population growth is the main threat to the existence of elephants, in Asia in general and India in particular. Hunting is a threat, but not the greatest threat in this part of the country. Albeit, some elephants are hunted by the tribesmen for bush meat; tuskers are still hunted for ivory. Fortunately, larger number of the bulls in this region are makhanas (tusk-less bulls), and thus do not interest the ivory hunters.”
He reports that Indian Wildlife Protection Acts are good, but need to continue to ensure the security of elephants’ natural habitats and keep humans from encroaching upon their territory as population growth rapidly rises: “The growing human population needs space and tries to push itself into the protected areas, depriving the wild animals from their legitimate habitat.” According to www.worldometers.info, India is second in the world in terms of population by country, currently accounting for 17.7% of the world’s population. [Please visit that amazing website.]
So, with the heightened human population threatening the lives of elephants, what is there for us to do in order to help them? I was happy to hear that poaching is less of an issue than it used to be, or than I had originally assumed. Clearly, humans need to stop expanding into these natural areas and leave them to the wonderful wildlife that inhabit them.
When I asked if Dr. Sarma passes his immense knowledge onto other doctors, he responded, “I will die most unhappy if I have to carry all my knowledge, skills, and wisdom on elephantology to my grave. I have been training vets and most of the present-day elephant vets of India are either trained by me or must have consulted me on some issues on elephants.” He keeps his phone on 24/7 in order to cater to the questions others may have about rehabilitation or to visit elephants in need on-site.
Dr. Sarma with Bijili Prasad, the oldest living elephant at 86
Dr. Sarma’s daughter, Nina, has also completed a degree in veterinary science and assists him with his work. He is excited to see her enter his own line of work and save even more elephants.
My personal joy in being able to interview the good doctor was due to my own love for elephants. As a child, I read National Geographic books about how elephants experience emotions usually only attributed to humans, and I’ve wanted to learn more and even someday meet elephants. When I told that to Dr. Sarma, he wrote: “[Elephants] are very emotional creatures; you can see vivid expressions of joy when siblings meet after a long time, they bellow loudly for up to an hour ignoring everything else; elephant squeaks, trumpets, low or high rumbles, and so many other kind of vocalizations to express different emotions.”
I also asked if a claim were true that elephants could experience grief and desire. “I have seen silent condolences over a dead relative, I see them sniffing and kissing friends and relatives. [They have] reactions over sexual advances, physical expressions of dominance and subordinations; very interesting indeed.” Dr. Sarma’s words have only further enhanced my admiration and desire to spend time with elephants.
So, thank you, Dr. Sarma, for the gallant and important work you do for one of the most beautiful and stately creatures of the florid animal kingdom. I am grateful to you for our interview, and your work is uplifting and inspiring to all. And, without even a second guess, I am certain every elephant Dr. Sarma has touched is grateful as well.
If you would like to read Dilip Kumar Sharma’s article, “The Indian Doctor Taking Care of Thousands of Elephants,” on BBC Hindi, the link is
Lily Lavender Wolf is a writer and avid lover of nature and animals. She hails from Manhattan but has lived upstate New York in the beautiful Hudson Valley, where she spends time in the mountains. She studies Environmental Psychology at the State University in New York (SUNY), New Paltz campus.