The big story
Her father was killed by a traumatised elephant, but that hasn’t stopped Nirmala Topno, 17, from coaxing wild herds away from villages in India.
Nirmala Topno is petite and only 17 but she has an incredible ability – to tame herds of angry wild elephants.
Nirmala Topno quietly approached the wild elephant, standing on the outskirts of the Indian village, flapping its ears and trumpeting loudly. There was a furious glint in its small, beady eyes but Nirmala wasn’t scared. It wasn’t the first time she had seen an infuriated elephant and she knew the trick of handling it.
This one, part of a herd of around six that had strayed into her village, Siharjor in Simdega district of Jharkhand, a state in East India, was spreading fear and panic among the residents. But even though she was only 17 and petite, the teenager walked up to the huge male and sang to it, asking it to leave. Suprisingly, within minutes it did exactly as she’d asked, and strolled off back into the jungle. “The elephant was very angry,” Nirmala says. “I could see it in its eyes. But it was not in a mood for destruction. All it needed was some kind words.”
The trouble had begun when people saw the elephants standing amid the fringes of the forest near their homes. The villagers, fearing that the animals might stampede and destroy their fields and huts, began pelting them with stones in an attempt to chase them off. Instead, the elephants scattered and began to move into the village.
Realising that Nirmala would be the only person who could help them, some of the villagers dashed off to summon her. “The men came to my house and told me that I was needed to help chase some elephants back into the jungle,” she says. Rushing to the spot, she saw the villagers looking worried and helpless. “Don’t worry,” she told the group. “I’m sure the animals will go away soon.”
Moving close to the elephant, Nirmala started singing an Oriya song in a soft voice, gently waving her arms above her head. “Please go away. You are disturbing our peace. We do not want to hurt you because we love and care for you,” she sang, staring into its eyes. Then she raised her voice and began to admonish him.
Five minutes later, to everyone’s relief, the elephant began to calm
‘They callme the elephant whisperer because I have a certain power that makes them listen tome’
down. It stopped trumpeting and flapping its ears. Then, shuffling his feet, the elephant slowly backed into the jungle before turning around and stomping off into the thicket.
Nirmala has a unique gift – the ability to communicate with wild elephants that often roam near her village. In the past few years, she has succeeded in calming down large herds of wild and angry elephants and ensuring that they went back to the forest without destroying all that was precious to the villagers.
“No woman in my area ever dares to do what I do – speak to wild elephants that stray into our village and gently coax them to return to the wild. Because of my courage and my ability, people have started calling me The Elephant Whisperer. They believe that I have a certain power that makes elephants listen to me,’’ says Nirmala. She explains it was her father who introduced her to the ways of the wild. “I guess I have my father to thank for this ability. He taught me a lot of tricks to tame elephants,” says Nirmala.
Her late father, Marino, a labourer, was also well known for his ability to ‘talk’ to elephants. “But he was killed by an elephant – trampled to death. He was trying to talk to the ‘jumbo’ that had strayed into the village and telling it to return to the forest, but...” Nirmala’s eyes mist up and she falters as she talks about her father, who was killed last year.
“When I was much younger, I remember we used to flee our homes when the animals approached. The herd would trample and destroy our homes and fields... everything. Since we did not have firearms, nobody wanted to tackle these beasts.
“But after a few times, my father decided to stand his ground when the elephants approached. While other villagers would abandon their homes and let the animals run over their houses and destroy everything, he decided to face them. My father didn’t want to keep rebuilding our home.”
She explains that her father would shout out orders to the elephants to
not destroy the crops and property and to return to the forests, all while waving a flame torch.
When the animals seemed to respond to his pleas and return to the forest, a few men in the village joined Marino. It did not take long for the group of men to earn a reputation for their bravery and they were called on whenever there were wild elephants close to villages.
Nirmala was fascinated by her father’s ability. “I used to plead with my father to take me along when he went to ‘speak’ to the elephants but he never would, saying it was dangerous for a little girl.”
Finally when she turned 13, her father allowed her to accompany him and his group. “The first time I joined my father, I was nervous but as soon as I saw the wild elephants, amazingly, my fear vanished, “she says. “After that, whenever my father was asked to help I’d go too.’’
Nirmala struggles to explain how her techniques work, but she says she somehow manages to convince the animals to leave by her tone of voice, body language, a flame torch and looking the animals directly in the eyes.
She has been seen ‘talking’ to the elephants locally, but Nirmala became a celebrity in India last year when she steered 11 wild elephants away on one occasion and then a herd of 17 a couple of months later.
‘‘Initially I get nervous when I’m close to elephants, but once I succeed and I am extremely happy. I think I’m good at my job,” she smiles.
In August last year she injured her foot while pushing a herd of elephants away from a cluster of homes. She was in hospital for weeks with a growing medical bill. But thankfully the government stepped in and paid her expenses.
Then, three months later, Nirmala and her father were called out again to help with a herd of wild elephants that had entered a field near a small village down the road. “I was at school when the forest rangers called my dad asking for our help,” she explains. “The principal came into class and said I was needed urgently.” She rushed home, where her father was waiting.
He explained that they needed to persuade a herd of seven elephants back into the forest.
“When we arrived at the field we found the elephants were aggressive because some local people had been pelting them with stones to make them leave,’’ she says.
Nirmala and her father split up, hoping that would distract the elephants and encourage them to move on. “I went to the far left of the field while my father concentrated on
the right side,” she says.
While she was singing and asking the beasts to leave, she heard a huge commotion in the area where her father was.
“Realising something was not right, I raced over there and heard men shouting ‘a man is dying’. I broke through the crowd and saw my father lying on the ground about 20 metres away, with a huge elephant standing next to him.
“The elephant looked really angry. I knew I had to stay firm and calm. I moved close to the elephant and said, ‘Please go away’ – all the while staring straight into its eyes.”
The elephant stood motionless for a couple of minutes, but then slowly backed off, and along with it, the rest of the herd.
Nirmala was then able to rush to
‘I don’t hate elephants; but I do get sad when I think that my father died because of them’
where her father lay and tried to help him up. “But he wasn’t moving,” she says. “I immediately knew that he was gone.
“I don’t hate elephants; but I do get sad when I think that my father died because of them. I guess one should never underestimate their power.’’
Nirmala and her family were given compensation from the government for Rs200,000 (Dh12,225). Her mother Salomi, 46, was also given a government job to support her family.
But most significantly, out of respect for the late Marino, Nirmala – a first-year student at the Nirmal Munda College – was offered a job as a forest guard to protect animals from poachers when she completes her studies.
“I know they’ve given me this promise of a job because of who my father was and what we could do together. If he were still here there would be no job, so it’s hard for me to feel happy.
“But if my father was alive today he would have been very proud of my work. He would have liked that his daughter was making a name for herself. He’d be very happy for me.”
When she finishes her education, Nirmala will be working with animals full time
Nirmala with her father Marino (to the right of her) and other villagers shortly before he died trying to calm a harassed elephant
Nirmala says people should never underestimate an elephant’s power
Nirmala’s mother Salomi was given a government job to provide for the family, including son Miltan
Nirmala misses her father, but says she knows he would be proud of her
Nirmala’s late father, Marino, also had the gift of communicating with elephants