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.

Friday - - Friday Contents - By He­len Roberts

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

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