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A herd of wild elephants stray into a tea plantation and cause irreparable damage. Photo courtesy: Ambereen Yousuf. Here is an interesting tidbit from veteran tea planter Davey Lamont: “In the early years , tea bushes were planted in triangular patches, creating a zigzag path instead of rows. This allowed tea pluckers to escape from elephants!”

Assam is prime elephant country. It’s a land of big rivers, dense bamboo groves, rain forests with long, drooping moss and startling orchids. In the jungle clearings, elephant grass shoots up to over 10-feet to shelter a teeming wildlife. Assam Tea–the finest tea on earth– chooses to grow in this wild terrain and nowhere else. Not surprisingly “elephant trouble” a frequent complaint in the tea plantations.

Tea garden elephant with company logo

Every tea planter has a plethora of elephant stories and I have a few of my own. When I seven, a semi-domesticated elephant grabbed me by the ankle and almost got me but luckily I was yanked back by a nearby adult. I still have bad dreams about that one! Another time a baby elephant came floating down the flooded Koilapani River. For two weeks he lived in the taro patch behind our bungalow and played peek-a-boo with a hen before he was shunted off to Calcutta zoo, much to our heartbreak.

Elephant pulling car out of monsoon mire (1920’s). Photo courtesy: Fettes Falconer

Along with owning their tractors, trucks and trailers, most tea gardens own an elephant or two. Domesticated elephants are invaluable to the tea industry.  They are trained by special elephant trainers called mahouts. Elephants render a multitude of services that range from forest logging to rescue missions for tea garden residents stranded in the flood. Assam is the wettest place on earth. The monsoons hit with a fury each year; rivers overflow, bridges collapse and tea plantations are marooned for weeks without power or supplies. Elephants are called to the rescue when river currents get too strong for a boat.  My favorite story is about my Aunt Baruna who dropped her high-heeled slipper in the  floodwaters when she crossing on elephant back to get to the gala at the Planter’s Club. All evening she hobbled  on one shoe while standing tiptoe on the other foot and nobody could tell anything was amiss under her long saree!

Tea garden kids get a joy ride outside their bungalow. Historical photo: source – koihai.com

Tea garden kids are the envy of their friends. Town kids have puppies and kittens but guess what we had as pets? Monkeys, elephants and the occasional leopard cub! On birthdays and special occasions the garden elephant made a grand appearance to give us  kiddies fun rides. Old Jumbo also showed up all tinsel-decked at the Club Christmas party with (an often slightly inebriated) Santa perched on top.

Elephants help to rebuild the Mariani Planters Club after it was destroyed by the fire of 1960. Historical photo courtesy: Alan Leonard. Alan says although the club burnt down the original teak wood floor which was “tongued and grooved” was still intact. It was lifted very carefully, nail by nail, refitted and relaid in the new building. Amazingly it was as good as new.”

Logging elephant in tea garden. Courtesy Davey Lamont.

Elephants are useful during shikar (hunting) to track down game, mostly man-eating leopards and tigers that prowl the tea plantations to prey on humans.

Elephants in herds are usually harmless but they can create plenty of damage. A herd of elephants  often invaded the sugarcane patch behind our bungalow and  had to be chased out with lighted torches and the beating of tin cans. I still remember the sound of their wild trumpeting in the night: it is the most eerie, bone-rattling sound on earth!

A bull elephant in “musth” is a very dangerous animal and can sometimes attack without provocation.

Encountering a rogue elephant in the wild is very bad news. Rogue elephants can destroy everything in their path with mindless fury. There is the horrific incident of a local postman who was cycling through the jungle road to a tea garden when he came face-to-face with a rogue. The elephant picked him by the feet and smashed him into a tree and (this is really gross) the poor man had to picked off the bark like putty. That is the fury of a rogue.

With increasing deforestation in Assam, elephant problems in the tea gardens continue to be on the rise. Here is a National Geographic article about Elephant problems in Assam. Please share your elephant story, if you have one. Thanks and cheers!

Other related articles: The Story of the Elephant Boy of Tea

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Teatime for the Firefly is Shona Patel’s debut novel. It is a love story set in a remote tea plantation in Assam, India. You can read the SYNOPSIS and the FIRST CHAPTER by clicking on the red links. Shona Patel is represented by April Eberhardt Literary.

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