Fourteen-year old Nirmala Toppo has become something of a celebrity in the eastern Indian state of Orissa. As panic gripped the industrial city of Rourkela when a herd of wild elephants entered residential areas from dense forests nearby, Nirmala acted as a real-life "pied-piper" when she managed to drive the herd back to the forest, much to the relief of the residents, forest department officials say. She walked many miles with the herd, guiding it out of town, in the process getting blisters on her legs which later turned septic. "The infection is now gone and my wound has almost dried up," she said from her hospital bed where her treatment was organised by the local Red Cross Society.
State forest department officials sought help from Nirmala, who is originally
from the neighbouring state of Jharkhand, when they could not get the elephants
to leave the city. Forest official PK Dhola says: "When the herd entered the city, we tried our
best to contain its movement. There were 11 of them, including two calves. We
managed to make the herd go into the local football stadium, but we were not
sure how we could drive them back to the forest. It was a difficult task." Mr Dhola says that was when the department decided to seek Nirmala's help.
"We knew of a tribal girl who lived in Jharkhand, who talked to elephants and
was able to drive them back. We called up her father and she arrived along with
some other tribal people from her village." The state government paid the girl for her services, he added.
Nirmala says she talks to the herd in her local tribal dialect - Mundaari -
and persuades the animals to "return to where they belong". "First I pray and then talk to the herd. They understand what I say. I tell
them this is not your home. You should return where you belong," says Nirmala
who is a Roman Catholic. Her mother, she says, was killed by wild elephants and that was when she
decided to learn the technique to drive them away. In her work, she is assisted by her father and a group of boys from her
village. "We surround the herd. Then I go near them and pray and talk to them." But some are not convinced by Nirmala's methods. Orissa-based social activist Rabi Pradhan says there is no scientific
evidence that wild elephants can understand what a human says. Mr Pradhan says
the girl claims to talk to the herd in her own tribal language, but there is no
basis for the elephants to follow what she says.
However, others explain such behaviour by saying that tribal people and
elephants - or for that matter, other wild animals - have been cohabiting in the
forests for ages. Niel Justin Beck, a member of the district council in Jharkhand's Simdega
area, where Nirmala comes from, says due to their co-existence with the wild
animals, the tribal people know how to deal with them. "In Jharkhand, we call Nirmala a lady Tarzan. Whenever marauding elephants
enter a village or destroys crops, the local forest department officials never
turn up. It is then that the villagers approach Nirmala for help. And she is able to
successfully drive away the herd after talking to them." More than 3,000 elephants roam the forests of the three states of Jharkhand,
Orissa and Chhattisgarh, stretching across central and eastern India, but over
the past decade the region has become the epicentre of man-animal conflict. According to the ministry of environment and forests, more than 200 elephants
and some 800 people have been killed in the last 10 years.