I guide dangerous wild elephants away from humans – one mistake can mean death

India’s elephant caretakers are almost all male. But while Parbati Barua may be a rarity as a female mahout, the job was a natural progression for someone who fell in love with the animals as a young child.

Now 70, she has spent virtually her entire life in the forest with them. Her work as a mahout mainly involves redirecting wild elephants away from human habitats, as they damage agricultural crops and houses and are safer and happier in the wild.

Ms Barua is regularly called to jungles, tea plantations and rural areas in the states of West Bengal, Odisha and her native Assam, in eastern India, to capture and take care of elephants. She has played an important role in animal conservation and preventing human-animal conflict.

“I started feeding captive elephants by the age of five, along with my other siblings,” says Ms Barua, who is the fifth of nine children. “It helped me to understand their behaviour and habits. Slowly, I began to develop a liking towards them. My father encouraged me in my passion.”

Her father, Prakritish Chandra Barua, was a landlord who owned 40 elephants and even her name, Parbati, is that of a goddess mother of Lord Ganesh, the elephant-headed god in Hindu mythology.

“I have heard that my father made me sit on the back of the elephant when I was just one month and 17 days old,” she says.

Ms Barua caught 14 wild elephants before the Wild Life (Protection) Act came into force in India banning the capturing of wild animals in 1972. Since then, she has helped to relocate more than 400 elephants and trained 500 handlers in their profession.

Around 2,400 mahouts work in Assam alone. Two are required to handle one elephant.

Ms Barua, who is slight of build, concedes that working with wild elephants is not easy. “It is quite dangerous and risky as it requires complete focus and concentration as a single mistake can cost life.

“Decisions are to be taken in a fraction of a second to prevent any mishap, as wild elephants do not take a moment to attack and kill. It can take intense field work of two hours to two days to capture a jumbo… we have to be very careful as there are no retakes.”

India is home to more than 60 per cent of the world’s wild Asian elephant population, but Asian elephants are listed as an endangered species on the IUCN Red List and their numbers have roughly halved in the last three elephant generations.

India’s population of wild elephants has been holding steady in the range of 28,000 to 30,000 during the past decade. This population lives in 100,000 to 120,000 square kilometres of diverse habitats across four major elephant-populated regions.

Parbati Barua, female mahout Elephant Caretaker India Image via writer gurvinder_singh93@yahoo.com
India is home to more than 60 per cent of the world’s wild Asian elephant population
(Photo: Gurvinder Singh)

Since 1992, the Indian government has been running Project Elephant, which encompasses various projects for the conservation of wild elephants. It has also set up a dedicated elephant task force.

Animals that are not assisted by Ms Barua or other elephant handlers are often killed. India has lost 1,381 elephants to “unnatural causes” from 2009 to 2023, with electrocution accounting for 898 deaths, according to a Right to Information (RTI) report.

“My heart cries with pain when I hear news about the jumbos being electrocuted to prevent crop loss, which is completely unjustified as the humans have encroached on their habitats, posing problems for them,” Ms Barua says. “It is not their fault. The killings should stop.”

Human encroachment on elephant habitats is a major problem. Ms Barua works with conservation groups after moving elephants back to the forest, and guides them in the steps to take to prevent the animals returning to areas of human settlement.

Parbati Barua, female mahout Elephant Caretaker India Image via writer gurvinder_singh93@yahoo.com
Parbati Barua says working as a mahout is tough and dangerous (Photo: Gurvinder Singh)

She was placed on the Global Roll of Honour for the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) in 1989 and won India’s prestigious Padma Shri award this year for her work over five decades. In 1992, the BBC also made a documentary about her, Queen of the Elephants.

Asked why there are so few women in her profession, she answers that it is a tough and dangerous job that requires much practical knowledge that is hard to obtain for women in India, who are expected to take on domestic responsibilities.

“The job requires exhaustive practical training,” she says. “It is very difficult for a woman to do household chores and also work as a mahout. Some women took the training but quit. I want women to come in so that I have a legacy to pass before I depart.”