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Mela shikar (Assamese: মেলা চিকাৰ) is a traditional method of capturing wild elephants for domestication. The process involves lassoing a wild elephant from the back of a trained one, called a koonki. This practice is prevalent in the north eastern part of India, especially in Assammarker and is one of the methods seen in ancient India. Other traditional elephant capture methods include: khedda, byle shikar, snaring, pit method, and decoying by using a female koonki to lure a male elephant. Mela shikar used to be organized twice a year - after Puja and during Bihu.

The method

Mela shikar requires the services of a skilled mahout who is known as a Phandi. This person is able to lasso a wild elephant whilst mounted on another. The Phandi who is well regarded for his abilities is accompanied by another mahout assistant. Phandis feature in the folklore of North-east India. Since 1977, this and all other methods of capturing elephants are illegal, but prior to the 1977 legislation, it has been estimated that mela shikar was used to lasso between three and four hundred elephants per annum in Assammarker alone.

There are three distinct reasons that make the shikar a safe one.
  1. It is completely selective, with a rifle than that of the shotgun used in Khedda. It usually targets carefully studied and selected animals, preferably the younger ones that are more pliable.
  2. The death-rate is low here since comparatively few elephants are caught at one time with sufficient manpower to take care of the captives.
  3. Mortality during mahoutship and training is low for all personnel engaged are highly skilled.


Gazali shikar

Gazali shikar is a variation of Mela shikar. Gazali in Assamese means the young shoots of grasses. Elephants are very fond of Gazali that sprout up during pre-monsoon showers in May-June. They get attracted towards grassy patch giving the Phandis a good opportunity to capture.

Legal issues

Before 1977, elephants were under Schedule-II (Part-I) of the Wildlife Protection Act, which granted elephants the status of "special game" for which it could be killed, captured or traded commercially under license. In 1977, the elephant was brought under Schedule-I of the Act, which made its capture illegal. This ban led to the gradual extinction of a line of specially trained mahouts or Phandis.

According to S.S. Bisht, the former director of Project Elephant and Senior forest Service officer,"Under Section 12 of the Forest Protection Act, permission to catch elephants can only be given by the Centre for population control and scientific research. Last time such permission was given to Assam was in the ’80s".

Post-ban phandis

The ban has left the phandis jobless and most of them homeless too. They are forced to do odd jobs like daily wage earners. Around 1000 families were settled down in 13 villages near the Assam-Arunachal border. But during the forest department’s eviction in 2006, their houses were bulldozed, burnt down and even some were beaten up. Those villages have been taken over by the jungle.

Rehabilitation

According to Xodou Axom Hati Phando Xonmilon Union, an organization working for the rehabilitation of the jobless phandis, only 37 phandis are given employment by the government since 1972. According to Jayant Narlikar, Deputy Commissioner of Lakhimpur, around 170 families have been provided money and land in the district.

Expert speak

Renowned elephant experts and veteran phandis express their reactions and opinions as follows:
  • Expert phandi Parbati Barua says, "If nothing is done now, the art of Mela shikar is sure to die soon because there won’t be any expert phandi around to teach his art to the new generation. I do not know whether it will be allowed once again. But I do not see any harm if Mela shikar is occasionally allowed. That will provide livelihood to hundreds of phandis and keep the man-elephant conflict in control".


  • Renowned elephant expert Dhritikanta Lahiri Choudhury says, " The Project Elephant Committee already has a resolution on Mela shikar. That is, the technique of mela shikar can be used, but only to scare away wild herds. For reducing the number of elephants, however, tranquilization is a much better and effective option. Mela shikar is a very old technique. We find the oldest instance of this art in the records of Alexander the Great’s campaigns in the Orient. At that time, even he had captured elephants. It was then considered sport. There’s a belief Mela shikar harms elephants. That’s not true."


  • Principal chief conservator of forest (wildlife) Suresh Chand says, "From the point of social responsibility, rehabilitation of phandis has to be done. But it’s a very complex issue. We understand the problems of the phandis, but cannot decide on anything."


  • Veterinarian and elephant expert Kushal K Sarma says, "Why is the issue of rehabilitation coming up? Trapping wild elephants can never be justified. Besides, elephant trapping is a seasonal affair, so how did phandis survive the rest of the year? They used to cultivate land. So, the question of rehabilitation doesn’t arise at all."


Revival of the shikar

In 2009, Assam has sought permission from the Centre to revive the Mela shikar. The state wants to put the captured and tamed animals on government duty - to carry guards and tourists in wildlife sanctuaries and to transport EVM and polling officials to remote areas. It also hopes that the move will contain the human-elephant conflict.

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