assam hostelry

ele mosaicThe elephant, being the biggest land creature, is the first to be treated in the eighth book of the elder Pliny’s encyclopaedia, the one devoted to animals. ‘Maximum est elephas proximumque humanis sensibus’ he tells us – the elephant is by far the closest beast to humans in spirit. They understand, among other things, those commands and duties which they have been taught, and are sensible of the pleasures of love and glory. To a degree that is rare even among men, elephants exhibit honesty, prudence and equity. They have a religious respect for the stars, and venerate the sun and the moon. Indeed, they are a people, and although their culture differs from ours, they are as deserving of appreciation and esteem as we are. The Romans paid more than lip-service to this credo, for they treated elephants pretty much like other peoples from Africa or India – they enslaved them or enlisted them into the army, for they made splendid slaves and soldiers. Captured elephants were, like human captives, also turned into gladiators.

When Pompey dedicated his theatre in 55 BC, the events in the Circus included venations, or mock hunts. Plutarch relates in his Life that five hundred lions were slaughtered, but ‘the most remarkable and horrifying spectacle was an elephant fight.’ Cicero was there, and wrote in a letter to a friend that the celebrations, which continued for five days, included two animal hunts a day. ‘The last day was that of the elephants, and the crowd were much impressed but not pleased. The result was a certain compassion and a feeling that that huge beast has a fellowship with the human race.’

In his Natural History, Pliny records the same distressing incident. Twenty or so elephants were herded into the arena where they were cruelly attacked: ‘when they had lost all hope of escape [they] tried to gain the sympathy of the crowd by indescribable gestures of entreaty, deploring their fate with a sort of wailing, so much to the distress of the public that they forgot the general and the largesse he had carefully devised for their honour, and bursting into tears rose in a body and called down curses on the head of Pompey.’ According to another witness, Cassius Dio, the wounded elephants ‘walked around with their trunks raised toward heaven, lamenting so bitterly as to cause the report that theywere crying out against the oaths in which they had trusted when they crossed over from Africa, and were calling upon Heaven to avenge them.’

On the 15th of September, 2003, a herd of fifteen wild elephants found their way into a rice paddy in Assam in North-East India, where they ate rice plants that had been poisoned with the banned chemical Dimecron (phosphamidon), one of the group of organophosphate chemicals, including DDT, which had recently come under a world-wide ban. They did not raise their trunks up to heaven, calling down curses upon the makers and users of Dimecron. The startling photograph of the grey elephants lying draped like fallen hot-air balloons in the vividly green field did not make big news. Only a few thousand of these endangered animals remain.

Dimecron is another pharmakon, a poison being passed off as a potion. It was manufactured by Ciba-Geigy of Greensboro, North Carolina, who claim to have cancelled manufacture in May 1990. In August 2003, the Kerala Agricultural University Agromet Advisory Services Bulletin, a progressive initiative aimed at assisting farmers, offered the following advice: ‘Paddy is in panicle initiation stage. If the attack of leaf roller and rice bug is severe in the fields, apply either Sevin 50%, 800gm, Dimecron 100ml, or Ekalux 25 E.C. 300ml, in 200 litres of water for one acre. Against rice bug apply 400ml Malathion in 200 litres of water for one acre.’ The Assam Agriculture service advised farmers that: ‘Paddy stem borers feed on growing points and cause dead hearts and white erect ears. Control this by spraying 250ml of Dimecron 85 SL or 560ml of Monocrotophos 36 SL or one litre of Coroban/Dursban in 100 litre of water per acre. Repeat spray after 20 days interval.’

Organophosphates don’t disappear easily – they remain and accumulate in food systems. The Times of India sampled bottled mineral water, including Coca-Cola and PepsiCo products, and found that all had levels of insecticide far exceeding the European limits – the Coca-Cola products had forty-five or more times the permitted limit. PepsiCo did little better, at thirty times the maximum. The water use of these powerful companies, it turns out, is unregulated.

Elephants had, of course, lived in the White River area before the arrival of white people, but the advent of rifles and fences put a stop to that, as these large and inconvenient animals were systematically slaughtered. The farmers of the area, like the farmers in Assam, were keen users of organophosphates, which seemed safe when compared to the earlier method, for which broken equipment from Archie Hopper’s day lay rusting amid rat-droppings and dust in the big shed. In his time, a tent was erected around several trees; once this had been fastened down, it was filled with cyanide gas pumped in by a hand-cranked device, which included a warning siren. After a suitable interval, the tent was moved on to the next few trees. The workers wore gas-masks like those used in the Great War.

Symptoms of acute poisoning by organophosphates develop during exposure or within twelve hours (usually within four hours) of contact. They include headache, dizziness, weakness, inco-ordination, muscle twitching, tremor, nausea, abdominal cramps, diarrhoea, sweating, blurred or dark vision, confusion, tightness in the chest, wheezing, productive cough, pulmonary oedema, incontinence, unconsciousness and convulsions, slow heartbeat, salivation, shedding of tears, toxic psychosis, manic or bizarre behaviour (which has led to misdiagnosis of acute alcohol poisoning), an influenza-like illness characterized by weakness, anorexia, and malaise, slowing of the heartbeat progressing to complete sinus arrest and fatal respiratory depression. Long-term problems include cancer, damage to the nervous and reproductive systems, birth defects and severe disruption of the immune system.

Workers on Luitingh’s Guest Farm were known to be ‘careless’ on occasion, and some of them became poisoned and had to be taken to the Swedish Mission hospital. The hostelry and domestic aspects of the farm were also subject to pesticides, but not the full organophosphate barrage that the orchards received. Dogs were dusted with DDT for fleas. Hand-pumped sprays, fly-strips, mosquito coils and wire mesh were all that stood between us and the insect world, which was intent on devouring or breeding in whatever we valued.


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