Kheda an enclosure constructed to capture wild elephants for domestication. It was probably the African species that was first domesticated. Sanskrit texts laid down five methods of capturing elephants depending on the topographical regions: in pens or stockades (kheda); by means of female decoys; by mela shikar or noosing from the backs of trained elephants; by nooses concealed on the ground; and the pit method. Although the stockade method is the first to be described by ancient writers, it is said to be of Aryan origin. It is known that over 1,00,000 elephants have been captured in the whole of Asia during the last century. It is likely that elephants were originally tamed for military purposes. The use of elephants in war as a counter weapon had obvious advantages. One of the earliest occasions in which elephants were used in warfare was the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BC. Today there are about 16000 captive Asian elephants in the 11 elephant range countries, the highest being in Myanmar, where the number is about 6,500 (wild stock: 5000), followed by Thailand, c. 4000 (wild stock: c. 1500) and India, c. 3000 (wild stock: c. 26,000). This number is about 40% of the present wild stock (n = c. 43000). In Bangladesh, there are about 100 elephants in captivity (wild stock: c. 200).
Even a hundred years ago, elephants were abundant in most of the forests of Bangladesh, and were to be found even in Madhupur forest near Dhaka. In fact, Dhaka's Elephant Road was used by trained elephants, which were brought from Peelkhana, where there was a royal elephant stable. Peelkhana is located in Dhaka to the northwest of Azimpur. Elephants were brought here from various parts of Bengal for necessary training before being sent out for duty to different parts of British India. During Mughal days, private zamindars also kept their elephants in Peelkhana on payment of fees. Demonstration of kheda (enclosures) operation used to take place here as late as the end of 19th century. The British army needed elephants for its guns and its commissariat. They transferred the regular elephant-catching establishment from Dhaka to Myanmar in 1900 because of the depletion of herds in Garo Hills as a result of excessive catching. Mahouttuli in Old Dhaka is a locality where the mahouts of Peelkhana lived. However, the elephants had disappeared from the area a few years before the creation of Pakistan in 1947.
Main functions of elephants were to remove logs cut from deep inside forests. Kheda operation, an indigenous device to capture wild elephant, was practised in Bengal from ancient times. From the colonial period, kheda became a particular source of income to the forest department. Sealed tenders are called for by the administration from contractors for quoting the royalties they could offer for each elephant to be caught in the proposed kheda. The rate of royalties for capturing elephant by kheda sometimes went up to Rs 750 for each elephant (Chittagong District Gazetteer 1967). Generally, kheda operations are organised during the winter season, when the forests are comparatively dry.
After observing all the formalities, the contractor used to come forward with a party of skilled and ordinary labourers consisting of l00 to 150 persons of whom 40 to 50 men must consist of labourers skilled in kheda operations. These labourers generally instruct ordinary labourers regarding the construction of the stockade and supervise their work. The success of a kheda depends on the selection of the site. Site selection is to be carried out by an experienced and skilled party consisting of 8 to 10 persons. Generally, elephants move about in herds in search of their fodder consisting mainly of various kind of grasses, bamboo leaves and shoots. If two or more elephant tracks met together to form a single big track at the end, such a place is considered to be the best site for the construction of the stockade. When such a place is found in a valley of two adjacent peaks, it is considered to be the most suitable site for construction of the kheda. A party of kheda watchers is then employed to watch over the elephant herds which are found in places near the stockade site at that time, so that the herd might not move far away from the place by the time the kheda is ready for the entrapment of the elephant.
After the selection of the kheda site, a circle having a diameter of 8 to 10 m, is laid on the ground with a gate of 3 to 4 m wide on the main track facing the elephant herds grazing at the time of kheda operations in the forest.
As the elephants proceeded towards kheda following their track, a driving party moved slowly on making noise and sound with the help of twisting bamboos, and mouth. The elephants slowly moved on towards the kheda on hearing the noise on their back. Driving was done in the evening and continued till morning.
As soon as the whole herd entered the stockade, the gate man cut the rope swiftly and the gate dropped down making the whole herd captive in the stockade. The elephants caught in kheda were kept unfed and undrunk at least for 24 hours to make them weak, tired and calm. Kheda operation has been stopped in Bangladesh since 1965. [Md Anwarul Islam]