August 9: It’s a slippery situation that has officials of the Oil India Limited (OIL) in Assam religiously muttering the Ganesh Mantra. The public sector company owns and operates the world’s oldest oil producing wells here and they’re helpless against the antics of wild elephants who love the swooshing sound of oil spurting in Digboi’s oil fields.

Jumbos have some oily fun
Jumbos have some oily fun [Illustration by Shinod AP]
According to a report in The Indian Express, the wild tuskers move around freely in the oil fields, often opening crucial valves in the pipelines that connect the oil wells to the refineries.

Situated close to Arunachal Pradesh and the dense Lakhipathar and Soraipung reserve forest, the Digboi oil fields are an elephant’s paradise. The last time an elephant opened a valve was in July. “The elephants seem to enjoy the sound when a valve is opened, especially if it’s one that regulates steam which prevents paraffination of the crude,” Chakravarty said. Elephants are drawn to oil wells for the mud and water that come out with the crude. The water is salty and the elephants are fond of it.

Ironically, it was because of an elephant that oil was first discovered in Assam. In 1882-83, the British were laying railway tracks in the region with the help of domestic elephants. One evening, the animal returned to camp, its legs smeared in some oily substance. Some British officers traced its tracks and landed in a pit bubbling with oil. Asia’s first oil well was founded there in 1889.

Forest officials did suggest using firecrackers to scare away the elephants, but OIL officials point out that fire is a hazard for the oil industries. Till a solution can be found, OIL officials may want to chant the Ganesh Mantra a bit. It might just keep the tuskers away!