Read this story closely to see how India's attitude toward elephants is changing
The headline in The Tribune reads, "Cases of man-elephant conflict on the rise." Those words reflect what appears to be an unbiased measurement of conflict, but that is far from the case.
As we read further, the words in the story anthropomorphize elephants in a worrisome way. The article writes about how close elephants approached a heavily populated area: "Elephants reached the busy Ring road close to the state assembly, a scenario never seen before. Fortunately, there was no human causality and the elephants only resorted to mild vandalism."
You can almost read this as a reflection of some attack on the community. During various conflicts, journalists might have written that the guerrillas approached the city closer than ever before. And when newspapers wrote about gangs, they might have noted that there was only "mild vandalism" and no casualties when one gang crossed into the other's turf.
But these are elephants. Do elephants vandalize? Do elephants plan incursions into cities? The article notes the proximity of prominent government offices to the location where the elephants were seen. Do elephants have designs on disrupting government? No, but the writing creates that notion.
The elephants are a "menace." The elephants "attacked slum dwellers" -- and they did it when people were most vulnerable because they had gone to the forest to relieve themselves. Rather that use this incident to note that 40 percent of India lives without toilets, and must walk into the forest at night to pee or defecate, the author ascribes a motive to elephants, as though they hid, waiting for the chance to harm villagers.
Only at the end of the article does the writer note that humans have encroached on elephant habitat.
The language suggests that the elephant is no longer loved like a god, but rather is feared like an enemy or an intruder. This is the kind of language we use to describe people when we are trying to justify retaliation against them. And that is our great fear for elephants in India.
Live Mint has compiled a report on deaths of wild elephants in India over the past eight years. Based on environment ministry data, it finds that an average of 80 elephants per years are killed by humans.
The largest cause of death is electrocution, then train accidents. While these may seem "accidental," one has to question whether preventive measures have been taken. Electric lines must be strung high enough and maintained well enough to avoid elephant contact. Alternative measures for railroad crossings must be available.
And these numbers do not include the deaths of captive elephants reported by Rajeen N. Kurup. His count in Kerala is two deaths a month for the past two years. And Kerala is only one state.
We should ask whether we have set adequate standards to protect elephants both in the wild and in captivity.
"Elephants in the Coffee" was named Best Documentary at the DC South Asian Film Festival this past weekend.
It was quite an honor considering the competition, and the cap to a great weekend for the film in Washington, D.C.
We met for an hour with representatives of the international arm of the Humane Society International. It was a very valuable meeting, demonstrating the widespread concern about human-elephant conflict in India. We hope to work with the Humane Society in the future because they are willing to share their good ideas. For instance, here's a story by the Humane Society about reducing fence breaching by elephants in Africa through non-lethal intervention called "tusk bracing."
We also enjoyed a radio interview with wtop.com/WTOP, the top news station in Washington, DC. That story should air this week.
And an executive fromwww.logostech.net/ Logos Technologies showed up to watch "Elephants in the Coffee" at the festival. We hope to work with Logos to test aerial surveillance of elephants to follow their movements and warn people before deadly encounters occur.
The DC festival featured wonderful documentaries by two professors in the DC area. Dr. Harjant Gill, a professor at Towson University, produced "Sent Away Boys" about what happens to Indian villages when all the young men move away to find work. You can see it here. And Dr. Indira Somani, a professor at Howard University, produced a documentary about the boatmen in the holy city of Varanasi called "Life on the Ganges." I'm proud to have our work shown in the same theater with their films.
Then today, a new article came about about "Elephants in the Coffee" by Lori Bell in Lady Freethinker.
She writes, "When you pour yourself a cup of piping hot coffee in the morning, you might not be thinking about where it comes from. However, a lot goes into making that morning pick-me-up. At the source of production, the politics of coffee are more complex.
"A new documentary, Elephants in the Coffee, examines the tension between coffee farmers and elephants in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, which produces 70 percent of the country’s coffee. Over the years, expanding coffee plantations have put pressure on elephants and their natural environment, leading to violent human-elephant encounters."
This is video of an elephant stuck in swamp as people try to rescue it. The elephant was a captive being hauled on a truck to a temple when it escaped and eventually fell into the swamp. Here is how "The News Minute" wrote about it:
"In the wee hours of Tuesday, Mullakkal Balakrishnan noticed that the lorry in which he was being transported had stopped on the road. After waiting for a few minutes, he decided to jump off the lorry, and ran amok. An hour later, he fell into a marsh and has been trapped in it ever since.
"Balakrishnan is a tusker owned by the Mullakkal temple under Travancore Devaswom Board in Alappuzha district, and the locals, mahouts, police, Devaswom representatives and officials of the forest department have been trying in vain to rescue him."
Rajeev N. Kurup posted a photo when the tusker was finally rescued, 17 hours after it fell into the swamp.
The issue became quite controversial. Here is Rajeev's account:
"He had been taken to the Thrikkakara Temple for the temple festival just ten days prior. When the incident happened, he was being loaded into the truck to be taken back to the Mullakkal Temple. Rescue operation is in progress. He broke the barricade, meant to hold him inside the truck and jumped out. There was chaos and panic in the locality during the tense two hours, that the elephant was chased by the keepers who were trying to capture him. He destroyed some vehicles on the road and demolished some of the compound walls of nearby homes. Sometime in the melee and confusion, the elephant fell into the nearby swamp. "The mahouts tried their best to pull the elephant out of the swamp but he got buried deeper. The elephant was stuck in the swamp for more than four hours.What is appalling is the lack of forest department and a cohesive effort to save the animals. The locals are tying to help, but the lack of a guided effort is not helping. Watching the news we can see that the poor animal is tiring out slowly. We hope we do not have another tragedy in the making."
Some posted their opinion that the elephant should never have been help captive, or that the animal would not have tried to run away if it had been treated well in captivity. One said this should not have been called a "rescue" for it was actually someone trying to reclaim their property. That raises a very good philosophical question. Is an captive elephant property? Or are people merely holding custody of free and wild creature because it can no longer, for some reason, be allowed to go free?
In such considerations we may find better ways to treat elephants.
Dr. Thomas Grant
Professor of Journalism at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College