This may sound like a plea for help.
I am impressed by other organizations interested in elephants that have set up effective strategies to draw attention to the issues and connect people to the problem. The Bronx Zoo set a world record for origami elephants to draw attention to the problem of elephant poaching. Rajeev N Kurup and Kerala Suffering Elephants maintain daily Facebook postings about the plight of elephants.
When our documentary 'Elephants in the Coffee' is shown, we need to offer some way for viewers to connect with the issue. Could they buy some elephant-safe coffee? Could they subscribe to a Facebook page or Twitter feed? Can they support a fund to send a mahout child to school?
One of the difficulties is the complexities of issues involved here. We support elephants, but we also support farmers. And given the rising numbers of captive elephants, we see a growing need for a respected and professional group of mahouts to care for those elephants.
After watching our documentary, people ask us, what are we supposed to do? There should be some call to action. Ideas are welcome.
Snake Sathish reports that four elephants were recently captured by the Karnataka Forest Department and taken to the camp at Dubare.
Dubare is an elephant camp in a tourist zone. Captive elephants there give rides and do tricks. People who visit the camp can pay a fee and take part in bathing the elephants.
On our last visit, the kraals for the newly captured elephants were separated from the tourist camp by a wire fence. Tourists were discouraged from visiting the kraals.
When we shot the documentary, forest officials suggested that they were opposed to continually capturing more and more elephants. As one said, captive elephants have no jobs in modern India. Yet they are very expensive to maintain.
The population of captive elephants in Anechowkur grew from 11 in 2012 to 35 in 2014. As more animals are captured, it seems that these operations remain an important part of the government’s plan to deal with human-elephant conflicts, even though few officials actively advocate it.
We held a showing of the rough cut of “Elephants in the Coffee” on Monday night in Baldwin Library at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College. I was gratified by the reception. They applauded. I’m not used to hearing that.
I try to watch how the audience reacts, and they seemed very attentive during most of the film. It drew out some strong moments of laughter, too. And I could tell when they were getting a little bored.
When I compared this to the first showing to a rural studies class, when I presented a version that was 12 minutes longer, I noticed that this version of the film did not seem as dark. I still think we need to shorten several elements of the film and try to bring a hopeful upswing at the end. Some of the new material D.K. Bhaskar has obtained this fall will help in that regard, as will the comments from people in the audience.
There is hope for elephants in south India. And for farmers, too.
Kerala Suffering Elephants, a Facebook page, posted this image of a mahout recently killed by his elephant, once again pointing out what a dangerous career it is.
As you will see in “Elephants in the Coffee,” mahouts are a critical element of the government’s strategy to reduced conflicts between elephants and agriculture. When a dangerous elephant is removed from the forest, a mahout is expected to care for that elephant for the rest of its life – as many as 70 or 80 years.
This death of a mahout raises the question of whether the current strategy is merely shifting the risk. Certainly workers in coffee plantations are at risk from elephants, but so are the mahouts and their families who care for the captive elephants.
Here is what Kerala Suffering Elephants wrote:
“ONE MORE HUMAN DEATH IN KERALA. Mahout Kadali Babu was attacked by this elephant Mullackal Balakrishnan who has a history of killings during the Diwali festival at Thuravur, Alleppey. He had been admitted to the Kottayam Medical College Hospital on 1st November in a critical condition and succumbed to the injuries this morning. Balakrishnan has killed his mahouts before - in 1999, 2004 and 2010 and a woman in 2009. How many more deaths of mahouts and public will it take for people to see that elephants do not belong in the cities.”
The writer has a different view of mahouts that we have, and continues:
“While we do not justify the profession of elephant handling/ mahouts and captivity, we request people not to abuse his memory - he leaves behind a bereaved family, and we do not know the conditions which have forced him into this profession. The Mahouts themselves are a victim of this trade - starting out young, going through abuse like elephants, they remain trapped. Very few get out and start fresh, because of the lack of a system to help them. We, like all of you, want all of this to end and will continue to fight for the elephants.”
I think more highly of the mahouts, particularly the ones we have seen working in elephant camps. They seem to care deeply about the elephants, even though they are greatly underpaid and forced to live in impoverished conditions.
And as you’ll see in ‘Elephants in the Coffee,’ I don’t know how the government could manage elephants without mahouts.
Dr. Thomas Grant
Professor of Journalism at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College