This is an age of search engines, google ad words, Facebook emojis, likes and dislikes. We think our life is surrounded by all these adjectives and without which there is no existence. If you google few key words, "Thiruvambadi Shivasundar" you will be astonished to find so many google hits and references to an elephant, that will make our film heroes/heroines/sportsmen swoon. A gentle soul that doesn't speak to you, but gave such immense pleasure to those around was an iconic elephant that attracted millions of people to touch, feel and seek blessings with its trunk.
True, we revere elephants (as elephant headed god, Ganesh) much more than we do our fellow human beings. We believe there is a spiritual connection that transcends all our beliefs to the god, somewhere. Yet, we fail to understand, it is a living soul, living being and chain them tethered to trees, make them walk tied with heavy metal, or drag it along the same roads, that we humans walk in a liberated way. While we bow in reverence, we can't appreciate the freedom that an elephant should roam free in the forests.
We first have to understand how do elephants end up on the roads, where the mechanized vehicles travel. First it was for wars, ceremonies and other human endeavors. And over the years, it has continued for human greed and entertainment - for the commercial sale of elephants to elephant-back safaris, zoos and circuses, causing the breakdown of complex relationships, lasting trauma and aggressive behavior. Another cause of elephant capture is the human-elephant conflict. We seem to have no understanding and correlation to elephant rampage other than to capture them outside the perimeters of the national parks. We have no time nor patience to understand the complexities of conflict, but our knee jerk reaction is to capture them first, put them in enclosures, starve them for three to six months, walk with them with pride with a metal hook to control them...Imagine a massive animal which can flick a human to cow down and listen to every command to sit, drink, eat, walk, etc...in these days, even a five year old child will throw tantrums but a fully grown elephant with a mind of its own is not suppose to.
We celebrate our lives with elephants in more ways than one. But do we ever think if elephants want to celebrate in similar ways. Recently, a high ranking forest official was trampled by a wild elephant in Nagarhole National Park. It was tragic and sad. A dear friend, S. Manikandan, IFS is the first high ranking official ever to be trampled by a bull elephant ever in any national park while on duty. We can deconstruct the incident in many ways. While a brilliant officers soul is silenced in the same national park, where the conflict is alarmingly raising it is also a fact that soon, the same tusker that trampled will be captured with a reason that it is becoming dangerous to humans. We will identify the elephant, which at this time has no name, will put him in an enclosure, give him a name that we think is appropriate and make him walk with us, may be in a parade, in a celebration or even to carry around few visitors around the park. Soon, his past history will be forgotten, but once he listens to the human commands - sit, stand, walk, bend... all is forgotten, but his new life chained and brutally beaten up. We will stand alongside the roads, marveling at the majesty, demeanour and walk, stature and will write in glowing ways, the beauty of the elephant. Least do we recognize that the elephant has been ruined of its freedom, free spirit and an opportunity to roam the forest that it belongs to. WE strive to protect them in the wild landscape, but we fail to protect them when the opportunity and adversity comes in front of us.
There is a systematic failure in our conservation scenario. It requires change and appreciation at the policy making bodies, chain of decisions that makes a wild elephant with no name to become iconic elephant with a name that bows to the humans with umpteen names around. It's time to wake up and put our collective consciousness together to leave the wild spirit in the wild areas and celebrate the spirit of wild - the sound, the vistas and the living beings that roam the wild landscapes.
Here are a few links to the Thiruvambadi Shivasundar and S. Manikandan, both of whom have been part of two multi-award winning elephant related films recently. - Gods in Shackes / Elephants in the Coffee
Few days ago, we posted a video of a young forest department staff trying their best to save the elephant calf to be joined back to the herd that had moved away. The video, photos went viral on social media and there was so much happiness and appreciation for the staff and in particular to the forest guard Palanichamy Sarathkumar, 28 yrs to have carried over 100 kg on his shoulder and run to rejoin the calf with its mother and herd. It was a positive story full of energy and heartwarming moments. World rejoiced and celebrated the spirit of human empathy towards animals, in particular to the young calf. Guard was a hero!
And within few days, in fact less than 48 hours, we have another story of distress when ill informed, short sighted and selfish humans didn't do the right thing, getting back the calf to the herd. India's wildlife challenge is so complex and differs from region to region and state to state. There is no single conduct of discipline and consideration.
This headline that appeared in the media is a sad and disturbing narrative:
Selfie mob separates elephant calf from mother.
The Nilgiri Biosphere is vast landscape of extraordinary vegetation and habitat ideal for elephants. Banidpur Tiger reserve and National Park is a part of the biosphere and the UNESCO world heritage, the Western Ghats. Elephants emerging out of the forest boundaries and visiting the agricultural land is increasingly more and more. Though elephants are very protective of the young calf around, in few incidents when the elephants are driven away by sound and noise by humans, they retreat fast and the young calf couldn't keep up with the pace of it. I am sure the mother was stressed, but couldn't do anything else but run away from the marauding humans.
It can happen to humans too, in a large gathering when there is chaos mother and child get separated and then often the child is taken away without a care by the humans to understand the gravity of the action. Soon, a perfectly healthy child with the motherly love becomes an orphan! Travesty of life takes over and the child grows up in an entirely different circumstances.
Animals too have this situation. In this tragic incident, humans who are the caretakers and protectors of the animals and everything around showed their different side of character. Yes, we all love elephants and more so baby elephant. But we are unfortunately ill educated and not empowered with knowledge to think what happens, when we go to spend too much time around the separated calf. Often the adult elephants don't accept them back into the herd. In this case, the stress of the selfie mob piled onto the young calf and it couldn't cope up with people surrounding and pulling it around. Imagine a young boy or girl separated from mother!!!!
The calf didn't live to be rejoined with the mother. It neither became an orphan nor gets back to the family. WE are shamelessly not empathetic and took away a young calves life, which takes over 21 months to come to this world. Just give a moment of thinking towards the mother who lost her baby!!!! Perhaps, we don't... that thinking doesn't suit us!!!! We just want a photo to post on social media!!!!!
In a similar incident few years ago, another elephant was picked up from another part of the forest and look at the life, chained and roped...where is the freedom that they deserve?
It is no surprise or exaggeration that habitats have shrunk all over the world. It is also no exaggeration that we talk at great length on the glaciers melting, ice caps fading away and climate change affecting the sustainability and livelihood of people around the world in so many different ways. It is indeed equally difficult to think, how wild animals, particularly the mega fauna are forced to emerge out of the natural habitats and thereby caught in the whirlpool of protection v/s conflict.
One of the famous you tube video of a tiger leaping to the top of the elephant when cornered was an emotional challenge to understand how the tigress was lurking around for so long outside the park boundaries. The tigress was primarily looking for its two cubs which had walked away outside the park. Mother was looking for the two cubs and got caught up with the human surroundings. The forest department made a valiant attempt to push back the tiger thereby stressing it further. It is true that elephants and tigers maintain a healthy distance and not get into a direct challenge of power in the wildlife area. The point of course is the tiger saw a different area of life and least did it expect a stressful encounter with the humans outside its comfort zone.
The unending stories of other wildlife animals particularly the mega fauna straying outside the national park boundaries is continuing to emerge time and again. Our reactions to such conflict / movement of wildlife in our surroundings, which at one time earlier was the mega fauna's rightful place is one of panic and at times retaliation. In the city of Bangalore, a large city with nearly 10 million people, on two edges of the city - North and South, the wildlife conflict continue to escalate. On the Southside is the Bannerghatta National Park that has a contiguous connection to other wildlife sanctuaries. At one time Bannerghatta was a good 10 kms away from human habitation, which at present is hardly 500 meters away from the national park boundaries. On the north side of the city, the rocky outcrop of Doddaballapur and beyond has been heavily mined and since the emergence of the new airport the demand for real estate has increased 10 fold.
On the Southside elephants are walking into the small farms and on the northside leopards have come into the human habitation looking for livestock and other small prey species. In both scenarios human deaths, animal deaths have been increasing and the reactions by the officials, the locals and the researchers have been one of anxiety, and fear. It is not a one off incident that can be brushed aside either. It continues time and again, as human habitation has expanded inch by inch all the way to the original homes of the wildlife.
This article that came today on Yale Environment 360 blog post talks about similar incidents and the future of conservation scenario. Until now the emphasis was more on the habitat protection, species conservation funded by many leading global funding agencies. As it stands, it is a think line that separates the wildlife boundaries and villages. In some places, it even overlaps as the encroachment has stretched beyond consideration. As we continue to ascertain the necessity of co-existence in diverse demographics and landscapes, it is time the focus of conservation too engage towards co-habitation. Is this a healthy trend at all? Not necessarily either!!! There is a particular way wildlife in the wild lands survive and the same wildlife in the urbanized land have to adapt!!! That is another topic of interest all together!!! For now, we need to address if we are going to live in conflict everyday or to understand the new way of life surrounded by mega fauna around us in the habituated landscape!
In the process of screening the film, "Elephants in the Coffee", often the questions asked are about the similar conflicts in Africa. Many people are aware of conflicts persisting in Africa but not so much happening in India. They are also not aware that ivory poaching is not the major threat to Asian elephants but the shrinking landscape!
The global species conservation group, IUCN says, 'The search for effective measures to deal with human-elephant conflict is one of the most significant challenges for elephant management.'. Indeed, in the African continent, as landscape are decreasing, elephants in addition face an uphill battle for survival, both for their ivory as well as losing their natural corridors. Much of the land has been taken away for plantations and is getting more and more fragmented. Elephant is the largest land mammal and protecting their land also helps to save the surrounding biodiversity and the woodland forests.
Though the extent of human-elephant conflict in Africa is not as expansive as in Asia, the mitigating efforts and to create large awareness to co-exist is significant. Among several mitigating efforts constantly being tried as Elephant & Bee Project.
Elephants often move quietly at night and crop ride, destroy homes and threaten humans often their might killing people. To protect their crops, livelihood and dwellings, people throw stones, ignite fire crackers or sometimes shoot at them. This leads to heightened aggression and few elephants don't get scared but charge forward. In this scenario continued research has indicated that elephants retreat to the sound of bees in their natural environment. The buzzing sound of bee hives and often honey bee stings on their sensitive parts such as eyes, ears and up their trunks makes them weary of the bees. With their sharp memory, elephants deter from the area for any possible future bee stings.
In an experiment many farmers in Kenya through a collaborative project are installing fence posts along the farming boundaries in an uniform distance of 10 metres. Each of these beehives are connected through a wire string and if elephants come and break the fence, the bee hive nests get disturbed and they start flying around often deterring the elephant to retreat. This experiment adapted in many farms across Africa and now in India too is fairly successful, as long the farmers keep the posts and bee hives in good condition. This approach is also sustainable for farmers in harvesting honey and keeping themselves elephant friendly in a natural way.
In addition to being a deterrent, honey bees are also natural pollinators increasing yields for farmers and helping them sell honey extracted from the hives. Extracting honey is an age old tradition for many farmers that has been adapted for generations.
Across Africa and Asia where elephant conflicts are at a dangerously alarming situation, people have put solar and grid electric fences passing low voltage electricity. This method has not been successful primarily due to the intelligence of the animal itself. Elephants learn quickly that this area is dangerous for their walk through and often understand breaking the circuit through breaking the post or knocking down the fence will break the electric circuit. Once the fence is down, there is no electricity and they can just cross over easily.
In this backdrop, are honey bees the best solution for the conflict? Not so much according to the new research conducted by Mduduzi Ndlovu by the University of Free State. In continuation of the effects of bees for an extended period of time, they find elephants are getting habituated to the threat. The research conclude that treatment evoking both the olfactory and auditory cues of a ‘bee threat’ is required to deter wild elephants. Also, most elephant movement is the night times when ambient temperatures are low and the bees are more passive and aren't active in low temperatures.
Their research findings available on Creative Common Attribution License clearly highlight that, the combination of sound and scent was a more realistic representation of a bee threat, which elicited a greater response from the elephants because: (1) elephants likely associated this combined stimulus with the presence of an active beehive, which indicated a greater threat to elephants than the sound of a passing swarm; and (2) elephants rely on both auditory and olfactory cues to detect a threat.
And this experiment in many of the Asian countries including India is still in an evolving process and has not proved to be hundred percent effective. There is much scope and constant evolution to analyze and find a pragmatic solution to the persistent and growing human-elephant conflict.
A recent video sent by a friend Rajeev N Kurup shares an interesting story of human empathy towards elephants. There are two different things to look into in this scenario...one of course, it shows how far inside are elephants coming in towards the human habitation. As this report shows in The Hindu, in recent years, the wild elephants coming to the human habitation has increased considerably. The second of course is the courage and empathy of the forest staff when adversity forces elephant calf to separate. No one wants an orphan and particularly so with the wild animals. It is heartening to see the forest official carrying a calf on his shoulders to join the calf back to the herd.
As much as we continue to think elephants and humans are in conflict, this video is an indication of the extraordinary efforts of individuals, department people as well as the common man when situation arises to protect the species. it is not often one can come across such acts of courage and a commitment to protect the young elephant calf. It was more heartening to see that the herd accepted the young calf back into their herd and it was all joyous as the young calf rightfully went back into the wild than becoming an orphan. This is also a remainder for us humans, if we can find such mechanism to include children too in such circumstances and connect them to families. We see so many orphaned children due to diverse forces of irrational judgement from humans. It is disheartening to see their wonderful life taken away and not given the right opportunity in many many instances. Please watch this video and let's celebrate such acts of empathy be it for the wild or for the human life!!!!
Here is a note from Rajeev N. Kurup on the background of this video...
A forest department official who rushed a baby elephant to its mother by carrying it on his shoulders is the new star on social media. It’s usual for man to ride an elephant, but it’s unheard of the other way. The photo of the forest official carrying the elephant calf immediately caught eyeballs and went viral on social media. The one-month-old calf got stuck in mud after it fell into a canal at Nellimala at Ooty’s Mettupalayam range. Officials from the Mettupalayam forest extricated the calf by toiling hard, but unknowingly separated it from its mother which was waiting nearby. The photo was of their efforts to reunite the baby with its mother. The road from the Vanabhadra Kaliamman temple in Mettupalayam to Thekkampatti has reserve forests on one side and the Bhavani River on the other.
It all started on Tuesday. A local man on a tractor found a cow elephant stayed put on the road. The driver raced the sound of the tractor expecting the animal to move away, but it instead tried to attack the tractor. Forest officials who reached the spot chased the elephant and its herd back to the forest by bursting crackers. That was when they heard the cries of the baby elephant trapped in the canal and realized that the elephant on the road was its mother waiting for her calf. The forest department team rescued the calf and immediately took it to the herd with one of the officials carrying it on his shoulders. The elephant herd was in the Nellithurai area. But the calf returned to the officials every time they tried to push it towards the group. They waited for two days, feeding the calf Lactogen, glucose and coconut water in between. Finally, the mother approached its calf on Thursday evening. The forest department team returned satisfied as the elephant took the calf back to the herd.
Losing shelter, livelihood and often life when an elephant walks into your home in the middle of the night!
How dangerous it is to be at the mercy of elephant when they walk quietly into your home crossing over many kilometers from their natural habitat? Here is a glimpse of this family losing their home, food in the kitchen and trampling around their little cultivated land. Walking in the middle of the night, crossing over from the other side of the hill, elephants came marching trampling everything under their feet, breaking apart fences, feeding on whatever was available around fresh, tender and tasty...Giant foot prints they may be, but give no warning and create no sound, catching the family off guard. Came, every step leading to the smell of rice / other vegetables/fruits etc. in the mud plastered loosely constructed home of the humble farmer, living over 10 kilometers away from the buffer area of the park. Young family of 4 children living in the adjacent room had little chances to escape! In the middle of the night, in pitch darkness, with no electricity but kerosene lamp, they didn't have a chance to outpace the mighty strides of an adult elephant. Presence of mind and a bit of good luck, family survives to the destruction of the elephants mother braving the situation and carrying her young child to the top of the temporary tree house.
Elephants didn't have mercy! They did what they wanted to, leaving the family in tatters and enormous destruction. Losing almost everything that was in their home, the small farmer is trying to rebuild himself, mother caring for 4 children while earning additional money through many other chores.
How would one react to such situations? Let's put ourselves in those situations with young family and how would it be to face up to the wrath of mighty elephants?
The elephant-human conflict can make humans get some funny ideas, and one of them here is an example of that. The report says, the forest department Vice-Chairman wants to sterilize the elephants to control the population. Rather than a scientific, technology driven solution to the ever growing conflict in the Coffee growing region of Karnataka, this approach is so short sighted and oddly irrational to say the least.
Would that in anyway decrease the ongoing conflict in the region? Would that reduce the capture of wild elephants and make them live in captivity for life? Neither of them will happen with the solution that has been proposed. Least of all, the elephant migrating to the coffee estates will not reduce in anyway !!!
A recent report in one of India's largest Newspaper Times of India covered an interesting feature on workers leaving the coffee estates and departing to their home town. This story is an interesting perspective on the expansion of the coffee trade, and how the whole world around its people and land are constantly changing. Displacing people, who would have traveled hundreds of miles as the story indicates the widespread growth of coffee industry in the Coorg region, where much of the film "Elephants in the Coffee", was filmed and interviews were collaborated. We have repeatedly heard fro the small coffee farmers that having a robust group of picking workers during the season is becoming more and more difficult. Without the constant source of workers, who often were local daily wage laborers, who are now looking to go out for masonry or civil jobs with government contractors, the farming community has opened itself to migrant workers.
Is that profitable to farmers at all? No, it is not. Most migrant workers don't have the skill set nor the tenacity to work long hours in the coffee estates, but one that gets them security for few months and later dislodges them to do other things. And the culture of working in a coffee farm is quite different to these workers who come from plain lands and who are not exposed to the new climate, and the surroundings. Of course, they come in contact with elephants, who are constantly around the estates and most of them have never even heard nor exposed to seeing one ever in their life. Their first reaction often is like seeing a cattle and they often get closer to the elephants with the hope that nothing happens. Many farmers are now having a nightmare having workers from other regions to be employed for their daily work. The cell phone alert system from Tata's can only be successful in those areas where they have cell towers to have good access and where these workers have cell phones to use.
There are many other systems like flashing around the main roads, digital bill boards, etc. to get the attention of humans to the presence of elephants around. It is not an easy to constantly keep up with the elephants roaming around coffee or tea estates as a matter of fact. And this insecurity with the workers on a daily basis is not productive and beneficial to the farmers who depend on the harvest for making a sustainable production.
Picture courtesy: Karthik Krishnan
Elephants in the Coffee travels to Tonasket, Washington, screening at the Community Cultural Center.
A recent surfaced on the internet with over 100 elephants crossing the agricultural land connecting with few of the barren lands in Odisha. Filmed by Mr. Sanjib Das, the video affirms the ongoing challenges of elephant corridors and the land lost by the large mammals in their struggle for survival. While Elephants in the Coffee continue to share the two sides of the agricultural conflict, in the end it looks like the conservation measures are only shortsighted if there is no land for the elephants to exist within their own domain. I often wonder, in the food chain, man sits at the top and the requirement for survival and greed! Where will elephants eventually find a safe haven for their existence. We think of co-existence so often, and that can only happen with the man considering to keep an open mind and reduce his foot print in every inch of the elephantine land that is already shrinking beyond boundaries.
Dr. Thomas Grant
Professor of Journalism at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College