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.
“All obstacles, whatever they may be, will be rooted out by worshipping Ganesh,” promises an ancient Hindu scripture. Every year when Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated people from all sections of the society in India chant ‘Ganpati Bappa Moriya’ with full reverence. Praying to the deity with great belief for knowledge, peace, prosperity and harmonious co-existence. Ganesha is the remover of all obstacles for humans in all conditions!
The Ganesha, also called Ganapati, elephant-headed god of beginnings. Indeed all-Hindu rituals offer their first reverence to Ganesha unequivocally across the world. His name means both “Lord of the People” (gana means the common people) and “Lord of the Ganas” (Ganesha is the chief of the ganas, the goblin hosts of Shiva).
The symbolism of Ganesha, elephants is revered and sought blessings everywhere. It is perceived to be the living incarnation of Ganesha. Thus, elephants are tolerated from being killed, even when they bring destruction to people and property. Tolerance towards elephants comes from their inner belief and strength towards the pot-bellied deity.
That perception and belief has changed in recent years. Today is Ganesha Chturthi and is a day to reflect how we have reduced that symbolism to pray to a deity for a day, but can’t co-exist through the rest of the time. The compelling award-winning documentary, Elephants in the Coffee, reflects on how the society that tolerated to its wild ways and at times destroying livelihood/property etc. has now changed its principle.
Society outside the boundaries of the national park has no tolerance to the elephants and is adapting ways to kill elephants. Throughout the elephant habitat zones, agricultural conflicts with elephants are forcing rural residents to electrocute the animals with high-tension wires or shoot them with guns, poison-tipped arrows. In some places, rice wine, an elephant favorite laced with insecticides is a means adapted by humans. Poachers and human-induced accidents add to the toll. If not able to kill through forceful measures, elephants are captured, tortured and made submissive in temporary camps. Much of their life, captive elephants have no role in the human society, other than being cared by two humans, a mahout and a Kavadi.
Elephants do not have such principles to kill and cause problem to humans. Their original land and corridors are taken away and their natural habitats are shrinking. They come in contact by virtue of crossing over to their perceived land. It is time we give a thought towards peaceful co-existence than confrontational approach. Nearly a fifth of the world's human population lives within the range of the Asian elephant; how long can we ever coexist?
If not, what is the future of conservation of elephants? Would we allow our consciousness to the glorious celebration through a soulless deity and seek blessings and marvel at its supreme power? Elephants today carry a heavy load on their head and shoulders just to stay outside the intolerant means adapted by us.
We should not limit our co-existence only to give space in our homes and offer worship to an invisible god, the still deity but learn new ways in which we can share and care towards the living god, the elephants. We cannot let go of the age-old traditions and acceptance for our greed of expansion.
As we celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi, it is time we seek its divine blessings for co-existence and be more tolerant to each other. A world without elephants, is a sad and unimaginable.
Bhaskar sent me this picture today and I opened it during break at the Black Cat Picture Show, where we are showing "Elephants in the Coffee."
It is an extremely disturbing photo of elephants running from fire. I don't know yet where the photo came from, and Bhaskar is working to find out more even as I write this.
But it illustrates the changing attitude toward elephants that troubles me. As we note in our documentary, the elephant was once a god in India, but increasingly people call it a menace. Farmers try to drive elephants from their fields. People try to drive elephants from their streets and their villages.
But when one person drives off an elephant, the elephant conflict doesn't end -- it merely moves. This is problem India faces in every state in which elephants exist.
As Ananda Banerjee writes in "Crocodile tears for the elephant," "A majority of elephants, in fact, are now found outside protected areas such as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries." Elephants cannot be fenced inside some national park. If the world is to have Asian elephants, man must learn to co-exist with these incredible creatures.
In this article, there is also disturbing evidence that elephant populations are again declining. The most recent elephant census says India has only 27,000 elephants, down from 30,000 in 2012. The government claims that the number does not reflect a true reduction in population and that, instead, it reflects better methods of counting.
However, this should be warning. As Bannerjee writes, "There are very few research studies on the ecology and social dimension of human-elephant (or other wildlife) relationships in areas outside forests."
The world needs to study and address issues of human-elephant interaction outside the national forests because that is now where most elephants live. We cannot rely on firecrackers to solve this issue.
Please take a few minutes to listen to D.K. Bhaskar talk about "Elephants in the Coffee" on radio station KCUR in Kansas City.
Here is the link.
The interview starts about 26 minutes into the hour. Bhaskar does a great job of explaining why we made the film and why is is important.
And thanks to KCUR for helping us tell this important story.
‘Elephants in the Coffee’ Premieres August 30 at ABAC
TIFTON--A one-hour documentary titled “Elephants in the Coffee,” produced by Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College Associate Professor of Journalism Thomas Grant and his students, will premiere on Aug. 30 at 6 p.m. in Howard Auditorium on the ABAC campus. This event is free and open to the public.
The documentary shows how the expansion of coffee plantations in Southern India led to conflicts between humans and elephants. With hundreds of people and dozens of elephants dying each year, the film explores the question of whether farmers can co-exist with this endangered animal.
Grant first became aware of the issue on a CLIC Abroad trip to India. Created by his friend, D.K. Bhaskar, CLIC Abroad is a non-profit group dedicated to using photography to connect students from America and India. Grant has been a part of the program since 2011.
“During a CLIC Aboard trip in 2012, we took some students back to India, and we saw forest department elephant camps at the Nagarhole National Park,” said Grant. “At the time, there were 11 captive elephants there tended by mahouts (elephant keepers) from the Jenu Kuruba tribe. When I returned in 2014 with more ABAC students, there were 35 elephants in the camp. The question arose, why are there so many more captive elephants?”
Grant got his answer later that week when he watched the mahouts and government workers force two more freshly-captured wild elephants into giant wooden cages. These elephants were accused of killing people in a nearby agricultural area.
“We learned that due to the expansion of farming, particularly coffee plantations, led to more and more conflicts between endangered elephants and humans,” said Grant. “More than 100 people are killed by elephants each year in India. Because the pachyderms are protected by law they cannot be killed so the government’s solution has been to capture and force them into submission by tribal mahouts hired by the Indian government. This is what inspired the documentary.”
Grant and his team of students spoke to farmers of large and small coffee estates, including Tata Plantation, the largest coffee farming operation in India that has a joint agreement with Starbucks. Biologist Karthic Krishnan provided video of elephants living inside the coffee plantations of Tata and tracks the animal on the estates. Grant and the ABAC students also spoke with officers of the forest department, including former game warden K.M. Chinnappa, who has been working to protect elephants for more than 50 years; scientists and professors who study the human-elephant conflict; and veterinarians and mahouts who manage the captive animals.
The earliest video in the documentary was shot in 2012 but the bulk of the footage was done in 2014 and 2015 during two study abroad trips to India. A total of 10 ABAC students were heavily involved in the project from the conception to the shooting of the video. Their interviews offer the Western viewpoint of the issue. Five students from the Ponnampet Forestry College in southern India served as translators for the ABAC group.
“The rough cut of the documentary was completed in summer of 2016, and thanks to a faculty enrichment grant from the ABAC Foundation in the fall of 2016, I was able to complete the final cut during the spring of 2017,” said Grant.
Since its initial viewing, “Elephants in the Coffee” has won Best Documentary at the Doc Sunback Film Festival in Kansas. On Aug. 29, the film will be shown at Georgia Southwestern College. The documentary will also be shown in Washington, D.C. in September, the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in New York City this October, and has been selected by film festivals in Russia, India, Lithuania, Estonia, Italy, Canada, and the United States. Presently, Grant is trying to get wider distribution, focusing on showings at colleges and high schools, as well as broadcast, cable or video on demand sources.
Grant believes that elephants and farmers can co-exist, and hopes that some farmers, like those at the Tata estates, try to make that happen.
“Conflicts between wildlife and agriculture seldom have quick and easy solutions,” said Grant. “Our coffee comes from a complex ecosystem and resolving these issues will require concerted effort from inside India, and from abroad. We believe Starbucks, which is committed to environmentally sound practices, could take a leading role is trying to develop elephant-safe coffee.”
Toward that end, Grant is working with Dr. Jason Scott in the Forestry and Wildlife Department at ABAC to seek and find better ways to track elephants and reduce conflicts. And with CLIC Abroad, Grant is working toward creating an elephant education center near the national park in India that could help work toward co-existence.
“We love elephants, and we love coffee,” said Grant. “The world should be big enough to sustain both. But right now, Asian elephants are in a battle for survival because of these conflicts with agriculture. And few people in the Western world are even aware of the problem. We can’t solve the problem. But we can throw some light on it. When we see something terrible happening, as it is right now on the coffee plantations of India, we have a duty to do what we can.”
Radio station KCUR says "Elephants in the Coffee" shows the crucial connection between coffee and the future of elephants.
The article posted on their website was written by Donnelly College professor Melissa Lenos.
"Elephants in the Coffee" will show at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 12, at the Olathe Indian Creek Library, 13511 S Mur-Len Road, Ste. 129, Olathe, Kansas. Filmmaker D.K. Bhaskar will give a talk after the screening.
The story of Tenzing Bodosa of Assam, India, is proof that farms can be productive, profitable and friendly to elephants.
As reported in The Better India, his farm has been certified as the world's first elephant-friendly tea farm. The write:
"The most interesting part of his farm is the buffer zone, which is the area at the end of his farm from where the jungle begins at the Bhutan border. He has left that part of the farm as is. He does not cut down the trees or start a fire there, instead he has planted bamboo trees on which the wild elephants feed. He has also not put any barriers in and around his plantation, so that the wild animals from the jungle can freely move in his farm.
"At times, you can see at least 70-80 wild elephants in his farm."
Tenzing grows organically, and grows multiple crops on the land. He calls it "intercropping."
"According to Tenzing, tea companies mislead farmers to grow only tea on their farms. Indian climate is suitable for growing anything from apples to strawberries and from tea to rice, but the farmers don’t intercrop. This is because when you use chemicals, it is difficult to grow consumable fruits in the same farm and the soil slowly becomes infertile, as microorganisms also die due to pesticides. But if farmers grow organically, then all the seasonal fruits, vegetables and even paddy can be grown in the same tea farm. This makes the farmers self sufficient. Moreover, growing one’s own food will ensure that there is enough food for everyone and farmers can get a chance to export their produce for bigger benefits. He also urges the urban population to learn the basics of farming and grow as much they can on their rooftops or balconies. This will increase the food security of the nation and thus, the government will help the farmers to export too. Also, it’s only if one grows organically will the entire ecosystem get back into place."
Coffee farmers in south India also intercrop. But in Coorg, where we shot our film "Elephants in the Coffee," the farmers seem obsessed with driving elephants out of their farms. Perhaps they could talk to Tenzing to see if a new approach might work for both farmer and elephant.
Dr. Thomas Grant
Professor of Journalism at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College