By Harshad Karandikar, Species and Landscapes team, WWF-India
The sun dipped below the hills, lighting up the sky with a dazzling array of colours. I was in Kodiyur, a small tribal hamlet at the foothills of the Nilgiris, after having spent the day with WWF-India’s Western Ghats team, trooping around the area, inspecting fencing systems designed to prevent crop-raiding by elephants and discussing ways of streamlining the process of installation and maintenance of these systems. I stumbled through a freshly-ploughed field as we approached yet another ‘private’ fence, consisting of a single strand of wire, usually connected to a dubious source of electric power, often capable of turning pretty much anything that came in contact with it into toast. With dusk approaching, we would soon have to call it a day, and as much as I loved being out in the field, the idea of hot soup and some brainless entertainment on the TV was starting to sound way more exciting than I would have otherwise liked to admit.
Suddenly, there was a buzz in the air. A small crowd had gathered in the field next to us, and was gazing intently at the periphery of the village. In the rapidly falling light, I saw the source of their excitement - elephants! A small group of pachyderms was making its way to a pond at the edge of the village. In a few minutes, as the entire village turned up at the spot, the elephants reached the pond and started bathing and drinking. The calves frolicked around gleefully, while the mothers watched us warily. I watched, transfixed. We were just a few hundred feet away.
As we watched, I was startled by a loud voice behind me. One of the villagers was talking at the top of his voice, as if in conversation with somebody. He was looking intently at the elephants, and was loud enough for the animals to clearly hear him. He went on and on, without stopping, for a few minutes, while the rest of the village largely ignored him and continued to look curiously and intently at the animals. I tapped Boomi (Landscape Coordinator - Western Ghats & Nilgiris Landscapes) on the shoulder and asked him what the hell was going on.
‘He is talking to the elephants’, Boomi replied, with a poker face.
‘He is… what?’ I asked.
‘He is talking to the elephants. He is telling them that they need not fear us, that we mean no harm. He is saying that we are just curious and want to watch them. They can drink as much water as they want, and he then requests them to peacefully return to the forest.'
I watched the man, bewildered.
The elephants did not respond; they seemed to be comfortable with the distance between us. After a few more minutes of bathing and splashing water over their large bodies, the mothers nudged the calves out of the water and towards the forest. Soon, they were ambling away, having had their fill. The villagers watched till they had disappeared out of sight, as if saying goodbye to a favourite relative who had come visiting. I wondered what I had just experienced. Here was a village which experienced a high level of Human-Elephant Conflict, where elephants frequently raided crops and took away an entire season’s livelihood for a family, or caused human deaths and injuries once in a while. People had lost their family members, their livelihoods, and often their houses due to these pachyderms. And yet, there was intense fascination, admiration, even love and respect for these denizens of the jungle. These people were happy, even excited to see the elephants - their presence didn’t make them take off for the nearest safe haven; it brought them out of their houses and into their fields, trying to get a better look. How do you explain this with rationality or logic?
Every human wildlife conflict conference inevitably has a moment when such perspectives are dismissed as 'romantic' - and here I was, experiencing a moment when I knew that we had all got it so wrong. I walked back towards our vehicle with my head bowed in humility and respect for these magnificent communities which cover large expanses of our country. People who have co-existed more or less peacefully with wildlife, including large mammals such as elephants and tigers, while the rest of world went through a frenzy of killing over the last century, wiping out large mammal populations across large parts of the globe. People who are likely to have never heard of the words “sustainable living”, but practice it in their everyday lives, with every passing breath while the rest of the world gobbles up most of the planet’s resources. People who, unless pushed to the very edge, accept nature’s vagaries and the often debilitating impact that they directly have on their lives, yet love it, and have a deep-rooted fascination for its incredible denizens.