Posted in Books

Review: The Elephant Whisperer – Lawrence Anthony.

My awareness of Lawrence Anthony’s work was purely incidental. I would be looking out for elephant news and he was always there in You tube in a time when we still did not have whatsapp or google. I am sure i have watched the video of elephants mourning his demise. What a blessed life. He could have lived longer, but the stress of running the reserve must have told upon his health. This we understand as we turn page after page of his book ‘the elephant whisperer.’

As Anthony makes it clear at the outset, the elephant whisperer is not him but the elephant in question that spoke to him. This book has been on my reading list now for years. Finally got my hands on it (kindle version). Comes second to Tanya James’ ‘the tusk that did the damage’ on the elephant scene in India that centers around the menacing poaching issue we have in the country for the precious tusks of the elephants. (Same is true of Indian single horned rhinos as well in the state of Assam, similar to the precarious situation of the double horned rhinos of Africa that are nearly hunted down to extinction already. Anthony’s ‘the last rhino’ is on the rhinos). Until this book happened I believed, the Indian wild elephant escaped poaching even if unhealthily domesticated at an alarming rate.

My introduction to the Zulus and Bantus, the native tribes of South Africa happened in my ninth standard I guess, when I read for the first time a James Hadley Chase novel ‘the vulture is a patient bird.’ It is because of the content i remember the title and the tribes. I can say this may have been a chief reason for my interests in Africa including its wildlife. Later on of course, there was Wilbur Smith. Literally every single trilogy or whatever of his I read with, mainly for the wildlife info even if it was all fiction. ‘The elephant song’ of his was special. The matriarch comes through in Smith’s works. I would like to skip his latest works that I wouldn’t attribute to him, probably penned under his name by someone else (like in the case of Sidney Sheldon). They don’t carry the same Smith stamp. If you have been reading Wilbur Smith, you must be familiar with entire Africa from Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia to Congo, South Africa, Zaire and Zambia (both of erstwhile Rhodesia) and more. You learn of the languages such as Swahili. You discover the native tribes, the shortest men, the yellow men, the spear throwers, the trackers etc. You develop a deep respect for the dark continent that has been mindlessly exploited and now made a complete mess. I agree with Anthony on the violence aspect about Africa which has to keep with its wild nature. Apartheid is long since over. Afrikaners and the other remaining whites are doing a wonderful service to the conservation causes in Africa in the present, even if it was their ancestors who nearly brought the native wildlife to the brink of extinction in the first place. Still the current conservation efforts must not be underestimated or disrespected. This is very much the need of the hour.

Unlike fellow Indians, I am totally against domestication of our Indian wild elephants for Hindu temple service and for gala events like Navaratri-Dusshera celebrations in Mysore palace grounds in the name of culture, heritage and traditions. I have been vociferous over this capturing and taming of wild Indian elephants from the jungles, earning quite a few adversaries in the process. But here end my feeble protests. NGOs for wildlife and elephant lovers have to take the mantle from well-wishers and whistleblowers (!) like me at this stage.

My piece on temple elephants in India captured from wild for domestication, inspired by Lawrence Anthony’s ‘the Elephant whisperer’

I wish India has someone like Lawrence Anthony to save our wild elephants from poachers, regain the lost elephant corridors and conserve the population from going to extinction inevitably in a century or two.

wild Indian elephants faring no better…

The book is a treat to elephant lovers and naturalists and conservationists. It is enjoyable and good learning guide for anyone for that matter. Those of us who are keen on safaris must know what it takes to run a show.

Lawrence Anthony confirmed what I had read about the pachyderms over years: that the elephants communicate very intelligently in a unique way both physical and metaphysical, with their stomach rumblings in a very low frequency inaudible to human ears that therefore fail to pick up the jumbo communication. So that way, quite like the whales, the elephant community too may be much more evolved than us homo sapiens when it comes to tele communication. It is not without a reason that these giant mammals have survived and roamed planet earth many millions of years. The other way the elephants communicate is by tactile contact in the bush. The infrared waves of elephant whispers probably serve as transmission conduits to reach over herds spread across entire landmass of Africa which is stunning! Science may prove theories in labs but here was this dauntless conservationist living the experience to relate his story to the world. To me his well lived life and real time observation suffice as authentic proof to elephant telepathy we talk about including the long elephantine memory. The tuskers’ moving vigil for two days on Lawrence’s demise is the testimonial ultimate for what Lawrence recorded in his book: “The most important lesson i learned is that there are no walls between humans and the elephants except those we put up ourselves.

Anthony also in the course of his writing introduces us to the lush and rich spectrum of his natural reserve Thula Thula:

  • mongoose, warthog, tawny eagle, martial eagle, impala, zebra, wildebeest, kudu, nyala, baboon, black mumba, black python, bark spider, leguaan (african monitor lizard), duiker, southern white rhino, honey badgers, crocs, barbel (fish), cape buffalo … and of course elephants
  • (noctural creatures): bush pigs, giant eagle owl, vondos, bush rats, nightjars, bats, bushbabies, hyenas, leopard, lynx, serval
  • reptilians: Black mumba, puff adder, mozambican cobra
  • trees native to Africa: Acacia robusta, marula, boerbeen, fig, umbrella thorn tree
  • the winged nesters: plum coloured starlings, european rollers, bush shrike, narina trojans, gwala gwala, vultures

What a spectacular life Anthony lived! Added bonus was his elephants whispering to him accepting him as one among them. Nana and Frankie, the matriarchs in particular shared a wavelength with Anthony, able to reach him. Here i have to mention Anthony’s intention of keeping the wildlife feral and so his deliberate breaking up of connection with the tuskers so that the herd moves deeper into the bush far from human contact for their own sake. This was also necessary as Anthony felt that this way, the elephants will stay wary of poachers (or any humans for that matter).

When I was reading about the way Anthony was spending long and perilous nights in the bush to safekeep the elephants in the boma when they were traumatized, rowdy and tyrant, i couldn’t stop myself from admiring the man for not only his courage but also for his big heart that did not hesitate to sacrifice creature comforts to settle down the disturbed gang in his reserve. The herd mistrusted human beings having been subject to witnessing massacre of their family members. The move by truck and darting (with tranquilizers) had dazed them and made them more violent and edgy. Anthony however focused only on rehabilitation of the elephants on their new home winning their confidence and trust gradually. In the process he did not lose his patience or hope even for a minute. He believed sincerely, the elephants deserved a chance. It was a painstakingly done work worth its rich dividends. You have to be gifted for sharing such a compassion for wildlife to be going this extra mile. As Anthony himself says, one has to probably grow up in the bush with the right mindset to be able to work or live in this kind of nature’s setting. It is a tough but rewarding life for those with a passion for conversation. Only that, your physical fitness must match the demanding conditions of the life in the veldt. And African tribes like the Zulus of warrior blood naturally fit in their roles as armed rangers of the reserve. Having to share their living space with Africa’s rich wildlife and having a history, they are the natural choice for the maintenance and running of the Zululand sanctuary in the heartland of South Africa.

Anthony speak:

  • Living rough in the wilderness is a salve for the soul. Ancient instincts awaken; forgotten skills are relearned, consciousness is sharpened and life thrums at a rich tempo.
  • No matter how heart-wrenching the situation, we never interfered with nature. Brutal as the food chain is, that’s the balance of life in the wild.
  • Interesting observation on fright-flight distance, innovative game keeping methods, round the clock alertness and an equally enthusiastic team of rangers, merit a mention. Bush piloting and crane lifting on darting are familiar with us in India where latter methods are employed when it comes to dealing with the tuskers.

    What I consider firsthand research material about Anthony’s work may be the elephant communication information and Askari (male elephants led by an ageing patriarch) observations in particular apart from breeding habits of different fauna. Valuable input for future wildlife studies and conservationists. Kudos to his diplomacy with the native tribes. In today’s highly jingoistic egoistic material world, we need this kind of trendsetter. In another part of the book, Anthony says, it is the elephant who is the tone setter for the relationship shared between him and the herd. He goes on to narrate how each and every member of the family enriched his life and added dimensions to his perspective on the African elephant.

    Serious poaching threats from armed gangs and sharpshooters fitted to their teeth, the uneasy relationship Anthony shared with Nkosi Biyela and the Indunas in general whose ancient zululand is the reserve, the epidemics waiting to devastate wildlife if unchecked, the brutal forest fires, the rogue beasts on prowl (like the male elephant Mnumzane in musth that had to be put down) endangering not only safaris but also other wildlife (with Mnumzane shearing white female rhino to death with his tusk), natural disasters such as river flooding and breaking banks, the maintenance of full length electric fence with low voltage just to stun the wildlife from crossing over but not kill, the challenge of balancing the wildlife population that ensures the survival of the fittest in accordance with the food chain, nerve wracking dealings with the superstitious African tribes not antagonizing the sons of the oil, the law and order issues to be taken up with law enforcement, the follow up with KNZ of whatever, the wildlife departments and reserve sanctuaries of South Africa, … and much much more need to be addressed on day-to-day basis running a wildlife reserve as vast and teeming with diverse wildlife as Thula Thula.. And if the reserve is to boast of a safari lodge like Thula Thula, the challenge is many more time magnified, keeping in view the safety of the tourists. The days start well before dawn for a safari and end with the last of the tourists hitting the sack as Anthony explains. Lawrence’s wife Francoise now in charge of Thula Thula seems to have lent a French touch to the holiday resort with her exotic cuisine, a big draw with the visitors naturally. Game sighting is adventure like nothing else. Only those who have sampled this heady brew of thrill will know why nature and wildlife can be such a humbling and invigorating experience at the same time, making one even spiritual. You connect with your basal instincts when you confront all forms of life from the millipede, centipede and scorpions and spiders to the crocodiles and rhinos and bucks and antelopes and the giant elephants under trees as ancient as you can imagine, with their gnarled roots and spread branches sporting myriad coloured winged nesters. A profusion of life in the natural element. Nightlife in the wild is another symphony. What a welcome break from the cacophony of our urban materialistic life.

    birth control not for Indian wild elephants…

    Hopefully land acquisition for expansion of Thula Thula is now done with, which can provide the wildlife in the reserve more of room to amble about. Anthony also gainfully employed the local manpower which is mutually beneficial. Let’s see. I have always dreamt about a Kenya or Tanzania or even an Uganda or Zimbabwe safari, but never South African. My interest in South Africa got piqued with the Netflix serial ‘the penguin town.’ Now I have ‘Thula Thula’ too in my bucketlist! Hopefully i can make it with my entire family there in a couple of years, along with my grandchildren in tow! How i would luv to show my grandkids Nana and Frankie!

    My first ever elephant write-up. The original draft may be from over 10 years back…

    Anthony not a serious contender for Noble prize in lit still his south African lingo is something! Good sense of humour there. That supersized vacuum cleaner of an elephant trunk! Menopausal rhino!

    Rounding up with Lawrence Anthony quote: THE BEST CAGE IS NO CAGE. Om Shanthi!

    Posted in Socio-Cultural

    Stop Cruelty To Elephants In The Name Of Religion NOW !!!

    some 5 elephants, 3 in the front row and 2 behind for Sri Bhagawati temple vela (pooram), cherukulangara, Thrissur – day March 28, 2013
    some 5 elephants, 3 in the front row and 2 behind for Sri Bhagawati temple vela (pooram), cherukulangara, Thrissur – day March 28, 2013

    (Originally published the 7th of April, 2013 in a private blog . Edited and Reblogged )

    I have always been awed by the Pooram festivals of Kerala, my neighbouring state. The most famous one that attracts hordes of both local and foreign tourists is the Pooram Festival of Shri Vadakkunathan Temple in the town of Thrissur. This mega temple festival that falls in the end of the month of March stars over a dozen elephants parading the Temple Deities in hot, merciless summer sun of India to the loudest blares of ‘Pancha Vaadhyam’ – the five traditional desi musical instruments comprising drums and trumpets.

    A devout Hindu, i am at loss to comprehend the logic behind this heartless, mindless cruelty inflicted upon these most beautiful and wisest beasts on face of earth, the elephants, in the name of religion.

    Imagine what could happen to jumbos trotting barefoot in intense heatwave of over 40 C (over 100 F) with capstans weighing in tonnes on their breaking back, in front of tens of thousands of frenzied crowds to the ear-splitting thumping of the Pancha Vadhyam, with firecrackers bursting nonstop through the celebrations? Won’t the elephants feel claustrophobic in the first place for their size, away from their natural wild habitat?

    During one of my trips to Kerala, I could attend the Pooram festival of a very small and beautiful temple in Thrissur – the Bhagwati temple of Cherukulangara.  Even in this small event, some five elephants partook in the festivities.  March was closing with April starting, and already the mercury was rising rather menacingly.

    In the evening came the rudest shock: I was in the temple where in the backyards i saw the five elephants with feet chained loosely (the elephants i must admit looked healthy, well fed (which was a small consolation) and were not chained stiff; they could still amble about and i was relieved they did not look alarmed or disturbed. While Shakthi and Shiva are who I look upon like my beloved, respectful and benevolent parents, I wonder whether the same Mother Goddess of mine and the Father would approve of such inhumane torture and cruelty meted out to defenceless elephants in the name of religion in their holy abode.What is this other than man-invented frivolous ritual? )  The elephants were quietly feeding on leaves and fruits and seemed relaxed that somewhat pacified me. Given the hysteric beating of drums and the creaking of loudspeakers in highest decibels, i was slightly agitated. After all it was my first ever LIVE Pooram!   (In Bhagwati temples (Devi temples), Pooram is referred to as ‘Vela.’)

    Elephants are mammoth species that subsist on vast swathes of moving space. That is how nature makes them as well as any other wild life: nomadic and free-spirited. How claustrophobic the gentle giants must feel within the confined spaces and congested quarters with granite flooring and barred ventilation, having been ‘tamed’ and ‘taught to obey’ with the ‘tanda’ (stick)?

    http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-tamilnadu/heartrending-scenes-mark-burial-of-temple-elephant/article2647127.ece

    The time was around 7 pm in the evening and then started the fireworks.  My  heart skipped a beat but maintaining a cautious distance from the elephants I still fixed my gaze on them to check if they were okay.  Thank God a million, the elephants seemed disinterested in the noise, the sound, the fanfare and continued feeding, unperturbed by the 500 wala and the 1000 wala crackers lighting up the skies for the next 1 hour or so.  I went back to my friend’s house in haste and even from a distance of 1 km could hear the bursting of the crackers.

    That night my friend, a native of Thrissur, and I were talking of the fate of elephants in the country for a long time.  Mad pachyderms running berserk, going on rampage in our temple towns is not rare today in India especially in the state of Kerala. Under-fed in many cases in unbearable heat conditions, with their ‘mast’ season ignored and mating denied, where and who else can these giants vent their ire on?

    What is the point in touting that some of us are vegetarians if we can knowingly inflict so much harm on other living species without an ounce of guilt.

    Very few countries in this world are blessed to have elephants as native beasts and India is one such a rare country.  I feel blessed for this reason that ours is this ‘Punya Bhoomi’ where lions, tigers and elephants roam freely perhaps only next to Africa. We are lucky in the sense that in spite of all the self-inflicting damages we do to ourselves, we have a few of them still (luckily)surviving (and even flourishing as in case of Bengal Tigers and Gir Lions) to this date.  The Moghuls, the Maharajahas and the British occupiers have all had their share of trophies and the cheetah is long gone extinct since the British Raj days thanks to relentless hunting.  A few leopards are all we are left with in the extended cat family.  So its the first and foremost duty of every Indian citizen to ensure that these elephants, tigers and lions and  leopards are treated with utmost care lest they might go extinct right in front of our eyes. And in the event of such a worst scenario becoming a reality,  we can not excuse ourselves ever for the deliberate lapses that we never try to correct…  I for one thing cannot imagine an India without elephants… its too much for me…  But the wild life population in India is dwindling at an alarming rate.   Often I wonder, why God did not plant elephants as native species in America and/or Europe where they might be loved and cared for and best looked after (in present times)?

    Do we Indians realize what a bountiful gift God has bestowed upon us?  What an insensitive lot we are…

    While i have been awed simultaneously by the Pooram festivals i have watched in television over years, somehow it’s always been playing in the back of mind that this madness must stop sooner or later, at any and/or all costs.  Grateful to acknowledge, a good number of Keralites share a similar line of thought as mine. Except perhaps for the temple ‘Devaswoms’ of Kerala and a few oldies, i don’t believe anyone wants this ritual to continue with all their heart. Still it is even more complex now than ever before to draw curtains on this cruel custom as even churches and mosques in ‘God’s own country’ have joined the bandwagon to count on elephants to find an expression for their overt-religiosity.

    I have not been to the Mysore Dushshera  either which is held annually in the Mysore Palace Grounds on the final Vijayadhasami day of the 10 day Dushshera Festival  (as Navrathri culminates to the climax closing throughout India), one of our major national/religious festivals.

    In the ‘Dubare’ elephant camp in the state of Karnataka, i was told the elephants in the camp would be partaking in the annual Mysore Dushshera.   To be fair to our Forest Department, i concede, the elephants in this camp looked healthier too and well-fed, taking a daily dip in the river Kaveri that flows through these parts.

    Later I learned, elephant calves in the forests of Kerala and Karnataka are routinely trapped and captured for the sole purpose of domesticating them to serve in temple festivals and Mysore Dushshera.

    I have taken elephant rides in Thekkady and Munnar in Kerala, where domesticated elephants are used for elephant safaris and admit that I have enjoyed these rides.    I was of course told these are the elephants that strayed from the forest cover as young calves.  The ‘kumki’ or the trainer elephants are sometimes used to tame those wild rogue elephants that may stray into neighbouring/bordering villages destroying standing crops.

    There is elephant safari even in Singapore Zoo (last heard it is scrapped).  In the zoos of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Doha, Qatar, i was pleased enormously in the first instance to see the Indian elephants enclosures, a natural reaction.  While in Malaysia, the elephants looked happy, in Qatar desert heat, the single lone Indian elephant seemed to be reeling under the extreme temperature and climatic conditions …. it looked so bored that I wanted to touch it and make it feel better … The elephants were gifts from India by the then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi on her diplomatic visits to these nations.  What a gruesome (!) idea of diplomacy.   Are elephants private properties to be gifted or traded in?

    In Mysore zoo, the elephants are faring better, thank god for small mercies.  Perhaps this is the only zoo in India where the elephants are treated fair.  Weather seems to suit them and they are breeding well.   I have no complaints for a change on this zoo.

    Even so the typical diet that a domesticated elephant may be fed with is not what it may chew upon in the wild: leaves and twigs and fruits and melons and even barks and shoots from trees and bushes. Instead what do we feed our pet elephant: jaggery balls and coconuts!

    In Tamil Nadu, I am aware of some temples hiring elephants for festival season.   As a young girl, I have seen bedecked elephants walking down our streets asking for hand-outs, led by their mahouts.  The unthinkable scene of an elephant walking a busy street can happen only in India, even as cars and scooters ply by without stopping to take a second look…  I don’t know whether to be amused by that or feel sad….

    Man-elephant conflict is forever on the rise because the elephant corridor in India is shrinking at an alarming rate and the water holes that are feeding and breeding spots for elephants are fast drying up.  The  beasts therefore have no option than to walk into human habitat foraging for food especially in scorching summers .

    Here is an interesting article on an elephant photographer:

    http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-sundaymagazine/elephant-man/article4590009.ece

    I share very much the photographer’s sentiments – like for  him, the elephant is my most favourite beast on planet Earth.  I also worship (!) elephants hahaha because i am a Hindu and to us, all animals and plants and even inanimate objects that help us in our lives are Gods, and elephant is our special god Ganesha Himself and none other!!!  I honestly see such a divinity in cows and elephants – may be because i have been brought up with such beliefs and may be because their benign nature seems to affect and touch my soul …

    I can also understand fellow Indians’ emotional, spiritual attachment to elephants – most look at an elephant as a divine creature – which could be our greatest probem! And we are one of those families that still leave milk for snakes in Shakthi temples ! Our love and devotion and REVERENCE  for animals is so very complex, complicated that we are causing them more of  harm and making their existence miserable, a fact we are oblivious  to. The monkey menace in New Delhi and other cities of ours and the wandering cows in highways of India are glaring examples of what blind faith can do to a population.

    My sincere wish is that, let the Pooram festivals of Kerala go on from millennium to millennium, but please play up the ‘pancha vaadhyam’  – the 5 musical instruments to the hilt and free the elephants into the wild where they belong !  This is what Lord Ganesha will want you to do, fellow Hindus, Kerala temple Dewaswoms, will you ever get it? The Pooram festival and the hapless trained elephants are big time money-spinners for Kerala tourism. The mahouts have to be educated and weaned off the vocation in a phased manner first followed by rehabilitation. A very complicated and sensitive matter we have here at hands – that which could have repercussions on the thriving of the local economy: a socio-political issue that presupposes a careful strategy on in-depth study and a smooth maneuver.

    For those who would like to make parallels between Jallikattu and Elephant tourism: DON’T. It is not fair or equal.

    I wish we have legislation introduced in India forbidding training of elephants for religious purposes and processions and ban on elephants from being raised as pets in wealthy homes or from being gifted to foreign countries where their adaptation could prove to be traumatic given the hostile local environment. I wish there is a statute that prevents capture of elephant calves from the wild and one that returns the domesticated tuskers back to where they came from: the wild.

    And remember elephants are NOT our toys to play with and use for our amusements.  I am guilty as anyone here for enjoying the song ‘Jiya Jale’ pictured with the elephants in the background… but i wish this cruelty stops forthwith… enough is enough…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwoSBP_GiuQ

    And what is the need to get elephant calves from the wild to be trained by the ‘kumkis?’   Let every single elephant calf or rogue elephant that strays into human habitat in this country be sent right back into the wild. Elephants are very much social creatures that roam about in groups, not ‘lone wolves.’ Separating them from their herds is enough to break their spirit in one swift blow.

    Elephants belong in the wild, elephants are very wise, sensitive, sweet creatures… let them have their bit of private space on Planet Earth like you and me…  its their birth right.  Think of the world WITHOUT ELEPHANTS… can you?

    _______________________________________________________________________

    ** This post excludes the serious issue of Elephant poaching, very rampant in Africa and also to some extent in India (or generally Asia). Recommended reading: ‘The tusk that did the damage‘ – a fictional work based on real life events, authored by Tania James.  Poaching for tusks poses the gravest risk to elephants of both Asia and Africa, threatening to drive them down to near extinction in a very short span of time in future – say some 20-30 years. 

    ** This post neither takes into account the elephant deaths recorded in India due to electric shocks sustained from electrified fences of farmers (thoroughly illegal) and rail accidents in elephant corridors. 

    http://indianexpress.com/article/explained/assam-elephants-train-accident-4417752/

    ** Informative Read: https://www.scribd.com/document/338210912/HABITAT-MANAGEMENT-IN-THE-NILGIRIS-BIOSPHERE-RESERVES-AND-THE-ELEPHANT-RESERVES-OF-SOUTH-INDIA