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Category: Nature Without Borders

Enduring the drought

“I’ll see you at your house in the evening,” I said to Mahendra on the phone as I was driving from Pune to Dhawalpuri.

“No,” he said, we have moved. Not staying at our usual place. Come into the village and call my cousin. He will bring you to our camp”.

Two weeks ago, I was in Pune and decided to visit Mahendra and catch up with him after a gap of about nine months. As I drove past the dry arid areas of Ahmednagar district, I noticed something peculiar: although the fields along the highway had been ploughed, not a single one had been planted with a crop. Abhishek, my driver, pointed out that people had abandoned farming this season due to lack of rains.

India is going though a fourth consecutive year of drought, and this year might be the worst.  According to the India Meteorological Department (IMD), 42% of India is rainfall deficient this season, with the south-west monsoon having failed.

The districts of Beed, Osmanabad and Latur in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra are facing the worst ever drought in 100 years, and people in the area get drinking water only once a week. Eighty-seven per cent of Marathwada depends on these seasonal rains for agriculture.

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Forest Department Says ‘No’ To Wholesale Elephant Capture For Now

“I have seen this video on Whatsapp,” said Karnataka Forest Minister B Ramanath Rai. “I cried. If you see the video, no person on earth will have the heart to recommend removal of elephants.”

The minister was referring to my video of the capture of a wild elephant at Hassan, one of 23 that were captured from the area. He was speaking to an invited audience of scientists, environmentalists, conservationists, NGOs and advocacy groups, besides farmers and planters from the Coorg region which has been affected by the man-elephant conflict I have been covering.

It was the sort of moment journalists hope for, the reason we become journalists.

When we go into the field to research and report, the unstated hope is that our stories will create impact, provoke thought, spark discussion and debate around policy, and become a catalyst for change.

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An open letter to Daily Mail

This letter is in response to this article written by Liz Jones published on Aug 15th 2015.

The article is factually and chronologically wrong, misguided and misinformed, and lacking in basic journalistic ethics. I wish I didn’t have to call this out, but such stories — more fiction than fact, intentionally sensationalised in some parts — actually harm rather than help, and do great injustice to elephant conservation and welfare efforts in India.

I write this on the basis of having personally interacted with Jones on her recent visit to India. Prem has pinned down some of the distorted facts in the article regarding temple elephants. Following on from that, here’s what really happened:

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Temple elephants… and what lies beneath

At the entrance to the temple is Devi. She has been chained to this spot for 35 years. As a female, she is never taken to festivals, so has never, ever moved. Not one inch. Prof Nameer has asked the temple leaders (politicians, businessmen) to allow the animals to be walked for one hour a day; they refused.

This is just so sad.

No, it is beyond sad – it is horrific. It is inhuman. And the fact that this scene plays out at the entrance to Guruvayur, one of India’s richest, most famous temples, multiplies the horror manifold.

Or it would if the passage from an article by Liz Jones for the Daily Mail were true. It is not.


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Follow the ivory

In January 2012 a hundred raiders on horseback charged out of Chad into Cameroon’s Bouba Ndjidah National Park, slaughtering hundreds of elephants—entire families—in one of the worst concentrated killings since a global ivory trade ban was adopted in 1989. 

Carrying AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, they dispatched the elephants with a military precision reminiscent of a 2006 butchering outside Chad’s Zakouma National Park. And then some stopped to pray to Allah. Seen from the ground, each of the bloated elephant carcasses is a monument to human greed. Elephant poaching levels are currently at their worst in a decade, and seizures of illegal ivory are at their highest level in years.

From the air too the scattered bodies present a senseless crime scene—you can see which animals fled, which mothers tried to protect their young, how one terrified herd of 50 went down together, the latest of the tens of thousands of elephants killed across Africa each year. Seen from higher still, from the vantage of history, this killing field is not new at all. It is timeless, and it is now.

~ Bryan Christy, Ivory Worship, National Geographic, October 2012

Protecting elephants is dangerous business in Africa. Elephants move. They migrate in search of fodder, they sashay across national borders and wander into danger. Into worlds where tusks are treasures and elephants are easy targets for desperate warlords armed to the teeth, stripped of conscience, and willing to do whatever it takes to finance their fights.


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The sound of a hundred elephants

A trumpet shatters the sun-baked stillness of the plain. Moments later, the elephants emerge out of the forest and race onto the grasslands that stretch in front of me. There are about twenty of them in that first rush and then more, and more, emerging in twos and fours and in bigger groups of eights and tens. Big elephants and small, male and female, some brown, some black, a few flecked pink — score upon score of elephants, crossing the plain at full tilt.

What is the sound of a hundred elephants running?


A silence that magnifies the thudding of my heart and the clicking of my camera.

How can a few hundred elephants, collectively weighing thousands of tons, move at top speed across baked earth without a sound?

Because it is World Elephants Day today, one of the coolest elephant stories you’ll read, from Arati Kumar-Rao’s pre-Peepli days. And to go with that, this magnificent collection of images from her gallery, sampled below:

Photo by Arati Kumar-Rao

Photo by Arati Kumar-Rao

More love for the most lovable of beasts, via this Storify featuring Arati Kumar-Rao and Radha Rangarajan, sampled below:

Elephants inset 2

More elephant posts from earlier, here — including Arati’s encounter with a patriarch and the lessons learnt therefrom.

It’s not all joy and celebration, though. In his Nature without Borders project, Kalyan Varma has been narrating the story of man-elephant conflict in Hassan, and its heart-wrenching consequences. (NB: The next part of this narrative is due out on Peepli shortly; watch this space)

Cry me a river…

On July 1, 2015, Cecil the Zimbabwean lion was killed by recreational hunter Walter Palmer. In the aftermath, Cecil earned himself a wiki page and iconic status, and will soon get a tote bag and beanie toy; Palmer became a universal hate object, the subject of death threats and target of vandalism;  a million people signed an online petition and Zimbabwe responded by banning trophy hunting.


Hang on a minute, though, says a young Zimbabwean studying in the US, in this NYT oped — are you sure you aren’t conflating Cecil with Simba the Lion King?

In a first-person piece that proves, yet again, that man-animal interactions are almost always nuanced, and rarely black on white, Goodwell Nzou calls out what he perceives as global hypocrisy:

The American tendency to romanticize animals that have been given actual names and to jump onto a hashtag train has turned an ordinary situation — there were 800 lions legally killed over a decade by well-heeled foreigners who shelled out serious money to prove their prowess — into what seems to my Zimbabwean eyes an absurdist circus.

We Zimbabweans are left shaking our heads, wondering why Americans care more about African animals than about African people.

Don’t tell us what to do with our animals when you allowed your own mountain lions to be hunted to near extinction in the eastern United States. Don’t bemoan the clear-cutting of our forests when you turned yours into concrete jungles.

And please, don’t offer me condolences about Cecil unless you’re also willing to offer me condolences for villagers killed or left hungry by his brethren, by political violence, or by hunger.

The oped is worth reading in full. Please do.


And still they die…

Writing for Scroll, Nidhi Jamwal tells the story of “a major success” that wasn’t.

Briefly, forest officials captured three wild elephants that had been causing crop damage in the Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra — another front in the ongoing conflict between man and elephant, that Kalyan Varma has been chronicling here.

“The best way to deal with the problem,” exulted local MP Vinayak Raut.

Indeed. And then, the sequel:

The euphoria was short-lived. After being captured, the wild elephants were kept in a wooden enclosure known as a ‘kraal’, in the Amberi area of Mangaon tehsil in Sindhudurg. The summer heat, with temperatures going to 39 degrees C, the absence of a veterinary doctor, insensitive training and possible negligence by officials lead to the death of two elephants, Ganesh and Samarth. Ganesh died within days of being captured, whereas Samarth collapsed on April 10.

It is no one’s contention that animals should be permitted to run wild in areas of human habitation. Capture and taming, or relocation, is at times the only available option. But surely it is not too much to suggest that the “problem” does not end with capture? That the post-capture scenario requires a tiny amount of sensitivity, empathy, care?

Nidhi’s story is rich in detail and nuance and, ultimately, sad in its overall implications. Meanwhile elsewhere, five more elephants have fallen prey to poachers, this time in Kenya’s Tsavo West National Park.

Also from Tsavo, this story of the search for one of the very few remaining 100+ pound behemoths. Read this bit — and weep:

Gradually, like in the opening scene from ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, their owner materialized through the shimmering haze.  A mirage from the Taru desert – a magnificent, dusty behemoth.

Other elephants stood sleeping, clustered in the shade of acacias, apparently unaware of the bull’s approach. He didn’t walk straight to water. It took him almost an hour to cover the final kilometer as he slowly zig-zagged from one bush to another. The glint I’d seen, came whenever he turned his head and appeared to bury it in a bush. Each time he did, he’d wait a few minutes, partially hidden, then continue zig-zagging upwind, scenting the air, to check there wasn’t a poacher hidden at the waterhole.

I was mystified at the bull’s poor attempt to hide – until it dawned on me that he wasn’t trying to hide his body, he was hiding his tusks. At once, I was incredibly impressed, and incredibly sad – impressed that he should have the understanding that his tusks could put him in danger, but so sad at what that meant.

It is, as Mark Deeble says, a sad world where one of the Nature’s truly majestic animals (the image above is of the tusker) is reduced to hiding his tusks because he instinctively understands the danger from rapacious poachers. Contrast that image with this.