It's already been a month since I got back from India and I'm happy to say that I'm finally over the jet-lag and back into my daily routine. In this series of memoirs, I’ll be writing about my experience traveling in South India as part of 90/10, our latest initiative to help save the Asian Elephant in partnership with Elephant Family, an NGO that funds various grassroots projects to secure elephant corridors across Asia. The goal of the trip was to learn more about the issues Asian elephants are facing in the South Indian landscape and see what is being done to help save them. I was accompanied by my friend Adam Custins, who came along for the adventure and agreed to document the trip on his Leica film camera.
Our trip started off in the city of Bangalore, the capital city of Karnataka. We stayed over in Bangalore for one night before meeting our hosts to head to the field study centre where we would be hosted by another NGO called A Rocha India. A Rocha focuses on elephant conservation specifically in Bannerghatta National Park. The park is an important site for studying human-elephant conflict because it is very close to such a major city. During our drive to the park, we sat in stand-still traffic for nearly an hour trying to escape the bright lights of the city, while our field guide Avinash, filled us in on the current situation in Bannerghatta. Wild dogs greeted us as we arrived at the centre that evening and we ate some very spicy, delicious supper prepared by a woman from the local village named Ammayama. After chatting with the A Rocha team for a couple hours and planning our work for the following day, we settled into our rustic accommodation for the night.
I woke up super early (thanks to jet lag) the next morning and was greeted by the cook with a warm Namaste and some fresh masala chai. I watched the sun rise over the mountains and then played with the chickens and turkeys, who are resident pets at the centre. I went for a brisk walk in the cool morning air, and saw some villagers tending to their cows. When the rest of the team had woken up awhile later, we ate a traditional Karnatakan breakfast of Lemon Rice - a mild, spiced rice dish with peanuts, black mustard seeds, fresh coconut, green chilli, lemon, and curry leaves. I was totally in love with the dish and couldn't resist having a second serving.
We started our work day by interviewing an organic farmer, named Vibhu Umesh who runs a farm-to-table store in Bangalore called Anemane Organics. "Anemane" means land of the elephants. His family owns a large parcel of land where they grow organic vegetables for the shop. He gave us a tour of his land and told us about the pressures their family faces with elephants raiding their crops on a regular basis. They built fences and rubble walls made of rocks to keep elephants out, but elephants would always find a way to knock down the fences and raid their fields. He explained how elephants could damage as much as a whole year's food security with one farm raid. He described how he had lost countless nights of sleep from worrying about the elephants raiding the fields at night. This is an unfortunate reality for many villagers who rely on marginal farming for survival.
Next, we went on a jeep tour of the park with our field guide Avinash, surveying the landscape and learning what is involved in the day to day life of an elephant researcher. After a very bumpy ride on the dirt road to the opposite end of the park, we arrived at our first stop: a tall tower which was a look-out point for forest rangers who monitor elephant activity and illegal entry by poachers at night. We climbed to the top and surveyed the landscape from above. It was interesting to see how close the forest was to the nearby farms and villages, separated only by a small fence and trenches. We met two forest rangers who told us they had just seen a couple of elephants earlier that day and showed us their tracks.
Next we stopped to observe a banyan tree. The banyan tree really struck me because of its enormous size and beauty. The banyan tree is a sacred tree commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine. It is in the fig family and grows fruits which elephants and monkeys like to eat. Since Asian elephants are small, they can’t reach the fruit on the branches of the tree, so they rely on the monkeys to drop some of the fruit on the ground, in a kind of symbiotic relationship. The bark of the tree also provides nourishment to elephants, as it is full of antioxidants and other nutrients. It’s amazing how a single tree can nourish so many different creatures (including humans)!
From there, we walked over to an elephant corridor called the Karadikal-Mahadeshwara Elephant Corridor, which is 800 metres wide and connects the north and south halves of the park. The corridor bridges forest fragments so that elephants can feed, migrate and move freely. Since this particular corridor is right next to agricultural settlements, the issue of human-elephant conflict in the area quite predominant. In elephant corridor areas, there is no tolerance for mining or development, and villages that were previously situated within the corridor barriers are relocated to safer areas.
Although we didn't spot any elephants that first day in the field, we gained a better understanding of the complex dynamics of the unique landscape in Bannerghatta where people and elephants are forced to compete for land, food and survival. We learned that while there aren't any black and white solutions to solve the issue of human-elephant conflict, elephant corridors are a very important part of the solution. On our way back to the camp, the bumpy road back to camp lulled me into a deep, deep sleep. I must have been dreaming about something along the lines of elephants, banyan trees and lemon rice.