Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Lessons in Humility

It had been a hot, sultry day. I was in Vedar Colony, a small tribal hamlet at the foothills of the Nilgiris, the ‘Blue Mountains’, in the Western Ghats in South India. The sun dipped below the hills, lighting up the sky with a dazzling array of colours. I had spent the day with WWF-India’s Western Ghats team, trooping around the area, inspecting elephant-proof fences and identifying areas for improvement, 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.

I was beginning to go through the motions a bit, when I suddenly felt a buzz in the air. A small crowd had gathered in the field next to us, and were looking intently at the periphery of the village, where the mountains flattened out into more hospitable terrain. I followed their gaze, trying to figure out what was happening, in the failing light, and there they were - Elephants!

A herd of elephants were slowly making their way from the forests to the west of the village, along the village boundary. It was a small group, comprising of just 2 mother elephants and 2 calves. Their target was a small water body outside the village, a pond shared by people and wildlife. In a few minutes, as the entire village turned up at the spot, they 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 100 feet away, a distance that a charging elephant can cover in almost no time. While unlikely, a charge would have undoubtedly resulted in casualties, and the tension in the air was palpable.

Suddenly, a man started talking, almost shouting. I turned back and looked at him. He was looking intently at the elephants, and he 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 continued to look curiously and intently at the animals. He was speaking in the local language, which I do not understand a word of, so I tapped my colleague and asked him what the hell was going.

‘He is talking to the elephants’, my colleague calmly replied.
‘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 the water around 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. As the (usually) gentle giants peacefully made their way back into the forest, 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 and 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?

I walked back towards our vehicle with my head bowed in humility and respect for these magnificent communities which cover large expanses of my 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 sustainability, 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 it directly has on their lives, yet love it, and have a deep-rooted fascination for its incredible denizens.

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