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An elephant in my garden


The surprise visitor suggests a prelude to a mammoth problem, writes Mari Marcel Thekaekara.

I've lived in the Nilgiris for more than 30 years now. But we're still not blasé enough for an elephant in the garden not to cause considerable excitement.

A fortnight ago, I was urging my husband to shoo away the sambar deer which has eaten every flower in my hitherto delightful (even if I say so myself) neck of woods. After a stressful six months in Mumbai, returning to the peaceful, cool climes of our sanctuary-like hill top home, was a welcome relief. We chose our plants carefully, blue salvia flanked by pink and white roses, a group of golden yellow bay lilies complementing purple, pink and white verbena.

Turned out, the crackling of twigs and munching was not a deer. 'Sounds like an elephant', Stan, my husband said, shining a torch. We had dinner guests and everyone trooped out excitedly. We could hear it chomping away.

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I advised our guests not to try driving down the narrow road but to stay the night and leave the next morning. Around 1 am, our son rushed into the room excitedly to say the elephant was outside his bedroom window. We jumped out of bed. Could hear it clearly, tearing down the ornamental bamboo. We could have reached out and touched it from the window. Our film maker son stayed up all night trying to film it.

At dawn, it calmly lumbered away, unfazed by our presence. We had myriad conversations on how calm it was and whether it sensed we meant it no harm. Whether it realized we were overjoyed to have it so close to us.

Adivasis tell us almost unbelievable elephant stories, ranging from the early years, 40-50 years ago, when their ancestors walked freely among the elephants unharmed and unthreatened. To now. How animal behaviour has completely changed because the non-tribal world has closed in on them, ranging from local farmers throwing burning tires on elephants marauding their crops to ivory poachers who take pot shots leaving festering bullet wounds which enrage the elephants and turn them into violent dangerous beasts. That's one aspect of life in the wild.

But. Now flip to last week. An aggressive, angry, possibly injured elephant killed two men, both plantation workers, in the valley below us. And another man two days ago. The mood in the area is the complete opposite of your average urban armchair wild life enthusiast. People go ballistic when news of neighbours routinely killed comes home. The remains of the victims trampled to death are a dreadful sight. You would definitely not like to be the person returning the bits of body to the grieving family. It’s a gross, gruesome, utterly horrid scenario. And the beleaguered forest department officials whose task it generally is, meet with verbal and often physical abuse. Many local people, live in huts and fragile shanty-type houses. An elephant can knock the entire house down by leaning on it. Even in our solid, stone house a lurking wild animal produces a frisson of fear. Can you imagine the state of poor, vulnerable people in their shaky homes with a herd of elephants trumpeting angrily in the vicinity?

One of the reasons for elephants and other animals straying out of the forests with increasingly alarming regularity is that the Mudumalai and Bandipur sanctuaries are currently choked by impenetrable lantana bushes which are so thick even the elephants struggle to cut a path through. Lantana, a pretty bush brought to India several centuries ago, from South America, has mutated and spread rapidly. It is now a menace to several forests. Concerned conservation groups, like Atree and the Shola Trust have tried to chop down lantana to create employment for tribals by turning it into furniture or briquettes. But the weed is resilient, returning with a vengeance.

In 1856, British forestry officials invited German botanists and foresters to India, to plan new hard wood forests to increase revenue. Dr. Dietrich Brandis was a notable name at the time. Today this is considered a disastrous move as it destroyed the original shola forests of the Nilgiris. It would be poetic justice if the Germans, known to be systematic, thorough and dependable, could take part in rescuing our forests from the imminent threat facing it and restoring our indigenous shola species. If the lantana continues to proliferate, it will destroy the forests and the wild life within. It is an urgent task that has to be undertaken immediately. The forest departments have made several attempts to clear the lantana. But it needs a huge budget and a determined, single minded force with adequate resources both in terms of manpower and technology. It’s a complex problem which cannot be solved without a deep understanding by expert minds of the situation and how to resolve it. Knee jerk reactions are not solutions. It needs a thorough analysis by committed experts with scientific knowhow to arrive at the best possible way to tackle this herculean task. Over to the Indian and German governments.

Meanwhile, we wonder how our rapport with the elephant visiting our garden will develop.

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