New Internationalist

Wonder and frustration: living with the animals

LeopardA camera trap picture of our visiting leopard. 

Living on the edge of the Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary is delightful, fascinating and mostly quite wonderful. But sometimes it can get really frustrating too.  In spite of living surrounded by nature for almost 30 years, it’s difficult to become blasé. We still thrill at the sight of eagles soaring, swifts and swallows living in a hidden cave. The majesty of the Indian bison, the captivating grace of spotted deer and the fleeting glimpse of a big cat, panther or tiger is worth a lifetime’s patient waiting and watching.

There’s always a mix of frustration thrown in with the joy, though. Many local people, furious when their crops are eaten up or trampled upon, put traps out to ensnare wild hare, porcupine and smaller game. Or devastating little bombs to blow up the wild boar that come to eat their tapioca. When the sambar deer demolish my entire garden in one night, I’m thankful for the presence of our visiting  leopard and the devilish wild dogs who drive them away. Or eat them.

Recently a leopard died, ensnared in a trap. It was pregnant with three cubs, which made it all the more tragic. However, its death makes the owner of the land culpable, even if that person is a totally committed vegetarian who would probably die rather than kill a fly. I think that’s unfair. All of us who live here are always wary of any animal being killed on our land, even if we had nothing to do with it. We end up having serious problems with the forest department, even if we are avid conservationists and wildlife lovers.

If I could, I would issue shoot-at-sight orders in the Kruger National Park where poachers in helicopters are flying in daily, to wantonly and cold-bloodedly kill rhinos for their horns. Yet I find it hard to be judgemental about adivasis who lay traps to catch wild hare or small game, or the poor farmers killing wild boar, however horrifying the image, to save their tapioca.

On a less grim note, there are now regular episodes worth recording in an encounter-with-the-wild kind of series. At our forest checkpost near Thorapally, the entrance to the Mudumalai sanctuary, a wild elephant provides tourists with a daily dose of free entertainment. It comes for its evening fix of jackfruit, this being the jackfruit season. And elephants will trek miles in search of this, their favourite fruit. Most people in the area have cut down their jackfruit trees to avoid elephant trouble. But a gang of vendors ready to face danger rather than lose out this seasonal bounty from the tourists, brave the wild elephant with stalls flaunting the forbidden fruit. This is literally inviting trouble. The elephant saunters over and the poor guard on duty at the checkpost has to face the wrath of the elephant if he doesn’t open the gate. It has already broken the gate several times this season. He’s cursed by angry vendors if he does, or charged by the belligerent pachyderm if he doesn’t. Unenviable position. The elephant puts on the daily show every year at this time. Its antics provide amusement to everyone around, but if the elephant kills someone, it will not be funny.

A few years ago, the Douthwaite family from Ireland were visiting us when we were all spellbound by the loud mating sounds of a pair of big cats. We’ll never know if they were tigers or leopards. Foolishly – foolhardy may be the more correct word – we all rushed out, creeping closer and closer to the loud cat calls. If the animals had rolled into our midst, I doubt they’d have been amused. Neither, I suspect, would we have found it very funny. Howsomever, it was a tale we all lived to tell.

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  1. #1 Grace Nirmala 29 May 13

    Dear Ms. Mari Marcel Thekaekara


    I read follow your blog regularly. Most of them are very well socially oriented and they talk about the struggles of the oppressed. I am enriched by your contributions. very few of them are technical which i am still trying to understand.

    I work with Devadsis and their girl children in AP.

    I will send you some information about our work once I hear from.

    Thanking you



  2. #2 Mark 29 May 13

    Reading, got back into the concrete jungle!

  3. #3 Sarah 29 May 13

    Hello Mari,

    It is, as always, enlightening to read you.

    Today, I thought I'd come with a suggestion: I am working with my students on corporate responsibility, as a follow up to what happened in Bangladesh (and elsewhere, and often).
    In case you're out of topics to write about, we would love to hear your voice on this!

    All the best,


  4. #4 chandrika sen sharma 29 May 13

    I still remember my trip to Madumalai with my parents in the late 1960's. What an amazing place! I member my first sight of wild buffaloes and elephants in the water. I hope India has more success than the African countries in withstanding the poacher onslaughts that have almost decimated the wildlife there. Shoot on sight doesn't seem like a bad idea with those that helicopter in and shoot from the air - what a cowardly and deadly way to go!

  5. #5 ludwig pesch 30 May 13

    What a difference again to read your perspective from the sensation crazy, tourism driven or just fundraising oriented wildlife coverage we mostly get. For those not residing among wildlife and act responably as you do, the best option remains to appreciate biodiversity without seeing it from close quarters. Commercial wildlife ’safaris’ tend to lay havoc with the very thing they claim to foster. So the taking of images and footage is best left to people who understand the situation.
    Thanks and looking forward to reading more on the subject!

  6. #6 Sabita Banerji 31 May 13

    What wonderful images! Brings back thrilling and terrifying memories of a childhood in South India and Assam. That's the trouble with nature,though, isn't it? It's heartrendingly beautiful...and yet ruthlessly cruel and bloodthirsty.

  7. #7 mari 31 May 13

    Hullo Sarah,

    Happy to write on Corporate Social Responsibility.

    Which Sarah are you? As I know several Sarahs!! Cant recall any friend who works with kids though.

    Thanks for the kind words


  8. #8 Sarah 03 Jun 13


    This is Sarah from France. Just Change 2005 (I think??) Sarah. Not working with kids but with adults in Northern Ireland, and teaching them French ;)

    I am not that used to blogs so I didn't think of checking your reply until now that I have received your new post.

    Thanks for your reply, and I hope to read you soon on Corporate Social Responsibility then. We had a debate about it in class and I think it would be interesting to hear what you have to say about it.

    All my love to you&family.


  9. #9 david cohen 14 Jun 13

    Mari Marcel Thekaekara listens to the sounds of the forest.
    Her family and her hear attentively.
    I wish I could join her family and her.
    I'm an urban person who continues to marvel at the
    sight of deer roaming in Rock Creek Park in the US
    Capitol. I have had racoons in my eaves and an
    occasional fox in my back alley. These are sights
    not sounds. But the birds are there for me--robins,
    wrens, cardinals, orioles and yes sparrows and crows.
    Now we await the 17 year visit of the cicadas who are
    full of sounds.

    David Cohen
    Washington, DC
    June 13, 2013

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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