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Book Review: ‘The Tusk That Did The Damage’ – by Tania James

August 29, 2015


Felt a strange ‘deja vu’ reading this book. Read the excerpts in ‘The Hindu’ over an year back I guess. The synthetic achchan, Shakti mustard oil, sambar masala, the name Ravi Verma and then the mention of (some random) blogger and a few more could be the reason. Quickly checked out the first publication date: 2015 it says.

At the outset I believed the book was authored by an American American (!) I mean a caucasian so were surprised beyond limits that tusker names like Sooryamangalam Sreeganeshan must roll out so freely from the author’s imagination/research. This is possible only if you have an intimate knowledge and familiarity with the terrain and that kept playing at the back of my mind. The exact depiction of Kerala landscape, people, culture, toddy (!), elephants, wildlife parks everything was perfect. It was only when I was in the last 10 pages I cared to look up the author. Not a surprise that Tania James is an Indian American with roots in Kerala.

Aware of elephant torture in our temples, I still believed elephant poaching was rarest in India unlike it is in Africa where rampant hunting down of the species threatens the globe with their inevitable extinction in near future. Tampering/trespassing  with forest/wildlife reserve and/or any illegal encroachment is a serious criminal offence in the country.  I have observed from an NH project how even the highways are planned and mapped taking into due consideration the habitats of the native species and the flora & fauna of the land. The impression was, poaching stopped with the British barring one or two exceptional cases here  and there. Natives have captured stray elephants to train for battles, festivals in the past but rarely for tusks – or it was so believed.

A quick googling yielded the following links:

So almost after a clean dry period of 20 years, poaching has shockingly resumed in south Indian forests with forest officers hand in glove with poachers in the inhumane, dastardly act.

Indian elephants register casualty in unnatural circumstances owing chiefly to electrocution (by electric fences installed by industrious farmers) and rail accidents but elephants being poached in India in recent times is bothersome and shocking news. Elephant death statistics have recorded a zero to bare minimum under poaching so as not to make a headline. Until I read the book, I had assumed elephants were safe from poaching in India, with only our tigers having to live under the scare.  Single-horned Rhinos of Assam for another.

So the book has arrived just at appropriate time as a caution. A thorough investigation is mandatory in the poaching issue and offenders must be brought to book. Repeat offenders must be dealt with severely and if there does exist a network as alleged/illustrated in the book upto Dubai for tusks, the angle must be explored by all means.

The story is a moving narration, first person accounts of an innocent and aspiring young man, a woman film maker and the rogue elephant itself. Reminded of the tamil film ‘Kumki’ and to a certain extent couldn’t help wondering if the picture could have been a major influence with the book. Good sense of humour the author has interspersed through out the book. That helped in lightening up tense situations as the story was otherwise like one very serious affair.

My empathy is with Indian Elephants always- such a sad species. When the ‘gravedigger’ is made an orphan, it broke my heart. Every elephant killing is like driving a spear through my heart. To fell such a magnificent but a benign beast, one has to be a monster. Evil personified. Its not a matter of will power or skill. Its a matter of one’s heart. For what I hold for the Elephant is reverence, awe, affection. An elephant as we know generally is otherwise a gracious, gentle giant. Unless provoked, it never disturbs anyone.

I have had my share of jumbo safaris, elephants bathes but now regret it very much. Never imagined, how even the ritual bathing could be torturous to the animals. Someone tweeted: ‘Imagine yourself naked in a room and being fondled by a crowd of onlookers. This is how pet animals/zoo animals must feel.’ Ever since I am thinking  about even the zoos. Zoos are not pleasant places but they are the last refuge when it comes to conservation of rare species going extinct which can be bred in safety, away from poaching threats. And zoos have to be financially viable so opening them up for tours is necessary. How the human wave pressing from all over could be disturbing not only to the pachyderms but to all zoo animals. Yes, why should we wanna go near the tuskers? We can maintain a distance with them and enjoy from afar. When I did my elephant safaris twice, I kept caressing the elephant head, for the love of it. Its long hair almost 10 cm tall in the head was so prickly and thick. It was then I understood why people wear ‘ananudi’ (elephant hair) rings. I have seen them in jewelry shops in Chennai. Even the mahout (pappan) asked me if I wanted an elephant hair as souvenir and I was utterly taken back. Plucking one from the elephant must definitely cause it a lot of pain. I touched the old lady (in Elephant Park, Munnar), gave her fruits and asked her if she would remember me. Telling her I loved her was important then. In Thekady to our bewilderment, 3 of us were put over a single male elephant. The keeper said, elephants can bear weight, can carry logs. True, the young male did not even heave a heavy breath on carrying us triplet. The burden was no issue I guess.  But it did give us a guilty feeling. In Karnataka, limited myself to giving the elephant its bath in Kaveri. Recently from some Elephant Facebook pages I have been learning how Elephant Art (paintings by elephants), Elephant Safari everything is disguised and presented to tourists as acceptable/not inhuman. Good marketing by tourism industry with a keen business mind. In truth, even these are not appreciable. Wherever and whenever possible, the calves must be returned to where they belong – the wild. Elephants are not for our amusement.

Another thing, its irritating and again bothersome that wildlife must be so much photographed or filmed for someone’s thesis (for personal gains) or selling in the media (the telecast rights). Just how much revenue does our forest dept mint out of permitting foreign crews from recording the wildlife in their natural settings with their sophisticated equipment. Wildlife photography must be totally banned in India and elsewhere. Recall this from Night Safari in Singapore where we were warned not to shoot pictures in darkness out of concern for scaring the animals. But rigorous check was not carried out to see if anyone carried a camera. Some violated the rules and its true the night creatures panicked and scurried here & other when even the shots were captured in Night-vision mode. The purpose of night safari was lost.

Photography of trained/domesticated animals is okay perhaps. In Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary in Tamil Nad, we boarded a govt jeep that screeched in maximum decibels that no wonder none of us spotted anything in the park. But in the reserve shoulder adjoining the park, we luckily spotted a herd of wild elephants browned with mud bath. It was disturbing to see that even these were used to traffic noise and human scent that the herd tore the trees and munched away the shoots and branches without sparing us a glance as if they did not care who spotted them or clicked them.

I don’t feel good watching wild tiger pictures. That jeeps drive so close to them and that humans are no strangers to the big cats is distressing. For personal victories and gloating over Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, every dude with a DSL cam heads to our national wildlife parks & sanctuaries for shooting prize winning pictures that he/she thinks are his/her trophies. Why do we want audience for everything. I find the idea unsettling.

Treetop cottages in Wayanad (Kerala) and Topslip (Tamil Nad) are always in our mind. This is a quiet and undisturbing way to observe and enjoy wildlife. I guess most sanctuaries in India including Ranthambore etc offer this facility.

Top slip reminds me of a friend’s experience. You have to return with your jeep/car by 6 pm to base cottage there, for elephants will be on prowl in the wild with sunset. The friend’s family could not. They were near the summit when they came face to face with a herd of wild elephants. The head of the family switched off the lights and the engine, downed the windows just a fraction to let in breathing air as the family huddled closer to each other in the car. They were surrounded by 10-15 big bulls and cows and calves who were feeling all sides of the car with their trunks. The family held their breath and sat immobile, going to sleep without a sound as hours clicked, hostage to surrounding inquisitive wild elephants. Wouldn’t have taken the tuskers a minute to upturn the car. Finally only around the dawn the elephants left quietly and the badly scared guys made their u-turn. Next day they were warned by the forest dept for overstaying.

The so-called wildlife photographers, in my opinion, do much more damage to nature that they say they revere. Their pictures with tigers & elephants shall encourage a lot more travelers into the parks which is not desirable. This is one ground where I would not want awareness in our people. Lesser the footfall in the forest reserves/sancturies, the better.

The tribals living at the edge of forests face not only conversion threat (by evangelists) (!) but also find themselves mired at the centre of human-animal conflict. It’s a catch22 situation no doubt. The delicate balance existing between them who have lived with nature for generations and the precious wildlife has to be maintained at any cost. One more survey to carry out: conversion rates of native tribals by foreign sponsored NGOs & missionaries. Curious why the author has not made a point on that.

The author’s fiction, even if imaginary, serves what purpose. One more filming with light flashes amid fast disappearing wildlife, one more DVD, one more research grant – filling whose pockets, boosting whose egos, to whose advantage. What did the wildlife or even the tribals benefit from the outcome. Wonder if a single rupee would have gone towards the Indian elephant that the filmmaker (or perhaps the author) professes to care for. Raising awareness is a point. There is enough awareness without having to make fresh pictures, without having to venture a further kilometer within Indian forests or hovering around frightened captured young cows & calves in nurseries.

I did like the part about reunion of separated calves with their mothers. This has to be given impetus and the ingenious way of not touching the calves with human hands during rescue is good. Even those captured/nurtured by human hands finally seem to make it to the wild which is heartening. The way it must be.

Do we have statistical data on captured elephants/strays in India. Data on temple/church/mosque elephants. Because in Kerala, even churches and mosques use elephants for processions/celebrations. What is the exact figure of temple elephants in Kerala/Tamil Nad/Karnataka or generally in India/South India. What about private ownership, licencees. Why has not the forest department come out with a table on domesticated elephant population. Why not make the figures public.

The book did make an engrossing read only next to ‘The Elephant Song’ by Wilbur Smith. The characters, the dialogues, the setting everything was natural. Tragic was the death of Mani-Mathai and also that of Manu but then by now I have had enough of fictions that I know the twist always lies in ‘punishing’ the ‘promising’ ones that shall leave the reader with a kind of longing… More tragic is the fate of the Indian elephant…


From → Books

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  1. An elephantine dream… | Curry Leaf

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