The Elephant Whisperers and the hidden gems of wisdom

Sangita Iyer

The breathtaking cinematography portraying the mystical mountain peaks, majestic waterfalls and a rich array of unique species takes us into the heartland of southern India. The pristine Mudumalai National Park is part of the Nilgiri biosphere reserve in southern India, a safe haven for endangered animals like Asian elephants, tigers, leopards, rare birds, insects and other species.

Woven together in this tapestry are a group of rare indigenous people – the Kattunayakar tribe – around 1700 of them alive, including Bomman and Bellie. They revere the land, the elements, and the creatures of the forests, having mastered the art of harmonious coexistence. They forge a strong bond not only with each other, but also with two orphaned baby elephants.

A tiny bull named Raghu was only five months old when his mother was electrocuted. And Ammu, another female baby elephant was abandoned by her herd, as they fled the raging forest fires. And although the director of The Elephant Whisperers, Kartiki Gonsalves, focuses on how these two baby elephants are receiving love and care, the harsh reality is, most orphaned baby elephants either die or end up in captivity, only to be brutalized and trained with vicious weapons such as bull hooks.

Bomman, Bellie who had featured in the The Elephant Whisperers | Mathrubhumi

Raghu’s poignant story begs the question, how he became an orphan in the first place? “It is the actions of humans that is causing elephants to enter villages these days. Our mistakes are very harmful, both for us and for elephants. We were able to save Raghu and Ammu because they were brought to us. But we are not able to save all of them,” laments Bomman.

Electrocution is an emerging threat across India. A tragic video of an elephant collapsing after being jolted by high voltage live wires went viral on social media recently. Ironically, the disaster happened in Tamil Nadu, where this Academy winning short film was produced. Just a few days before the award was announced, three other elephants were electrocuted, in the same Dharmapuri district in Tamil Nadu, leaving two baby elephants orphaned. Fortunately, they were reunited with their herd.

Death of a pregnant wild elephant in Munnar | Mathrubhumi

A recent report by the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change reveals an alarming number of elephant deaths caused by electrocution. A staggering 531 in a short span of eight years, that is almost 70 elephants killed by electrocution per year. Odisha and Assam top the list, but Kerala lost 31 elephants within that short span, 12 of them killed in the past two years. The fact is, most of these deaths could have been avoided had the authorities implemented stringent policies and harsh penalties.

One gut-wrenching scene in the 40-minute film shows distressed elephants trying to escape the raging fires. As the ashes settle, a tiny elephant is seen standing alone calling out its mom and aunts. Ammu had been abandoned by the herd, and she too is assigned to Bomman and Bellie. One can only imagine the trauma of separation that Ammu was trying to cope with.

Elephants live in tight-knit families, and their priority is protecting the young. Despite her traumatic losses, Ammu was forging a strong bond with Raghu, Bomman and Bellie. But in a heartbreaking moment Raghu was rudely snatched away from her. Ammu desperately tries to break her chains watching Raghu being dragged away by the forest officials, unable to bear yet another devastating separation. Even a langur – a primate species - grabs her baby in distress and holds it close to her chest.

A massive forest fire in Rajouri | PTI

Forest fires are on the rise across India. According to media reports, there were 50 forest fires in Kerala in the last three months. The highest number of forest fires recorded was in Odisha, at 578 in the first week of February 2023. While some people blame climate change for the fires, most of them had been set off intentionally or accidentally by people, according to the forest officials.

Many species depend on the shrubs, grass and trees that produce berries and fruits destroyed by the forest fires. The indigenous people too rely on forest resources for their survival. The decimation of forests and wildlife is already returning to haunt humanity. Storm surges, hurricanes and extreme temperatures are the outcomes of the dramatically changing climate, exacerbated by human actions.

Everything is connected and every living being is dependent on each other. A brilliant sequence in the short film reveals how the tribal people gather honey. “We live off the forest we also protect it. We don’t take anything more than we need,” says Bellie. “For us, the well-being of the forest is all that matters. We walk barefoot within it. This is our way of showing respect to it,” says Bomman.

In yet another scene a langur picks up and eats the food that Raghu had tossed away. Recycling is one of nature’s core principles. One animal’s waste is another’s food. Yet, humans generate billions of tonnes of waste per day, choking the air, soil, oceans and skies with plastics, chemicals, fossil fuels, insecticides, and other pollutants that tarnish our planet.

It’s heartening to realize that Raghu and Ammu have a bright future. However, as mentioned before, most captive elephants are brutalized and exploited until they die. Therefore, all attempts must be made to ensure that abandoned calves are reunited with their herd, failing which they should be nurtured, nourished and allowed to socialize in semi-wild conditions. These supremely intelligent and social animals deserve to frolic with their families, bathing in the rivers and exploring the forests freely.

The Elephant Whisperers film transports us through a world of possibilities. But the immediate threats facing the elephants of India paint a dark story. And if we look the other way, trying to carry on with a “business as usual” approach, we would be left with a barren planet and a void in our hearts caused by the disappearance of these majestic giants.

(The writer is author, award-winning wildlife filmmaker, founder, Voice for Asian Elephants Society, National Geographic Explorer)

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