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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

jumbo problems ~ for elephants - unlearning language is one !!!

I profess my love for elephants (more so for the affable Azhwar, which lived in Triplicane – 4 decades ago….there is none in Triplicane, the one who came after Azhwar, Mohan was a spoilt child… you find many of them in Kerala – mostly owned by temples and  few individuals. They are used for religious ceremonies in and around the temples, and a few elephants work at timber yards.  Have heard from people that elephants respond to their mahout’s commands spoken to in Malayalam language.

Elephants may use a variety of subtle movements and gestures to communicate with one another ~ to us ,  a curl of the trunk, a step backward, or a fold of the ear may not  mean anything but they do convey vital information between their herd as understood by elephant researchers.  Human-elephant conflict is rising across India, primarily because of shrinking habitat and encroachment of forest lands.  Here is one on a fearless 17 year old who instantly became a hero by steering huge elephant herds out of villages - even after they trampled her father to death.


Nirmala Topno is only 17 and is hailed as the Elephant Whisperer; she hopes to work with the animals after she finishes school - even though they killed her father. Nirmala has been praised for being the only female in her area to handle as many as 17 wild elephants when they roam jungles and enter villages near Rourkela, eastern India. Daily Mail reports that from an early age she began following her father Marino, 50, and a group of local men whenever herds of wild elephants roamed populated areas near their home. People have witnessed her amazing ability to communicate with the animals, and despite her tender age and tiny frame she pushes them back into the jungle. She became a celebrity last year when she steered 11 wild elephants away on one occasion and a herd of 17 a couple of months later.


But last November, Nirmala watched as a herd of elephants she was trying to push back into the wild attacked her father and killed him on the spot. She refuses to let it beat her, and now the brave girl vows she will go on and work for the government to protect the animals when she finishes her studies. While people see and enjoy elephants from a distance in Zoos,  Nirmala has grown up with the constant threat of wild herds running into her village and killing anything in their path. She struggles to identify her special skills, but  explains that  somehow she  manages to convince the animals to leave by her tone of voice, body language, a flame torch and looking at the animals directly in the eye. It is reported that Nirmala and her family were given a cheque for two lakh as compensation for death of her father and Nirmala’s mother Salomi, 40, given a government job to help support her family.


Miles away in the Democratic Republic of Congo, elephants are not that fortunate.   Once in a while, you read news of poachers stalking their prey, hacking them, not for the meat – for the ivory that costs the tuskers their lives.  It would read as though Africa is in the midst of an epic elephant slaughter. Conservation groups say poachers are wiping out tens of thousands of elephants a year, more than at any time in the previous two decades, with the underground ivory trade becoming increasingly militarized.

Like blood diamonds from Sierra Leone or plundered minerals from Congo, ivory, it seems, is the latest conflict resource in Africa, dragged out of remote battle zones, easily converted into cash and now fueling conflicts across the continent. The vast majority of the illegal ivory — experts say as much as 70 percent — is flowing to China, and though the Chinese have coveted ivory for centuries, never before have so many of them been able to afford it. China’s economic boom has created a vast middle class, pushing the price of ivory to a stratospheric $1,000 per pound on the streets of Beijing. It is stated that high-ranking officers in the People’s Liberation Army have a fondness for ivory trinkets as gifts. Foreigners have been decimating African elephants for generations. “White gold” was one of the primary reasons King Leopold II of Belgium turned Congo into his own personal fief in the late 19th century, leading to the brutal excesses of the upriver ivory stations. Ivory Coast got its name from the teeming elephant herds that used to frolic in its forests. Today, after decades of carnage, there is almost no ivory left. The demand for ivory has surged to the point that the tusks of a single adult elephant can be worth more than 10 times the average annual income in many African countries.

Viewed in those excesses, Indian elephants are far safe. Apart from those in the wild, there are the domesticated elephants, valuable not only for the work they perform but also as a future conservation tool against inbreeding or genetic drift in wild elephants. There was the fear of the bandit named Veerappan who by some accounts since the late 1960s killed over 500 elephants (as well as policemen, forest rangers, and other human beings) in the border area of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala. India’s domesticated elephants are a valuable conservation resource, not just an endearing, anachronistic bit of cultural baggage.

Here is an interesting article in Times of India on a ‘jumbo that needs to unlearn Marathi, learn Kannada’.  From ‘basane’ to ‘kuthko’ (sit down) in Marathi and Kannada – a young elephant from Maharashtra has a lot to unlearn and relearn. For this, Sunder, the 14-year-old jumbo who was rescued and brought across the border, will have a new teacher. Sunder also has a new home at Bannerghatta Biological Park (BBP), but will take some time before he settles in. His earlier mahout, who had trained him in Marathi, had abused and abandoned him. When elephants are shifted to a new territory, often their mahouts escort them to the new place and depart after they are comfortable.

BBP executive director Range Gowda said they’re looking for a new mahout to train the elephant in Kannada, as his new caregivers here are likely to instruct him in the local lingo. But before that, he has to unlearn his Marathi commands. BBP authorities are hoping Sunder will cross the language barrier in a few months. In Karnataka, mahouts are either from the tribal community or are Muslims, and train the animal in Kannada with some tribal phrases thrown in, or in Urdu. “Though we would like to have one, there isn’t yet a standardized language followed in the country to train elephants. So this issue crops up each time a jumbo crosses its state border. But physical commands play a great role in comforting an elephant in a foreign environment, and we will emphasize that. Verbal commands can follow next,” said Vinay Luthra, principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife). As he slowly forgets his Marathi, his caregivers hope Sunder will also forget the ill-treatment he was subjected to.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar

11th June 2014.

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