Elephants

Elephant camp
Elephant camp

We are sitting in the afternoon sun in Coorg in Karnataka after a five hour ‘hairy’ Indian road journey from Bangalore. We have been welcomed by our host Mickey and have settled into our charming and simple ‘ home stay’ cottage on the Sand Banks coffee plantation. As we enjoy our first cup of the estate’s freshly brewed coffee I reflect that ‘ plantation to cup’ is as fresh as you can get. Eat you heart out Nespresso!

Tomorrow Mickey is going to show us the coffee bean growing and picking but today we’re concentrating on experiencing Coorg’s wild life. This area is a haven for wild animals and although most are reluctant to reveal themselves there are exciting glimpses: the large wild boar and baby boar clickety clacking across the road in front of our car, monkeys hanging around in the trees, the profusion of Sambhar and spotted deer grazing in the afternoon sun, birds of prey keening and sweeping overhead and one solitary wise old owl sitting pretty and motionless on a branch. Of course we know there are civet cats, foxes and a few leopards keeping a low profile feet away in the bush!

A peaceful tributary of the Cauvery River flows through the estate, and this week a troupe of elephants have been seen foraging in the grounds because their local jungle habitat has been destroyed by development. The thought of elephants dropping in might be appealing to us but not to our host, he knows the danger of hungry elephants.

Mickey suggests we visit a nearby elephant reserve where there is a successful government- backed scheme for adopting ‘orphans’ and taming ‘rogues’. We drive through the jungle and eventually stop alongside a clearing. Dirt track paths criss cross through the trees and from the road we can see a small group of dilapidated wooden houses. Village women sit outside on the ground. They appear weather worn and weary and view our arrival with a mix of interest and equanimity. A backdrop of dingy grey clothes hangs limply on a washing line. In the foreground a few cocky roosters strut up and down occasionally pausing to scratch in the dirt.

These are the tribal people who have historically looked after the elephants and are now involved in the rehabilitation scheme. Our guide ignores the sign saying ‘NO ENTRY’ and we scramble across a ditch, up the dusty embankment onto a dirt track that leads to the small hamlet with the secure elephant night quarters.

In the distance we see single elephants walking majestically down the winding paths accompanied by their personal mahouts. It’s the end of their busy day. The animals look well cared for and although many have chains to prevent them from moving rapidly they look placid and at ease with their tasks. Some have been moving logs whilst others come into the compound still carrying huge bales of straw in their tusks. They ignore us, and walk by slowly, seemingly disdainful of our presence.
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Suddenly from the large elephant sheds there is a cacophony from an angry rogue elephant who is obviously reluctant to the idea of captivity and being tamed. ‘Rogue’ elephants are dangerous, they run riot,damaging property and endangering the villagers’ lives, particularly when hungry.
This programme is the alternative to killing them. Once captured they are brought here to be fed and controlled. A tribal mahout is appointed to take on the care of the animal for life and teaches it how to live in the elephant community.

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We watch as a couple of small baby elephants follow their mothers to the sheds and I am amused to see how they copy their mothers’ movements closely.There are around 150 elephants in the region who are being helped and rehabilitated on this programme. The tribal people are an integral part of the project and the farming community and plantation owners (who I noticed can buy elephant proof electric fences from the local hardware store- what a shocking thought !) have a lot of praise and support for this initiative.

After a round of photos the security guard who is also an information officer, indicates it’s time for the elephants to get ready for bed. The villagers quietly watch us scramble across the ditch get into our car and disappear along the jungle road. Who knows what they think of us. I reflect how privileged we are as Westerners to dip in and then dip out of others’ lives so easily. Hot coffee is ready for us back in our Coorg cottage. We hope no unexpected elephants drop in for a night cap.

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