Don’t call me Pygmy
Sabah, Borneo, September 2012
There are times to be brave. Times when life calls upon you to rise to the occasion, to find the honey badger inside you, to face your fears head on. This was not one of those times. This was a time to run.
At first it had just been the crackling of branches, a whisper of grey hide – blurry to the naked eye, pretty much invisible through a camera lens – in between a moving wall of green. It was barely a hint of the presence of an animal much bigger than me. Deep in the rainforests of Borneo, my untrained eyes couldn’t see anything further ahead than leaves ten metres in front of me where, based on the rapid gesturing of my guide, Sulaiman, stood a two-metre tall pygmy elephant. But if my eyes were fooling me, at least my nose wasn’t. The smell of elephant was all around me, wafting up like steaming tendrils of rotting cabbage. The elephant was there. I could smell him.
Pygmy elephants are the smallest of the Asian elephants, with bulls standing no taller than two and a half metres at the shoulder. That isn’t really that small, at least compared to a midget like me, even though they are considerably more vertically challenged than their savannah-dwelling African cousins, which can grow to over four metres in height. But this elephant was no matchbox-sized critter, as his name suggested, and he could do a lot more damage than kicking me in the knee.
‘He’s not in musth?’ I had asked Sulaiman a minute earlier, wanting to confirm that we weren’t walking into a mega-disaster. Any bull in musth – the temporarily aggressive, high testosterone state in which males have only one thing on their mind: sex – was potentially life threatening if you got inside his personal space.
‘No,’ Sulaiman replied, smiling confidently, and walked on.
I had followed him closely, checking behind me at regular intervals, in my mind’s eye plotting an emergency exit route back to the small dinghy we had arrived in, which was tied up to a sapling on the river bank. But within a minute of walking in the forest, I had lost my bearings. The thick rainforest was totally disorienting and I wasn’t even sure which way the river was, let alone the boat. Then again, if the bull charged and I made it to the boat, an elephant could crush even that in an instant. Elephants are masterful swimmers, with trunks that function like snorkels, and so this one wouldn’t be put off by a river.
It was mid-morning, barely 10 am, but in Borneo’s oppressively humid heat, I felt like a prawn dumpling in a bamboo steamer. The back of my shirt was soaked with sweat as I stepped off the boat onto the muddy bank. Immediately my Scarpa boots, which had served me so well in the last decade in Africa across all sorts of terrain, sank into the earth that was spongy with decomposing leaves and vegetation. A melee of insects filled the air with a hollow drone, punctuated at regular intervals by the cry of cicadas, a sound so loud and completely insane that it was more like a shriek from a mental institution.
In my short time in Borneo I had learned that there were as few as one and a half thousand pygmy elephants left on the planet. Asia’s most pint-sized elephants lived in a world of conflict. Very little of their natural habitat was left, and they were forced to survive in islands of forest in a sea of palm oil plantations and escalating human development.
I tried and failed to adjust my camera to focus on the elephant, growing increasingly more agitated as I failed to find anything through the lens. As I looked up from the camera to see if I could get a visual on him, the bushes in front of us started cracking and moving. It was only then that it occurred to me that we were very close to this bull, much closer than I would ever intentionally have got, at least on foot, to a wild African elephant. It was because of the thick rainforest vegetation that we were so close to him, ten metres away at most, a distance that he could cross in seconds.
And then he charged. A lot can happen in three seconds. In the first second, the bull was coming straight at us through the trees. He only seemed to take about three giant steps before he was there. And really there. In the fleeting moment that he charged at us, no more than five metres away, I could see every last elephantine wrinkle with infinite clarity. In the next second, Sulaiman stood his ground, clapping loudly and shouting at the bull to back down. In the third second, I swore, which seemed like a sensible thing to do at the time, and then I did what every self-preserving human does at moments like this. I ran for my life.
As I bolted, the elephant let out an unmistakable warning scream, a heart-shaking, ear-piercing, get-the-hell-outta-here screech. The terrifying sound of it at such close range reverberated through my chest and seemed to echo through the forest. Adrenaline surged through my body, giving my legs enough power to beat Cathy Freeman on the track. A moment later, a second elephant trumpeted in reply to him in the distance, deep and hollow. The way their voices echoed through the dense forest was otherworldly and eerie, almost like we were all under water.
I didn’t slow down, although I wasn’t going to beat any sprint race records running through this forest. Odd-shaped fallen logs and rambling vines tried to trip me at every step. As I tried to stay upright and cover as much ground as possible, my breathing sounded heavy in my ears, it wasn’t my proudest moment. I must have looked like a cross between a sloth and a dancing lemur on speed and I was very glad no one was there to witness the unfortunate spectacle that was about to end in me being flattened by an irate pachyderm.
I swerved through the trees, leaping over fallen trunks and dung piles, my feet barely touching the ground as I ran. I could hear something running behind me – branches cracking – and I didn’t know whether it was Sulaiman or the bull or both. I just kept running. I knew that if that bull wanted to catch up to me, he could easily do so. Elephants are not bumble-footed in the jungle as I am. They can push down trees in their path that I would have to take a wide berth around.
As the blood coursed wildly through my veins, the thought occurred to me that my number could be up today. This could be it. But I couldn’t afford to die. I had a child. Solo wasn’t yet three years old, and he needed his mum.
Let me go, elephant. Let me go.
eye of the elephant
Assam, India, late November 2008
Four years earlier I was working for the global organisation the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) when the opportunity arose to become involved in making a documentary about human-elephant conflict in Asia and Africa. The idea of a film documenting the wars that were taking place between elephants and people, as well as some of the solutions being put forward across their range in Africa and Asia, was a subject that was very close to my heart. As a conservationist I had seen the human-elephant conflict in north-east India and southern Africa first hand, and I felt strongly that the more people there were telling this story, the more action there would be to solve the problem. The Sydney-based production company, Animal Media Australia, led by film-maker Stephen Van Mil, had just received an award for its film on Birute Galdikas’ pioneering work with orangutans.
Not long after I first met Steve, I left full-time work at WWF to write a book about my own experiences working on human-elephant conflict – Elephant Dance – which allowed me time to contribute to a film on the same topic. One late spring morning after several months of planning, I found myself in a queue at Sydney airport, waiting to get my boarding pass to India for the first part of the filming. Steve had arranged for me to meet Sydney artist Nafisa Naomi there as she was on the same flight and would be joining the crew to document the behind the scenes action of the film through her photography and art.
A woman with long dark hair and ebony eyes lined with kohl, wearing tight long pants and with an impressive cleavage, waved to me from across the check-in area. I waved back, feeling suddenly underdressed as she joined me in the line.
Nafisa was bubbling with excitement, not having been back to India, the land of her birth, since her childhood. I was happy to let her do the talking. My mind was ticking over with concerns about whether the producer and crew would get their visas in time to join us in India in a couple of days and whether we would get enough footage in the short time frame. I had a little time before they arrived to touch base with my contacts at various conservation organisations in Assam and set up the best places to film. It was going to be a tough ask to film everything we needed to in just over a week. We would have to film day and night to capture enough footage. On top of that, I needed to be clear in my own mind about what I was going to say on film regarding the very serious plight of Assam’s elephants, so that I didn’t come across as a total idiot or, worse still, a boring, rambling scientist.
On the flight to India I learned pretty much the entire life story of my travelling companion. The daughter of a Dutch mother and Indian father, she spoke with an Australian accent but had spent her early childhood in Hong Kong. Nafisa had studied medicine for three years before giving it up to work in fashion, and only much later in life, following a divorce, had decided to dedicate herself to art. I had seen some of her wildlife art and I had to admit it was incredible, but it was her human portraits and botanical art that had won her both Australian and international awards.
It was the middle of the night when our plane landed in Mumbai. As we collected our luggage, every eye was on Nafisa and her fabulous figure. I wasn’t sure whether it was because by local standards she wasn’t covered up enough or if they thought she was a Bollywood film star – or both. I was just glad that it was taking the attention off me with my blonde hair and it didn’t seem to worry her.
As we slept in our twin hotel room, we were oblivious to the history unfolding across the city at other tourist hotels just kilometres away. That night’s coordinated attacks by Pakistani terrorists would hit international headlines in the days to come because their targets had included famous hotels – like the Taj Mahal and Oberoi Trident – frequented by foreigners. While we slept soundly, at least 166 people were killed in these bombings and shootings, including 28 foreigners, and dozens more were taken hostage, some of them Australian.
It wasn’t until the next day, after flying to the capital of Assam, Guwahati, and driving for four hours to the town of Tezpur, that we heard anything about it. We hadn’t seen the news since we’d left Sydney, and it was only when checking emails a day after the bombings that we were alerted to the disaster that we had narrowly missed. Among my emails there were several urgent messages from loved ones asking if I was okay, as no one had any idea whether I was alive or dead. No one had been able to phone me because my cell phone didn’t work in Assam. I had learned on my last trip to this part of the world that the government controlled communications and made it pretty much impossible for foreigners to buy a local phone. I figured it had something to do with keeping on top of the ULFA, the United Liberation Front of Assam, the rebel movement that had a tendency towards bombing public places in this part of the world.
Tezpur, which means ‘city of blood’ in Assamese, was 175 kilometres and a long, slow drive from Guwahati’s national airport. Assam’s fifth largest city was a long way off the beaten track in one of India’s most remote and lesser known states. Few tourists came to this part of India, which is way up in the north-eastern corner, wedged between Bangladesh to the south and China (Tibet) to the north. It was my favourite part of India because of its incredible national parks, such as Kaziranga, home to greater one-horned rhinos, elephants and tigers. In the Assam jungle you felt like you were in a scene from The Jungle Book. Like the rest of India, it was heavily populated, but nowhere in Assam was quite as crazy and polluted as the bigger cities like Delhi and Calcutta, and the rice paddies and tea plantations along the heavily potholed roads gave it a more sedate, rural feel.
From the back seat of the Mahindra (an SUV) I watched women in sparkling saris of azure blue, flamingo pink and every other colour of the rainbow as they glided along the side of the road like flocks of radiant birds. Belching buses barged past, their roofs loaded up with mountains of luggage and the occasional forlorn-looking goat strapped on with rope. Barefoot children wearing dirty underpants with gaping holes ran along the streets and begged for rupees when we stopped by the road. Blasé Brahmin cows ruminated in the middle of the street, forming carefree road blocks that everyone seemed to accept as the norm. A man lay face down on the dirt by the road edge, his legs and two shoes sprawled across the tar road as if he had just stepped out of them and fallen flat on his face. Our driver didn’t slow down, just hooted and swerved like all the other vehicles going past him.
‘What is wrong with that man?’ I asked, worried that he had been hit by a car. People and cars were just ignoring him.
‘He have been drinking,’ our driver said, and pressing down on the accelerator.
Physical labour was still the way of things in Assam. Beyond the manifold towns lay a patchwork of custard-coloured rice paddies, most of it already harvested by this time of year, with just a few people picking rice by hand with nimble fingers. Neat piles of precious harvested rice plants, resembling stalks of long dried grass or hay, stood alongside the rows. Wearing only knee-length fabric wraps around their waists, usually barefoot but sometimes in well-worn leather sandals, skinny boys and older men alike pulled wooden carts loaded high with rice husks. Their backs shiny with sweat, these human machines were all pumping sinew and muscle on protruding bones. Four ducks waddled across the road to a pond with red algae forming a scum on the surface. An old man sat out the front of a ramshackle hut while watching children bathe playfully in the water. I viewed it all whizzing by from the back seat of the Mahindra, present but not truly there, an observer rather than a participant, as if watching television.
That night at the Hotel Luit, a Kingfisher beer brought some relief. Nafisa, who apparently didn’t usually drink, downed a stiff local vodka. After that drive, she said she needed it. The hotel was dirty and ratty, just as I remembered it. It smelled of yesterday’s curry and stale smoke. On our arrival an Indian man with greasy hair had taken us to our room and in his limited English combined with hand gestures and a suggestive smile indicated that we might want our beds pushed together. Clearly they didn’t very often get two women unchaperoned by a man sharing a room together in this part of the world.
‘He thinks we’re lesbians,’ Nafisa exclaimed with amusement.
The man didn’t understand a word she said, just grinned sleazily back at her as he stood by the door.
As hotels went, there wasn’t much to choose from in Tezpur, and according to my conservation colleagues this was one of the best, but I decided immediately that there was no way we were going to spend more than one night there. I had a vague recollection of an eco-lodge next to Nameri National Park that I had driven past last time I was there, about half an hour from town. I was sure it would serve as a nicer base for us and the crew than the Hotel Luit, where I figured we would either catch typhoid and die or be stoned for suspected lesbianism. I wasn’t sure whether it was illegal to be gay in Assam, but I wasn’t taking any chances.
The next morning, we packed our things and asked our driver to take us to Nameri. Nestled in the forest adjoining Nameri National Park, the eco-camp was everything I had hoped it would be. Huge trees with broad dark leaves towered over quaint cabins that seemed to have been absorbed by the jungle, covered as they were in vines sporting bright pink flowers. I breathed in all that green and felt my lungs sigh with relief as the fumes of Indian towns were expunged. A tightness in my chest that until then I hadn’t even noticed was released. Living in the city, I realised I had missed the sense of peace I always feel in places with lots of big trees. How easy it is to forget what gives you peace of mind when you are caught up in the hustle and bustle of fast-paced daily life.
Early the next morning, on the way to the WWF office in Tezpur, our driver stopped at a bridge blocked by Assamese army trucks. The military were a common sight in that part of India, as the national army had been deployed there since 1990 to keep on top of armed separatists groups like the ULFA, who were seeking to establish Assam as a sovereign state.
Two weeks earlier I had been listening to the BBC news when it was reported that seventy people had been killed and three hundred injured in at least eleven separate bombings before noon on 30 October across Guwahati, probably by the ULFA. Now, watching stern-faced soldiers scanning the bridge with bomb detectors that looked like the metal detector I once used as a kid to search for coins on the beach in North Queensland, I was reminded of the risks of being in this part of India.
An army officer came over to our vehicle, peered condescendingly at Nafisa and me in the back seat, and began firing questions at our driver in an authoritative voice. I should have been pleased that the soldiers were checking that there were no bombs on the road, but I really didn’t feel comfortable with the eyes of this officer on us, glaring as if we might be spies. He didn’t look like a particularly friendly guy, with a rifle slung over one shoulder and a moustache big enough to threaten a ferret perched on his upper lip.
As a foreign, blonde woman in Assam, it was impossible to blend into the crowd, and that made me nervous. But it didn’t seem to worry Nafisa. She wound down her window, smiled winningly, leaned out with her camera and asked to take his photo. The officer didn’t seem to know what she was saying and was more interested in her cleavage, but he also wasn’t comfortable being confronted in this way by an overtly assertive woman, and I could see him getting riled up at the idea of having his photo taken.
‘No, no, no!’ he barked gruffly.
He spoke limited English, but his hand gestures demonstrated that it was obviously not on to take photos of army officers.
I didn’t know Nafisa well enough to be able to tell if this was fearless bravado or naivety or both, but I was growing increasingly anxious. The last thing I wanted in this situation was to get into an altercation with the Assamese army. We were two women from Australia who were a long way from home and without the compulsory male escorts that this part of the world demanded. India was not necessarily a place where women could rely on the police to get them out of trouble; indeed, they could end up causing more themselves. Assam was still an extremely sexist place by western standards. The majority of people were Hindu, but with recent mass immigration from Bangladesh, a growing part of the population was now traditional Muslim. Women here were expected to cover up and shut up.
It entered my mind that Nafisa might get arrested – and get me arrested too, by default. I really didn’t want to see the inside of an Assamese prison cell. I gave her a look that said please stop. I slunk lower into the seat as the driver tried to take back control of the situation. The officer stepped up his serious act, glaring at us while grabbing regular eyefuls of Nafisa’s cleavage. As our driver attempted to placate him, there was a yell from one of the army trucks on the bridge. In the hubbub of raised male voices, the officer waved a nonchalant hand at us, now distracted by something else that was going on in his domain. I breathed a sigh of relief as finally we were able to go on our way.
The following day we left in the wee hours before dawn to visit a village that WWF conservationist Soumen Dey thought might be a good one to trial chillies. These humble red fruits are an effective deterrent to elephants and an excellent cash crop for local people. On a previous trip here when I had worked for WWF, it had taken me a long time to convince anyone in India that chillies were worth a try to help reduce the human-elephant conflict, based on their success in Africa, but Soumen had finally agreed to give it a go.
In Zambia, the Elephant Pepper Development Trust had shown that elephants didn’t like chilli and across numerous sites in Africa they had demonstrated how the use of chilli fences, chilli briquettes (bricks made of elephant dung and chilli, with a hot coal on top that produces ‘chilli smoke’) and chilli crop buffer zones could deter elephants from crops. The other great advantage of chillies as an elephant deterrent was that the fruits themselves could be sold as a cash crop, providing an alternative livelihood for people living on the poverty line. While I knew chillies alone were not the solution to the problem of human-elephant conflict, I believed they were a very useful tool for local people to minimise the serious negative impacts and maximise the benefits of living alongside the planet’s largest land mammal.
It didn’t take much to convince Steve that filming the chilli projects, both the functional ones in Zambia and the one that WWF was planning to test in India, would make a great addition to the film. It would show one of the positive options that existed to combat human-elephant conflict, and also would provide a good contrast to the heartbreak around the conflict itself.
In India at that time, the mortality toll on both sides of the human-elephant conflict was severe. Elephants were killing at least four hundred people annually, while more than a hundred elephants were killed every year by being caught in low-hanging power lines, hit by trains and poisoned. The conflict was a direct result of habitat loss. Almost two-thirds of the natural forest cover north of the Brahmaputra River in Assam had been destroyed in the last couple of decades, leaving elephants with no choice but to move through the tea plantations, rice paddies and villages that had replaced the trees. That was often where the conflict occurred, and particularly during the rice harvest season, when elephants raided rice paddies for food.
Our arrival in this village, three hours east of Tezpur, was no small thing. Soumen told us that many of these people had probably never seen foreigners. A crowd quickly gathered around us as we visited local people who had started growing chillies in their back yards. Soumen showed us where he wanted to help this community cultivate it on a larger, more commercial scale, in a nearby paddy field.
As Soumen and I talked with some village leaders, I noticed Nafisa eyeing one of the motorbikes parked nearby. The next thing I knew, she was riding it down the corrugated dirt track heading off into the distance. Now a huge crowd gathered around, running after her and cheering at the entertainment value of seeing a foreign woman tearing off on a motorbike. Oh no, I thought, so much for the professional reputation I was trying to maintain. The men might be impressed, but I was sure that the women would be shocked and ashamed by such an act of boldness. But when Nafisa returned in one piece (thankfully), the women as well as the men gathered around her, in awe, it seemed, of her courage in a place where women have little status. To my amazement, to them Nafisa’s behaviour appeared to be empowering, perhaps showing them that it was okay to be different. They didn’t think she was crazy at all. It was like she was a Bollywood star. I reflected that I might have been too harsh on my travelling companion, too quick to judge through my conservative, scientific goggles.
These poverty-stricken people put on a huge curry feast for our lunch, and through Soumen they asked us questions like how old we were, whether we were married and had children. When Soumen told them that I was in my early thirties and Nafisa in her mid-forties, the women responded by saying that this could not be right as Nafisa looked much younger than me. Although she was clearly foreign, Nafisa’s Indian blood was a matter of intrigue. And I realised that while we had come here to share the story of these people and their battle with elephants, they too now had a story to tell.
It was early in the morning, just before dawn, and my cohabitant was clearly more awake than I was.
‘Don’t worry,’ I reassured Nafisa, ‘it’s probably just a cow.’
‘Definitely,’ I said, in my most serious zoologist voice.
We had heard the strange, high-pitched sound at all times of day since we had been at Nameri. As the daughter of a cattle farmer, I knew that cows bellowed like that sometimes. But when we went to investigate shortly after, we discovered that it wasn’t a cow at all. It was a baby elephant, tethered to a tree not far behind our hut. Later we were told that she had been orphaned in the annual floods and rescued by Department of Forestry rangers. She would probably be raised there by the rangers to become a working elephant like the adult elephants nearby. Elephants were on the payroll in this part of the world as they were used to patrol the dense national parks along jungle trails more suited to them than to jeeps.
I am always cautious around wild animals and prefer that they come to me on their terms rather than the other way around. But this young elephant appeared to be desperate for interaction, reaching out her trunk to try and grab the nearest person’s hand. As I squatted near her, she drew my hand into her mouth and sucked on it. When I pulled it away, she reached out with her trunk and pulled it back in again. It was like she was saying, ‘Hold my hand.’
This little elephant was one of so many babies orphaned in Assam, not just during the floods but as a result of the escalating human-elephant conflict. During the conflict, babies can get separated from their herds, sometimes falling into wells or tea garden trenches. Gods they may be to many of India’s people who worship the elephant-headed deity Ganesh, but you sure wouldn’t want to be reincarnated as an elephant living in modern-day India.
Now that the film crew had arrived, we would be able to start filming the stories of the people who lived in this part of the world, like the children who slept in a tree house because they were too scared to sleep in a hut after their father was killed by an elephant, as well as the elephants themselves who were battling for survival.
The crew consisted of four men. In addition to Steve, there was Adam Harper, at that stage a co-producer, with whom I had worked at WWF, and South Africans Greg Nelson behind the camera and Kenny Gerharty on sound. Steve, Greg and Kenny had all flown in from the western side of India where they had been filming whale sharks for one of Steve’s other films, and Adam was still on his way, delayed by airport closures in Thailand. They were a day late, cutting into precious filming time, as their camera had broken and had to be replaced in the biggest city they could find in western India within twenty-four hours.
There was no time to waste. Within five minutes of arriving, the crew started testing the camera and setting up shots of sunset over the river against the awe-inspiring backdrop of the snow-capped Himalayas. After a quick curry for dinner, Steve decided that they would try and get some night footage in the paddy fields near camp. It didn’t sound like a particularly big deal, and it wouldn’t have been except for the fact that there were a couple of vital things missing in this scenario.
One was torches. The night was pitch black and the paddy fields on the border of a national park were full of pissed-off elephants, giant dried-mud potholes where the elephants had walked, rice paddy trenches and other things that you could fall, twist or pirouette into in an ungainly fashion. There was also the not inconsiderable chance that we could walk right into armed poachers or, more exciting still, the occasional terrorist.
The other missing item was a local guide. One thing I’m not is an adrenaline junkie. I’ve never wanted to bungee jump or swim with great white sharks. Whenever I went walking in the bush among lions and elephants in Africa, I never carried a rifle, but I always, always had a local tracker or guide with me (and sometimes he was armed). His job was to watch not only my back but also to check the spoor (tracks) and signs of the presence of other animals. Local people always know the area better than I, as a relative newcomer, ever could. On this night, we were just half a dozen foreign idiots walking around in the dark without a torch.
It’s a good thing to be a little bit scared when walking through the bush on foot. It fine-tunes your senses, helps make you just that little bit more alert for when an elephant does charge out of nowhere. But there’s a thin line between courage and recklessness. As we staggered through the darkness that night, we wouldn’t even see an elephant, let alone hear it coming, until it was too late. After a couple of hours of tramping through the completely unfamiliar dark forest, I was relieved to hear Greg say that we had to go back because the replacement camera wasn’t working properly. After all that, none of the footage was usable anyway.
The next morning, I insisted that we buy half a dozen torches as a bare minimum before doing any more night filming. If an elephant or a terrorist was going to kill me, I damned well wanted to look it in the eye.
In the days to come, the crew filmed scenes of the devastating forest destruction at the base of the Himalayas, the lens capturing incredible old jungles eaten away by the human settlements of primarily poor people who lived traditionally. Villagers re-enacted their experiences of elephant attacks, showing us the places where elephants had charged and people had been killed. The crew filmed the brewing of rice beer, which the elephants (and people) get supremely drunk on. It’s an evil brew that elephants will knock down houses to get to. They interviewed an old lady in a white sari (the colour worn during mourning) who was a widow of conflict. Her husband had been killed by an elephant right in front of her house and she now relied on the kindness of family to take care of her in her old age. We filmed until the early hours of the mornings to capture the war on elephants, with dozens of men camped out by fires beside their rice paddies preparing for that night’s battle to keep herds out of their crops. The cameras rolled as a hundred or more men brandishing burning spears and homemade guns yelled at a small herd of elephants running for their lives across a crop, with firecrackers and gunshots ringing out across the night.
But one of the most extraordinary things I saw on this trip wasn’t caught on film at all. It was nearing midnight, somewhere in the rice paddies, and we were bogged in a thick muddy ravine that doubled as a road. Outside, the dark night sky was lit up by a trillion stars, while here on earth the warring men’s burning spears and bright torch lights flickered and flashed. When the vehicle had slid into the mud and didn’t look like coming out any time soon, I was too tired to care about the dozen or so men outside the car whose job it now was to make a plan to get us out of there. Minutes earlier I had lain down, trying to curl into the most comfortable version of the foetal position that I could manage in the back seat of the Mahindra using my backpack as a pillow. I wondered what it must be like to be up there with the stars and the moon looking down upon this war zone in which neither side was winning. What would the stars think of us, fighting for space and survival? If there was a wager, which side would they back?
As I drifted off to sleep, I tried to block out the din. Punctuating the backdrop of angry, shouting men, firecrackers and guns was the harrowing sound of screaming elephants. Mothers, babies, grandmothers. The breeding herd of largely females was being forcibly pushed out of the ripening rice paddies that had drawn them in from what little remained of their natural home. They were hungry – and terrified. This was a normal scene in rural Assam and one at which the locals didn’t bat an eyelid.
Some time later – maybe minutes, perhaps hours for all I could tell – I felt myself rocking in the seat. Let me clarify: something was rocking me or, at least, the car had moved. Only half awake, I opened my eyes. The car was still. Had that really happened or had I been dreaming? The answer to that question was clear a second later when the car jolted forward, almost knocking me off my seat. I sat bolt upright and spun around to look out the rear window. Staring right back at me was the eye of an elephant. In fact, not one but two elephants were giving the car a substantial nudge, while I had no choice but to sit there looking rather like a bleary-eyed meerkat caught in a sandstorm (and with hair to match). I had become an elephant’s plaything. Surrounding the vehicle now was a huge crowd, all of them local men, and most of them talking and shouting at the top of their lungs.
Suddenly the driver of our vehicle, yelling in Assamese, jumped into the front seat and started accelerating while the elephants gave the car one more giant heave-ho. And then, in all the usual madness of India, we were off, driving into the night in search of more elephants raiding paddies to capture on film.
The long hours of filming may have been exhausting, but I had forgotten how emotionally draining it was being so close to the war on elephants. It’s a bit like working in a place where you are surrounded by poverty – you somehow get desensitised to the horror, but it takes its toll nevertheless. Although I had witnessed it before, it still broke my heart to see elephants running through paddy fields, screaming in protest and fear, as people chased them away back to a forest that now barely existed. It just didn’t seem fair. But the other side of the story was also incredibly sad. Assam had so many extremely poor, uneducated people in rural areas who were totally dependent on their rice crop to feed their families. There were some horrendous stories of elephants attacking people, including a ghastly one I heard of a pregnant woman being ripped apart.
I could understand why people wanted to retaliate, but it was also obvious why it was happening. The forests were disappearing and so elephants simply had nowhere else to go. The human population was increasing, which meant that the problem was only going to get worse. The more I thought about this, the more questions I had and the fewer answers. My brain was threatening to combust with all the cognitive churning that was taking place in its convoluted channels. The truth was, it all came down to habitat, really. The clearing had to stop, but it had gone so far that it was also necessary to recreate safe, natural corridors of habitat for the elephants so as to link the remaining islands of forest. And in my view, there had to be more opportunities for local people living with elephants in Assam to benefit from their presence through industries like ecotourism. It was a hard truth to face, but elephants had to be a part of this state’s development or they would have no future there.
I’ve long held the view that much can be learned from southern Africa’s approach to conservation. Countries like Namibia, for example, have experienced great success in combating poaching and increasing wildlife populations by mastering the art of community-based wildlife conservation. Communal conservancies provide truly local ownership of the animals that roam on their traditional lands. Those animals have a financial value and the community’s ownership of them is legally recognised by the government, providing an engine for economic and social development that is truly sustainable. Wildlife-based industries like ecotourism and trophy hunting (where hunters pay for the privilege of a controlled hunt of certain selected animals as ‘trophies’) provided tangible benefits like jobs, income and food to communities who would otherwise be living in poverty. It isn’t really that complicated. Some refer to this solution as ‘what pays, stays’. In fact, management of the animals isn’t really about the animals, but about managing people and their livelihoods. And as a way to increase wildlife populations, it works.
In the years that I lived in Namibia I watched incredibly successful conservation programs emerge since this country gained independence from South Africa in 1990, ending a long civil war during which poaching was rife and wild species were decimated. Now many local communities who once received no benefits from wildlife had entered into joint tourism ventures with commercial ecotourism companies like Wilderness Safaris, and were receiving training, employment in safari camps, and percentages of the profits. Wildlife populations there were on the rise because people living alongside them had a genuine stake in their future. Some communities, like the San Bushmen of Nyae Nyae Conservancy, where I ran a project on human-elephant conflict in 2005, had entered into a partnership with a trophy hunting operation, which gave them not only jobs and income for the community, but also much-needed meat. Whether or not I liked trophy hunting at an emotional level, the local people I had surveyed there did because of all the benefits it provided. To the Bushmen, meat in their bellies meant more than western ideologies about protecting elephants at all costs. Such sentiments were worth very little in the stern face of daily survival in the developing world.
When the locals were on board, anything was possible. People in Africa are really just like people anywhere else – they want a better life for themselves and for their families. I had seen in southern Africa that if wildlife helped people to achieve that, then it would be cherished and nurtured just like anything of ‘value’. If elephants destroyed their crops and lions ate their goats, then they were considered the enemy. These people are no different from farmers in Australia who shoot the dingoes who threaten their livestock, or the American ranchers at war with wolves and coyotes. We may look different, have different religions and cultures, and speak different languages, but at a core level, we humans are still the same species. We are all just animals that need food, water and shelter in order to pass our genes on to another generation. No matter where you come from, whether you’re a Himba nomad in the desert, a rice paddy worker in India or a farmer near Birdsville, everyone just wants to lead a safe, healthy and happy life.
From what I had seen of India, although many people worshipped the elephant-headed god Ganesh and revered elephants, there was still some way to go to convince villagers living with them that conserving wildlife was a smarter option for them and their families than driving it out and destroying the dwindling forests in which elephants lived. In Assam, people were so poor that any threat to their meagre crops was devastating. Much of the damage to Assam’s natural habitats had been done decades earlier with the clearing of forests for tea plantations and commercial logging. Thankfully the era of intense commercial logging had passed, but the deforestation still continues as every day piecemeal bits of forest are removed by local people, who load up their bicycles with impossibly high piles of wood for local sale. All of these little bits add up, resulting in more human-elephant conflict as the elephants follow ancient migration patterns that no longer wind through old jungles but through human settlements.
The head of the Wildlife Trust of India, Vivek Menon, described the state of India’s wildlife like this:
In today’s day and age almost every wildlife preserve in India is in danger. In danger from poachers waiting for the authorities to take their eye off the ball to enable a strike. In danger from fringe villagers whose idea of usufruct rights [rights in relation to common property] run counter to conservation imperatives. In danger from knowing and unknowing development lobbies. In danger from the ignorance of the Indian populace and its polity that overlooks the fact that our Protected Area system is actually a vital national heritage.
The year before, in 2007, when I had been in Assam with WWF to advise the state minister for the environment on some ideas that were working in Africa to reduce human-elephant conflict, my question to the WWF team in Assam was, if southern Africa was starting to have some success in realising genuine conservation outcomes, couldn’t the same principles be applied to India? It seemed a valid question to me, but I met with huge resistance, perhaps because I was a woman, and a foreign one at that, in a place where women still had very little status and foreigners rarely visited. All of the conservation staff at WWF and the ministers I met were men. And, as expected, there were half a dozen reasons why most of the people I spoke to didn’t think my outlandish ideas would work.
There were too many people in India, and too much corruption, too much political instability. India was different from Africa (if only I had a dollar for every time I heard that one). One argument put to me by one conservationist was that raising income for conservation through trophy hunting wouldn’t work as a management option because most Indians were philosophically opposed to hunting. These reasons were all valid and fair. But I had more questions that were met with automatic no’s. What about tourism? Not enough tourists were visiting Assam because they were scared of the rebel insurgencies and the bombings and, besides, the locals didn’t want loads of visitors. What about high end, low numbers tourism? But that would just make national parks unaffordable for Indians, who constituted the majority of visitors to them (seventy per cent). Why not increase the number of foreign visitors? These things don’t happen overnight, you know.
I was starting to get the picture. Clearly, I couldn’t possibly understand (you aren’t from here), and it wasn’t that simple (you really should know your place, woman). India’s problems were complex. How I grew to hate that word. Complex. Conservationists used it whenever they found it too hard to give me a straight answer or didn’t know the right one. The reasons why Africa’s approach wouldn’t work went on and on. Some of the points were valid, but I couldn’t get past the thought that negativity and a sense of being overwhelmed by the problem were inherent in the psyches of many of those working in conservation, creating a culture that was unable to see the wood for the trees. I wasn’t suggesting cutting and pasting Africa’s model onto India, because obviously there were differences and there had to be local ownership, but negativity towards ideas that weren’t their own didn’t stop me thinking that some of the approach that was working in Africa could in some form also be applied to India.
Thankfully, at least one of the staff at WWF had been willing to give the idea of chillies a go after the Assamese minister for the environment had spoken out in the newspaper about his support for it. But it was early days for Soumen and his chilli project and while I encouraged him from a distance, only time would tell if it would make a difference.
After filming the war zone and WWF’s proposed chilli site, it was a mild relief to visit the Wildlife Trust of India’s Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC), near Kaziranga National Park, to film the orphaned baby elephants and other wildlife being rehabilitated there. I had met some of the elephant calves a couple of years earlier. They had been much smaller then, and interaction had been limited as a result. But this time was quite different. There were about six baby elephants there now, and each of them had a unique personality, one of the centre’s resident veterinarians, Dr Boro, told us. We watched as Dr Boro and the keepers weighed the elephants and fed them with bottles containing special formula milk made specifically for elephants.
One of the youngsters, Deepa, was a little bit larger than the others. The oldest at just a few years old, she had taken on the role of matriarch for the group. In the wild elephant breeding herds are headed by a strong female leader known as the matriarch, whose commands are followed by the entire herd. What was astonishing about Deepa’s assumption of this role was that she had not had any older elephants to teach her this behaviour, but had simply taken it upon herself to lead the group of babies. One of the calves tried to push me over playfully, nudging me with his fuzzy forehead, and pulled my hand into his mouth just as the young elephant at Nameri had done. With their hairy heads and innocent, observant eyes under long lashes I completely fell in love with them.
Dr Boro told us how one of the little females, Soni, had been separated from her herd when she was only four months old. Her herd had been raiding a crop when it was driven away by villagers. Soni was roaming alone in a tea garden, no doubt trying to find her mother, when villagers found and attacked her in retaliation for the damage that the herd had done to their crops. They cut her tiny trunk with a machete, leaving a deep wound, but thankfully did not cut it off completely before she was rescued by the CWRC.
Tikla, a two year old male, had fallen into a tea garden drain and become trapped. When he was eventually freed, he could not be reunited with his herd. His story was not unusual as elephants, particularly youngsters but also adults, often became trapped in these trenches.
The stories of these orphans were harrowing, but their characters were endearing. It was impossible not to be won over by their playful antics and obvious sense of humour. The goal of the CWRC was to help these elephants return to the wild, as they had successfully done with elephants in the past, relocating them, when they were old enough, to the World Heritage listed Manas National Park in northern Assam. I had never been comfortable with seeing animals in captivity, but these orphans had been rescued from situations that would almost certainly have led to their deaths, and the prospect of them being returned to the wild at some point was enough to give me a lot of hope for their future.
The bigger question was, if the destruction of the forests continued in Assam, would there be any ‘wild’ left for them to return to? It was a question that I would have to leave unanswered for now, because my time with the crew was coming to an end. Much as I had loved being out in the field and seeing the crew film one part of the bigger global story of human-elephant conflict, I had to get home. The other part of the story we had yet to film was in Africa. If the company’s production funding came through we would film there the following year. But for now, it was a matter of urgency that I board a plane back to Sydney. Two weeks earlier I had married my boyfriend of the last year and a half, fellow conservationist Andy Ridley. In three days’ time, the official post-wedding party for our friends and family in Sydney was on and my new mother-in-law, Lizzie, had already arrived from England for it.
But getting home might not be that easy, I realised. A little disturbingly, there were a few rather large obstacles in my path that hadn’t been there before I left Sydney. There had been riots in Thailand so Bangkok had closed its airport, which I was due to fly through. The airline cancelled my flight and gave no indication when it might be rescheduled. Then there was the state of Mumbai, which I also had to fly through to get home, and which was in complete disarray after the terrorist attacks the week before. It was beginning to look like I was going to miss my own wedding party.
But Andy wasn’t going to let that happen. He and a friend in Sydney managed to get me a flight home with another airline. Standing outside the CWRC after a morning with the orphaned elephants, one of the crew passed me the mobile phone lent to us by a local WWF staff member.
‘I’ve got you a flight, babe,’ Andy shouted over the crackling line, ‘but you have to leave now.’
I could hear the stress in his voice. Torn between the elephants and the man I loved back in Sydney, there was only one choice to be made. I would really miss being among the elephants, but guys like this only come along once in a lifetime.
Very early the next morning, a driver arrived to take me to the airport at Guwahati, leaving the crew to continue filming around Kaziranga National Park. I left the jungles of Assam behind, wondering when I would be back.
Excerpted from Planet Elephant by Tammie Matson. Copyright © 2013 by Tammie Matson.
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