Tag: Asian Elephant

Out of sight, but Not out of mind

Out of sight, but Not out of mind

February 2013 wasn’t pleasant. It was filled with departure and demise of dear ones. It started with the death of an elephant. She was found in a stream after many days of her death. Fishes in that stream and maggots on her body were having a feast. We couldn’t really tell which herd she belonged to. Several speculations were made—she could have been unwell, or that she probably slipped while crossing the stream, and so on. In the government records her passing on was registered as a “natural death”. May be it was.

'Natural death'
‘Natural death’:Photo: Ganesh Raghunathan

This was followed by the death of a leopard. A very young leopard was found dead amidst tea bushes. Again, the reason for her death was not clear. It was presumed that she was killed in a territorial fight with another adult leopard. Traces of blood and drag-marks were all over the place. She was half eaten. She was taken away for a postmortem.

Yet another 'natural death'
Yet another ‘natural death’

Individuals like these will continue to live in the government records, in a researcher’s field notebook, technical reports, and as photographs or newspaper articles. But there are certain deaths that will go unnoticed, even by us, and no one may even be aware that it happened—like the roadkill of a mouse deer that I saw in mid February. The driver of the vehicle might be aware of that or he/she may simply have heard some noise, a thud, or a squelch and moved on. Or the driver may not have even known that he/she had killed a living being. Few passers-by like me, in the middle of that night, probably noticed that dead mouse deer, or probably did not.

Incidents like these make us feel sad for a few minutes, hours or sometimes may even last for a few days. We may or may not remember these again. Even if we do remember, we may not feel the same way as we did when we first saw it. But if we know the individuals, if we are attached to someone or something or some place, if we feel the connection even if it is only one-way, then, when we lose any of them, the sense of loss will haunt us forever. Because, we are not just losing them, we are also losing the connections we once had with them. This will be painful, like how we feel at the demise of a friendship or a relationship; much more painful than the physical death of a friend.

Few years ago, while passing through Kavarkal, Divya said,”I am missing that guy ya”. Across the valley on a hill, in a degraded grassland patch, near the electric pylon, we used to often see a tusker grazing peacefully. She was referring to him. Some months after that, somewhere near that place a tusker was found dead. Anand went and looked at the decaying body but was unable to recognize that individual. He doesn’t want to conclude that it was that guy we used to see there. Before that death, even if “our guy” wasn’t seen there, we knew that he would be have been roaming elsewhere. But after that death, that hope slowly faded away. Even now, whenever I happen to pass through that place my eyes involuntarily look in that direction, scanning, searching for him, and remember Divya’s sentiment.

Our guy - The tusker
Our guy – The tusker: Photo Divya Mudappa

Similarly, usually while heading back to Valparai from Coimbatore, we stop at Nalumukku Sungam for a cup of tea. Nearly a year ago, on one such occasion I noticed that something was missing there. Sridhar said in a shocked tone, ”Damn, they cut that tree”. There used to be a large tamarind tree in one of the corners of Nalumuku Sungam. On the ground, no trace of that tree can be seen now. I never paid much attention to that tree until it was cut and removed from that place. There is a large void now. That tree would have been planted at least several decades if not a century ago. I miss that tree now. Sridhar has been commuting through this route for over a decade and he would certainly miss seeing this tree more than me. I wonder if (and hope) there is someone who lives in that town, who went and stood under the tree for its shade, or grew up along with that tree, or harvested the fruits from that tree, feels the same way or fondly remembers that tree. Those people probably miss that tamarind tree more than any of us do.

Pollachi-Valparai SH78 road near Vedasandur from 2003-2012: Imagery courtesy Google Earth

Then, there used to be a huge log near the Selaliparai club. Two years ago, just before the NCF annual meeting in Valparai, I remember Divya mentioning in a sad tone that a huge Calophyllum tree has fallen. This was a large tree, one of those identified as a heritage tree by us in this landscape. I only vaguely remember seeing that tree when it was alive and standing majestically. But I am more familiar with that only as a Calophyllum log, with its deeply fissured bark and heavily laden with epiphytes—just as majestic and alive horizontal as it was when vertical. In late February, while driving past that place we saw a crane about to lift that log and take it away. Now without that log, that place wears a desolate look. In coming days or months or years, when we go that way, we are sure to tell this story to others with us or sigh with sadness amongst ourselves.

There used to be a Calophyllum log...
This is that Calophyllum log…

I feel personally connected to that tusker, the tamarind tree and the Calophyllum log because I liked them. I knew that the connection was one-way, but I still feel bad when I don’t see them in their spots. But what if someone reciprocated the affection which we gave but suddenly vanished from our lives? Obviously, the magnitude of loss will be immeasurable, and drive us to despair. I realized this when Baby disappeared.

Baby
Baby

Baby was Anand’s cat. When he moved to a different house, although close by, Baby moved to Divya & Sridhar’s place. She also made our office her home. I am not a cat person. To be honest I was not fond of pets at all, until I met Baby. She was an exceptionally friendly cat. I often felt that she was a talking cat. I loved the way she greeted me when she saw me for the first time everyday. It was not just me. She was friendly with everyone over here. She captivated us with her sheer friendliness. It was a great feeling when she came to me and mewed in the middle of the night or gently tapped me with her soft forepaw to signal that she was hungry or wanted to play. She always liked to be with people, among people. I had not taken care of her all her life. Only on a few occasions or few days when the others were away. But she had had a deep impact on me. I can imagine how the true cat lovers and caretakers—Anand and Divya—would have felt when she suddenly disappeared one night. Soon after she was missing, for many days they would call-out for her, with hope and prayers. It was unbearable to hear their voices. She never turned up. It was unlike her not to respond or stay away from home. Although Divya kind of knew the minute she had disappeared since she had heard some scuffling noise outside. Divya had the feeling after hearing the noise outside that our neighbourhood leopard had paid a visit to our doorstep. It is nice to know that he is still around, but wish the evidence had been something else. Or maybe not. We do not know exactly what happened to Baby, but I hate to think that she has passed on.

Baby’s disappearance made me think of certain other things which went out of my sight and my life. But they will be etched in my memory for a long time to come.

Elephant Rules

Elephant Rules

A new herd had been spotted and I got news that the herd was out in the open. I rushed to the spot as soon as I could and found the herd in a swamp surrounded by tea. It was 5 pm and the sun was going down casting a blanket of gold on everything it touched. The elephants were aware of our presence but seemed relaxed. This herd had 3 calves. The male calf seemed to be the oldest and was full of life.

The herd in a small swamp amidst Tea.

An adult elephant scratches herself behind the ear.

An adult female with the smallest calf in the herd following her closely.

Elephants are social animals and have strong bonds. The adult female watches calves play.

The young male calf got a little too excited and tried to mount the smaller calf. I was surprised to see the adult who was looking away, suddenly kick the calf with her hind leg. How did she know what he was upto?

The adult female kicks out at the young male calf.

 The calf does not give up and tries his luck again.

His antics caught the attention of the few other family members who were close by.

 He tried his luck again.

This time a calf that was close by lunged towards him. It reacted much before the adults did. Are the elephants communicating to split them up?

 The adults reacted soon and pushed him away from the little calf.

Play mounting is common among young ones and is a process of learning adult behavior during their course of development. Sometimes, when calves are harassed by older ones, adults will try to safe guard the young ones.

 This young elephant did not participate in the disciplining session. He was happy stripping away the bark.

The calves bonding again. This time the adults kept an extra eye on him.

The sun was going down and the elephants decided to leave. A large adult female took the lead and checked the air. They knew people were around. They slowly walked away  with the calves between their legs. They went around a hillock and went out of sight. It is amazing to see how the elephants have a strict code of conduct.

That ended another fascinating evening today at Valparai.

Survival

Survival

After the NCF annual meet I returned to Valparai. It was the 31st of July and I was to leave for Bangalore that evening. I got a call saying that one of the herds that we have been following is out in the open and a female had given birth that morning!

Elephant herd in a tea estate

Anand (assistant) and I rushed to the see the herd, but by then, they had moved off with the new born into the coffee plantation, which is much denser in vegetation. So, we climbed a hillock to get a view of the elephants. My hands began to tremble with excitement when I saw the little calf emerge for the first time, partially hidden safely, from under the belly of its mother. Its pink eyes looked BIG compared to its body and its tiny trunk was wriggling around. The mother was a young elephant and an older one stayed by her side the entire time.

First glimpse of the new born

When the wind changed direction, the older female caught our scent. She showed her irritation by uprooting a plant and throwing some mud over herself. Then they slowly moved deeper into the coffee plantation. Since we did not want to disturb them, we did not follow them and returned to the office. I headed back to Bangalore that evening.

 Elephants relaxing in a swamp adjacent to a tea plantation

I was at the SCCS in Bangalore when I got a call that startled me. I heard that when this herd had gone to the river, the newborn had slipped and had been washed away by the strong current.

 

The fragmented landscape

To my relief, a few hours later, I heard that a few plantation workers who had seen this happen, jumped in to the river and helped it to safety on land. The Forest Department and media persons contacted us for advice on how to best handle the situation–whether to just look after it or to release it with the herd? We suggested to keep as few people as possible with the calf (to reduce trauma because of human presence & to reduce the possibility of the herd rejecting the calf due to human smell on it) to start with.

After consulting with other biologists at SCCS, we suggested the calf be fed with a mix of baby gripe water, electral & mineral water but only if it would not take long for it to be reunited with it’s family. Importantly, fresh elephant dung rubbed over the calf to mask the smell of humans. Later in the evening the calf was taken to the place where the herd was and left at some distance from the herd.

Apparently, a little later, amidst a lot of trumpeting by the herd, the mother stepped forward, went to the calf, smelt it and immediately let the calf suckle! From what I heard it seemed like the elephants were celebrating! It was really nice that the forest department and the locals took so much interest and care in wanting to rescue and re-unite the new born calf with its family.

I returned to Valparai a couple of days later and started following the herd that had split into two hoping to get a glimpse of the new born. Early next morning, the anti-poaching watchers called to inform me that there was a herd of elephants in the tea fields and they were behaving in a strange manner, looking disturbed and aggressive. We requested the tea workers who were working close by to move elsewhere and not to get too close to the elephants since they seemed already stressed by something.

Elephants stressed and huddled together with the calf on the ground

By the time I reached the site, there were only a few elephants around. A few tea bushes had been pulled out and the five elephants seemed tense. The watchers said they had heard the call of an elephant calf a little earlier. With some effort, to our horror, we saw a calf and realized that it was the same calf which had fallen into the river, now lying down motionless. The old female was trying hard for about two hours to get the calf up on its feet. Many times, the large female would walk some 100 m away, then turn around and rush back towards the calf trumpeting. Clearly, she did not want to abandon it or us to get any closer to the calf. Finally, even she gave up and started moving away. They may have moved away due to our presence as well, although we were about a 100 m away. We will never know.

 

The adult stands guard unwilling to leave the calf (on ground) behind.

Finally after all the elephants had left the place, we approached the calf. It was raining heavily and the track leading to it was very slippery. We found the calf lying at the edge of the tea bushes covered in a thick layer of slush. It seemed to be gasping for air, and its breath was sounding labored. Things did not look good.

First look of the calf

I called Divya and Sridhar (NCF colleagues) to inform them about what we had just found. The Forest Range Officer instructed his team to assist us with everything we needed as there was no resident veterinarian in Valparai. Once Divya and Sridhar arrived, we tried to administer some basic medication to help the calf gain some energy by consulting our veterinarian friends over the phone.

Medication being administered

Its body temperature was very low and we had a hard time in administering the medications. We were then required to find a shelter where we could bring up the body temperature and then help the calf as much as possible. The Bombay Burma Trading Company General Manager Mr Suresh Menon and the Manager Mr Tarun helped us in moving the calf to a near-by bus stop, a make-shift dispensary, with power, hot water, doctors and other arrangements required to nurse the calf.

After a few hours of heating up the place, feeding it little by little a mix of things as advised by the vets, holding it up to be able to breath more easily, it looked a lot more comfortable than the time when we had found it. Our hopes of its survival were raised. The forest department staff and the local people worked very hard to ensure that the calf would survive.

But by the evening, the news had got around and lots of people began to gather, both out of curiosity and concern. Crowd management was becoming tough. However, the calf also seemed to have regained some of its strength. And it was time for the next step – release.

Scouting elephants to re-unite the calf

In the mean while, our assistants had kept track of the natal herd, which, by evening had started to move towards the larger patch of forest near by. There was little time to re-unite the calf with its family. After dark, the calf was taken to the herd in a canter and set down on a path that the elephants were headed towards. Everyone left the area so as to not disrupt the movement of the elephants. We left hoping for a miracle, and hoping to see the calf reunited with his mother and herd the next morning.

 

However, it was not to be. The calf was found dead in the same spot.

 

Despite our best intentions and efforts, the calf had not pulled through. It was just 10 days old. The forest department staff were very disheartened. They had developed a special liking to this calf. They were not fully convinced of the need to try to reunite it with the herd. They felt that sending in into captivity might have probably saved his life.

We felt that the herd probably knew that the calf would not make it. They stood with the calf for as long as they could and their grief at abandoning it had been evident. We had thought that we could save it. But we were far from being able to ….. we just did not know enough – about its condition or even the basic technique of how to handle a situation like this.

We were also in a dilemma as to whether we should intervene in this play of nature or not? Do we know enough to do it – both in terms of technical expertise as well as nature? Had the mother been too young? Was the calf therefore quite weak and no so healthy? Had the earlier drowning caused some other internal damage? Aren’t deaths such as these, as long as not directly mediated by us humans (electrocution, poisoning, etc.), a natural process?

From an ethical angle, since it seemed like a natural death to us, it seemed acceptable. We felt quite strongly that a ‘graceful‘ death in the wild is better than a ‘disgraceful‘ life in a camp. Is it always only about survival? Is it not about how the life is lived? Would we even be aware of the on-goings in herds that are mostly in the forests? How many calves are born and how many even make it to adulthood? Would the elephants have managed to pull him up had the place been somewhere else where there were no people? Should we not restrain ourselves and not intervene in most cases when we find young ones abandoned or dying? Unless, we are sure that the life we are going to give it after ‘rescue’ is better than death itself. I am certain we could have addressed the situation better if there was a specialist veterinarian based out of Valparai.

But one main thing was that everyone wanted to save the calf. No one had anger or irritation against these elephants, despite the damages they sometimes do. The people are really tolerant here and we need to foster it.

Coming home to Danum: a Borneo interlude

Coming home to Danum: a Borneo interlude

The song of the whistling thrush in the cloud-covered mountains. A chill in the air in the hills of the elephants. The river in-between the hills—the Naduar—whose white swells over the rocks he can see through his window, whose rich, sibilant sighs carry through the clear air all the way up to him. To him at his table by the window, from where he hears, he feels, he sees.

Through the window

The tea estates lie quiet, now. Through the window, he sees the tea bushes stretching away in precise rows, beyond the clustered houses of the town of Valparai, his home for the last twelve years here in southern India. Later, the drone and whine of the motorized pruning shears on the hill across the Naduar will kill the silence and the sounds of the hills. With visor and machine, the workers will swing shoulder and hip, arms tensed, grasping the handle, scything and slicing the green, leafy bushes to a prickly, wounded, brown fuzz. Smarting and stark, the shorn hills.

There is tension in departure. There must be. Bags packed, his and hers, water bottles filled, his and hers, a last glance around the home they leave behind for ten days, laces, sandal straps, pulled tight, the keys snapped onto the key hook in the backpack, they are ready to leave. They must leave the hills for the city—it is from the airport there that they will depart for Borneo. The cat stands above the steps of their home watching them leave, in inscrutable concern. Black-masked and calico, bushy tail flicking from one side to another.

* * *

The song of the koel in the swelter of the city. The cuckoo’s poignant refrain is heard through summer and monsoon in Chennai city. They have arrived to take their next flight, but must spend the day here. The heat rises, invisible, palpable, inescapable, from tarmac and pavement, from the concrete walkway in the front yard. The city throbs and growls with the stream of motor vehicles. Voices sound from the houses marking the stream of private lives. This is his home, too. The house was built the year he was born. He lived here for the first fifteen years of his life, before he was led to other places for his studies and his travels—to become, to be, an ecologist. Sitting on the porch, he looks to where the tree stood: the mango tree, now long dead, where the purple-rumped sunbirds built their nests, their downy, pendant homes. He does not hear, now, the lively gossip and chatter of the babblers, but the new, raucous conversation of treepies can be heard from the trees around. Trees younger than him, but taller three times, five times over.

The airports have no songs, only the monotony of announcements. There is the utter silence of a thousand noises—a dulling, meaningless cacophony that is always heard and never listened to. The voices of monotony punctuate the silence referring to destinations—flights delayed, arriving, boarding. Destinations: this is the last and final call, say the voices.

Inelegant but powerful, the bird flies though the air. From darkness to gleaming, ochre sunrise, from black to grey to stunning blue and white. Filled with lives, yet lifeless, the bird flies higher and faster. Another airport: Kuala Lumpur. One has to take a train to reach the next flight. Another journey: he flies now over unfamiliar forests and familiarly-carved landscapes. Far below the aircraft’s wings, he sees swathes of oil palm plantations in unending rows, sliced sharply by boundaries and roads, punctuated with towns and settlements. He falls asleep as the flight to Kota Kinabalu crosses the South China Sea. The destination arrives. Or one arrives at the destination. In half-sleep, he cannot really tell.

The chirp of the sparrow cannot be heard. Thick glass separates the waking, walking people in the airport causeway from the little tree sparrow flitting among the tyres of the vehicles onto which people load their luggage. One cannot hear, surely, the gentle swish of water, the soft rustle of sedge, against the egret’s foot in the roadside marsh, or the cry of the crow, even—the vehicle that takes them to their hotel is too fast, the glass windows are pulled tight-shut to keep the conditioned air in, and the unconditional tropical air, out.

The hotel is old, they say. It carries a certain history, of a certain people, they say, in the city once-called Jesselton, and now Kota Kinabalu. Colony, conquest, capitulation, civilisation: the pulse and passage of time has left its varied imprints. He sees it in the remnants of an older architecture, in the crowd and clutter now in the markets, in the high-rises and steely cars flashing past, in the very faces of the people passing by. As night falls, and the rain-drenched city in Borneo goes to sleep, another marker of time and place and history stands quiet and dark and silhouetted on the street. A cinnamon tree.

* * *

Dipterocarp forest at Danum Valley, Sabah, Borneo

The forest is dark, dark. No starlight or moonlight, not even the twinkle of a single firefly. Leafy clusters in exuberant green are all he can see in the artificial light cast by the fluorescent bulbs—a few metres only, then it is dark. Unbroken blackness, yet not empty. He knows there is a forest beyond—a forest of tall trees, where orangutans sleep in their leafy nests. He knows they are there because he has been here before. In Danum.

She sits by his side, looking out into the darkness, too. A dozen others from the city have joined them on this leg of the journey. Their companions on this trip, they are tourists, photographers, nature enthusiasts. Over dinner, they chat and laugh and talk of what they have come to see. There is anticipation in the air.

Through the black window of night, the sounds of the river reach his ears. The river marks a boundary that a certain kind of person carrying a certain kind of intention has not crossed. On the far side, the old side, he knows, is the primary, equatorial, tropical rainforest: a lowland forest that has never been logged, its worth never converted into so many ringgit or dollar for so many cubic feet of timber. It is a forest of diverse dipterocarp trees. The trees that send their their seed whirring through the air on winged fruits. The trees that are among the tallest in the world’s tropical forests. On the near side, the new side, where he sits—as an ecologist in a research facility built partly with timber and oil money and partly with science funds streaming in from afar—here, on this side of the river, the forest is shredded by logging. The flat gravel roads have opened the forest wide for the logging trucks to come through. Now, by night, he and the others sitting there see the forest as lost in its darkness. He wonders, does the forest see them as blinded in their light?

Road through logged forest, Danum Valley

Earlier in the day: by the road, they are amidst tall grasses. She, one who is older than the others perhaps, looks through the grasses—one steady eye looking, one large ear gently flapping. She twists a few blades of grass with her trunk and curls it to her mouth; she moves her elephant body at elephant pace and steps forward. Ahead, her calf moves into the undergrowth away from the prying human eyes peering from cars. Another yelps further ahead, like a dog almost—is he agitated? Or lonely?

It is late evening, a brief tropical dusk, and he sits high on the tree. He turns to see her where she ushers her child down a tree trunk onto a bridge of leafy branches and into the enveloping folds of another tree. He turns back to see the people spill out of the cars. Their chatter is clear, it carries, and the engines drone on. From the tailpipe, a different smell wafts up, wafts away. They point at the orangutans they think they have found, they gather together, they are absorbed in the handling of objects. Glasses glint like eyes, teeth flash in ephemeral smiles. Unhurried, he blinks his lambent eyes and turns his face away from them.

Orangutan in Sabah, Borneo

The palm civet and bearded pig find themselves in a blaze of light on the road. They only want to escape into the welcoming dark, perhaps. They pause, they look, but find nothing to see in the blazing beams. The vehicles pass, one by one and another and another, and one more. From inside the cars, eyes peer out into the forest where the civet has entered. They pause, they look, but cannot see anything in the depths of darkness. The civet can perhaps see them now, if he turned to look, but then does he really want to?

Under the glare of the fluorescent light, he wonders now why he has come back. Back to this place, to this very table. From his home in distant India, to Danum. To the forest that he cannot yet see. Is it for himself? For a reassurance that whatever he has come to see is still there? Rather like obsessing over a possession—a jewel perhaps, a pearl in a jewel-box that he must open now and then to see that the pearl is still there, still there for him. Is it for her? She, who has travelled long journeys with him, who cannot stay away from such places even if she tried—and why would she? Is it for them? The people from the other world—the world of the big city that has not left them, but is here, too?

The insects trill, they chirp and chitter, they utter sibilant and metallic squeaks. The patter and clack of frogs punctuate the night chorus. The forest is dark—dark, but not silent. He waves his flashlight seeking to find his way back to his room. The eyes of the resting sambar deer throw the light right back at him.

* * *

He turns forty this year, he remembers, in the morning, looking up at the giant dipterocarp tree that is ten times as old as he is and twenty-five times as tall. The air is heavy and humid. His shoulder slouches with backpack, the sweat drips off his face and runs down his neck and chest as he gazes upward. The tree stands straight and tall.

Tree in rainforest

The tree would have been a lanky sapling when the early men came, walked past, carrying with them one of their own. Carrying their bereavement to be entombed in belian, in the ironwood coffin that they will place with care further down the trail. For decades, it would have stood as a tree, weathering storms and sun in the forest, in the company of its cousins. Soon it would have been tall enough for hornbills perched on its high boughs to look across, past the storm-flattened clearing, past the browned waters of the Sungai Segama, into the forest beyond. And the hornbills gracing its high branches would have seen the forest on the other side whittled away only in the last four decades: the four decades of his own life.

Ten thousand square kilometres for a Forest Management Area, but just over four hundred square kilometres for Danum, for protection. The wheels of progress spin under the heavy logging trucks that cart away the forest—the managed forest—log by log by log. The managed forest: when trees become logs, the forest gains an adjective. Sustainable forests, certified forests, reduced impact managed forests: more adjectives. And further still, from stripped land, from the ashes of the burnt remnants, rise the giant plantations of a single species to begin new cycles of production: with the oil from the oil palm, the lubricated wheels of the economy spin smooth and fast. This is not madness, we are told, this is need—there is reason and it is reason, ultimately, that completes the circle. Nothing should go to waste.

Down in the forest, in stultifying, sweltering humidity, on the dark carpet of dry leaf and twig and fungus and seed lying among snaking roots and curled millipedes, in that carpet of multi-hued browns under the many shades of green above, is a small, black lump of animal excrement. It holds pieces of the shiny skins of fruits, the shining splinters of insect elytra, and it is studded with small seeds. A civet or marten has gone this way, very early in the morning. It is a mere scat, something rotting and dead, yet it seems alive. It moves. It heaves and struggles like something rising from paralysis. The scat is mere offal, these are dung beetles that are at work. There are two, he notes, crouched over them like a giant. Two beetles, seemingly standing on their heads, each gathering its piece of dung and rolling it away. They roll it upslope on the trail, over little leaves and twigs, their dull black bodies all earnestness, unfazed by such obstacles.

From a little distance, across the vast gulf that separates him from them, it looks like they are rolling ahead on wheels. The wheels that need to be buried to nourish the earth, feed the young and bring forth a new generation, and plant the entrapped seed of the rainforest tree. It is just a piece of dung. But nothing should go to waste, after all.

* * *

One thousand five hundred termites per square metre in the rainforest, he reads with astonishment in the new book, a scientific and photographic treatise on Danum. More than six hundred species of beetles from just five individual ferns. Mere facts, blandly stated, not to embellish or exaggerate, merely to inform. Just sundry facts about insignificant invertebrates placed before him like a sampler in a chocolate store: here, try this! Do you like it? Would you like some more?

He wonders if he can take more. Not because he does not desire more, but he really doubts if his mind, his irresolute brain, can really take more. He stands before the tree considering the thought. What is the information the tree contains? Its texture: sprouting like a finely-branched brush, or feather, or undersea hydra, sprouting from the surface of the land, spreading, flattening into leaves turned just so, and so, the upper surface shiny and smooth, ribbed with veins, velveted with epiphylls down to its pointed tip, more midrib than leaf at the point, collapsing over and around into the lower surface white and soft with hairs against impressed veins, with pits and, look even closer, even smaller pits, too, like nostrils for the leaf to breathe—a texture so dense, so particular, yet pliable and ephemeral, unlike the bark, ridged and rough, notched and creviced, with the spiders in the crevices, and eggs, fine eggs under a flake of bark that is dripping wet on the outside, but dry, very dry, beneath. And that does not describe it all, hardly does, there is more texture, and then there is colour and smell and sound and above all life—how many of the six hundred beetles are there on the single fern up there? Is the tree just a piece of the forest—an object to look at, measure up, pass—or a historical monument with its place, its purpose, its baggage, its limitless texture, its intricate forms?

Fern in the canopy

He overhears the man with the camera and lenses say to another member of his group that the best camera of the day is one which is beyond his means. It is a video camera so expensive that the professionals can only rent, use, and return it to the big companies. It shoots three hundred frames a second at eighteen megapixels. Megapixels? Mega, as in big, and pixel, as in small area. Eighteen big small areas? No, megapixel, as in the mathematically precise number of two raised to the power of twenty or one million forty eight thousand, five hundred and seventy six. A screen, a window of observation, of photographic record, parcelled into more than a million little pieces of information. At three hundred frames a second and eighteen of these millions at every instant, the video gathers and records in its cards, in electronic memory, terabytes of information: more information than can be displayed even today on any existing screen at contemporary capabilities.

Information. How much information does the tree contain? What if the video camera, or a whole bevy of such cameras, shot the tree, from every aspect and angle, at three hundred frames a second at eighteen megapixels, shot it every second of every day of its four-hundred-year life until the terabytes and yottabytes on the cards ran out? Would we have the information, of the tree, on hand? Would it even come close? And then what? Feed all that to the irresolute brain, the mind that seeks more? There seems to be a problem here. The information available seems far more than the best mind-screens of the day can handle, leave alone illuminate and display.

The rain pelts down in heavy droplets and finer drizzles, merging with mists skimming the treetops, the mists seamlessly melting into the overcast, grey sky. The air is humid; under the thin raincoat, he sweats profusely as he walks in a stupor through a world that seems now saturated with moisture. The rain breaks and the clouds quickly part. The bushy-crested hornbill, separate now from the rest of his flock, sits on a high stump, his wings held open and his back turned to the evening sun. In a world saturated, he tries to dry himself a bit.

* * *

Why does coming to Borneo feel like coming home? Even as he knows he will leave in a couple of days, he knows he will come back again. Yet, he is not of this place. He does not know the people, he cannot speak the language. He loves the food but does not know how it is made, where it all comes from, comes together, in that finesse of process and proportion and place that one calls cooking. The sounds are not alien, but unfamiliar, recalling sounds of his place and other journeys: the drone of the cicadas, the metronomic tk-trrt tk-trrt call of the blue-eared barbet that he last saw and heard in the northernmost rainforest back in his country, the patter of rain, the crunch and rustle of his own footsteps on the forest trail. Clearly, this is not the place where he can, like Walter Scott’s man, in returning, claim:

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
‘This is my own, my native land!’

No, that doesn’t fit him at all.

Sitting with a bottle of beer, in the evening, he gazes out towards the forest. The forest is a multi-hued green, rising and falling in the irregular waves of tree canopies, clinging with climbers—rising and falling, but poking out of the waves like mushrooms over base litter are giants, their canopy brave against sky, kissing mists, clouds even. The falling sun and the clouded moon soon rob the forest of its texture, its depth, its waves and whispers, until there is only a formless black to the unattuned eye. The giants that rise above the rest include, of course, the smooth-skinned Koompassia excelsa, the menggaris favoured by the rock bees, and the lanky, straight-boled dipterocarps—favoured, unfortunately, he thinks, by the loggers who are called forest managers. Every other tree in the forest, almost, is a dipterocarp. How does the manager see the forest, he wonders? Half as commodity, a third as collateral, the balance mere crap or carcase?

Rock bees on Koompassia excelsa

He knows he will leave the forest soon. The forest will not leave him—it will go along, too. Who says trees cannot travel? The giant trees will reappear in his dreams, by day or night, for trees there must be in his dreams. From miles away, where the sweep of forest becomes the manager’s territory, the lanky dipterocarp will be brought down, laid flat, sliced flat, and shipped with him, without him, to his other place, his other home. He can buy it in his town in the hills of the elephants, make a cot with the timber of Malaysian sal, to place his mattress and sleep on and dream his dreams of the trees.

Logging in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo

Further afield, still, in time and space, the forest stripped of commodity and collateral will burn and scar. The carcass needs cremation, the cremation ground its scar tissue. And from the ashes of the fires will rise the new Phoenix, the palm that has travelled, too, across the oceans. The oil palm is the new fruit of the land, the one stubborn shade of green that will replace the many subtle greens.

Large-scale monoculture, oil palm cultivation in Sabah, Borneo

The new earth-scars, the roads to carry crop and cropper, will scour the countryside. The shanty towns will spring up in the backdrop of the factories belching smoke, as after a good meal, the fire in their bellies are well-oiled machines producing well-machined oils.

Clearing for oil palm plantation, Sabah

Palm oil. Palm kernel oil. The oil will follow him, too. It flow and glide along, melt and slide inescapably into his everyday life. He will see it in his soap and shampoo, his cake and fries, his chocolate that he will have now and then. Who says, he thinks, that trees cannot travel?

Perhaps that is what he feels, going back, coming back, to his home in the hills of the elephants, where the whistling thrush sings under the monsoon clouds. If going into nature, into Danum, is like coming home, then isn’t going home also only coming to nature, coming to terms with nature? He has read the poet, Gary Snyder, an unlikely American in the same world: “Nature”, the man said, “is not a place to visit, it is home—and within that home territory there are more familiar and less familiar places.” He thinks, now, with the bottle of beer in his hand, that he senses something of which the poet wrote. Or perhaps not. Maybe it is just the gentle stream of alcohol coursing his veins: he’s just let his guard down too much, tonight. What do poets know anyway?

He’s no poet. He’s an ecologist. At work, off work, he remains preoccupied with ecology. Ecology, from the oikos and logos of the Greeks. Logos, as the scripture, the study, of oikos, the home. With a renewed awareness, he realises that ecology is nothing less, and nothing more, than a deep preoccupation with home. Everything, now, appears to point home. Even the alcohol offers no escape.

It is late. The darkness descends. He must catch some sleep before the morning. Tomorrow, he must return home.

வேழங்களை வாழவைக்க….

வேழங்களை வாழவைக்க….

காடுகள் தொடர்ச்சியாக அழிக்கப்பட, யானைகளின் வீடுகளும் வாழ்க்கையும் வேகமாக அழிந்து வருகின்றன. இவ்வேழங்களை வாழவைக்க நாம்  செய்ய வேண்டியது என்ன?

Elephant
அழிவின் விளிம்பில் ஆசிய யானை (Photo: Ganesh Raghunathan)

யானைக்கூட்டத்தை காட்டில் பார்ப்பது எவ்வளவு இனிமையான காட்சியாக இருக்கிறது! அதுவும் நீளமாக தந்தம் கொண்ட ஆண் யானையின் கம்பீரம் நம்மை வியக்க வைக்கிறது. பழக்கப்பட்ட யானை வீதியில் வரும்போது அதன் மேலே ஏறி பவனி வர செய்ய பலருக்கு ஆவலாயிருக்கும், நாம் கொடுக்கும் பழத்தையோ காசையோ தனது ஈரமான துதிக்கை முனையில் வாங்கி பெருமூச்சுடன் தலையில் சொல்லிக் கொடுத்தவாறு நம்மை ஆசீர்வதிக்கும் போது நமக்கு சிலிர்த்துப்போகுமல்லவா? கால்களில் சங்கிலியைக்கட்டி நமக்காக மரமிழுக்கும்போது கண்களில் நீர் வழிந்தாலும் முகத்தில் புன்னகையுடன் இருக்கும் யானைகளைப் பார்க்கும் போதெல்லாம் நாம் அவற்றிற்காக பரிதாப்படுகிறோம். யானைகளை விநாயகராகவும், கணபதியாகவும் உருவகித்து வழிபடுகிறோம். அதே சமயம் மனிதர்களாகிய நாம் தந்தத்திற்காக அவற்றை கொடூரமாக கொல்லவும் செய்கிறோம், மாதக்கணக்கில் அரும்பாடுபட்டு வளர்த்த பயிரை ஒரே இரவில் தின்று தீர்க்கும் யானைக்கூட்டத்தை கொல்லத்துடிக்கிறோம். ஒருபுறம் வணங்கவும் மறுபுறம் தூற்றவை செய்கிறோம். ஏனிந்த முரண்பாடு?

Mustigudi
நாம் வழிபடும் ஆனைமுகத்தோன் (Photo: Kalyan Varma)

யானைத்திரளை தூரத்தில் இருந்து பார்த்து ரசிப்பதே ஒரு வித்தியாசமான அனுபவம். அவை இலாவகமான இலை, தழைகளை தமது துதிக்கையால் பிடித்துச்  சாப்பிடுவதும், கூடி விளையாடுவதும், அளவளாவுவதும், தங்கள் குட்டிகளை அக்கறையுடன் பார்த்துக்கொள்ளும் விதத்தை நேரில் காண்பதே மிக சுவாரசியமானது.. உணர்வுப்பூர்வமான நெருக்கம், சமூக பழக்கவழக்கங்கள், ஒரு யானை துன்பத்திலிருக்கும் போது மற்றொன்று அதைப் பார்த்து பச்சாதாபப்படுவது என்று மனித உணர்வுகளுக்கும் யானைகளின் உணர்வுகளுக்கும் உள்ள ஒற்றுமைகள் நமக்கு ஆச்சரியம் அளிக்கும் விதத்தில் இருக்கின்றன.. அதேநேரம் அவை நமது வயல்களுக்குள் நுழைந்தாலோ, பல காலம் பணத்தையும் ஆற்றலையும் செலவழித்து நாம் உருவாக்கிய பயிர்களை அழித்தாலோ, கருணையின்றி மனிதர்களை மிதித்தாலோ, கொன்றாலோ நாம் அவற்றைக் கண்டு அஞ்சுகிறோம், வெறுக்கவும் செய்கிறோம். ஆனால் அவை ஏன் இப்படி நடந்து கொள்கின்றன என்று என்றைக்காவது சிந்தித்துப் பார்த்திருக்கிறோமா?

உண்மைதான், யானை – மனிதர்கள் இடையிலான மோதல் சம்பவங்கள் வருத்தம் தருபவைதான். ஆனால் அதேநேரம் நாம் யானைகளுக்கு எதிராக நாம் இதுவரை செய்த தொடர்ந்து செய்து கொண்டிருக்கிற மனிதத்தன்மையற்ற செயல்பாடுகளைப் பற்றி ஆறறிவுடைய நாம் உணர்ந்திருக்கிறோமா?

யானைகளின் வீடுகளான காடுகளும் புல்வெளிகளும் நாளுக்கு நாள் சுருங்கி வருகின்றன. யானைகள் பொதுவாகவே காட்டின் ஒரு பகுதியில் இருந்து மற்றொரு பகுதிக்கு இரை தேடப் போவது வழக்கம். இதற்காக யானைகள் பன்னெடுங் காலமாக பயன்படுத்தி வரும் வழித்தடங்களில் (elephant corridor) அணைக்கட்டுகள், ரயில் பாதைகள், சாலைகள், பிரமாண்டமான தண்ணீர் குழாய்கள், மனிதக் குடியிருப்புகள் போன்றவை பெருகிவிட்டன. இன்றைக்கு இந்த யானை வழித்தடங்கள் யாவும் ஆக்கிரமிப்புகள், தடைகள் உள்ளிட்ட பல்வேறு பிரச்சினைகளால் சூழப்பட்டுள்ளன.

Road block
யானையின் வழித்தடங்கள் ஆக்கிரமிக்கப்படுவதைத் தடுக்க வேண்டும் (Photo: Kalyan Varma)

மக்கள்தொகை தொடர்ச்சியாக அதிகரித்துக்கொண்டே இருப்பதால், மேலும் மேலும் காடுகள் ஆக்கிரமிக்கப்படுகின்றன. யானைகளின் வீடுகளான காடுகள் ஒருபுறம் அழிந்து கொண்டிருக்கும் நிலையில், எஞ்சியுள்ள காடுகளும் சீரழிந்து கொண்டே செல்லும் நிலையில்தான் மனிதர்கள் – யானைகள் இடையிலான மோதல் வலுக்கச்செய்கிறது. ஆசிய, ஆப்பிரிக்க நாடுகளில் ஏற்பட்டுள்ள இந்தப் பிரச்சினையில் மனிதர்கள் யானைகளைக் கொல்வதும், யானைகள் மனிதர்களைக் கொல்வதும் நடக்கிறது. அது மட்டுமில்லாமல் யானைகளுக்கு இன்றியமையாத அடிப்படைத்தேவையான ஆதாரங்களான உணவு நிழல் தரும் பெரிய மரங்கள் கொண்ட வனம் யாவும்  அற்றுப்போய்க்கொண்டிருக்கின்றன . தேயிலை, காப்பி, ரப்பர், ஏலக்காய் உள்ளிட்ட ஓரினப்பயிர்களை வளர்ப்பதற்காக காடுகள் துண்டு துண்டாக்கப்பட்டதும், சீரழிந்து போனதுமே இந்தப் பிரச்சினைக்கு அடிப்படைக் காரணம். யானைகளுக்குத் தேவையான உணவும், அவற்றை தேடிச் சென்றடைய யானைகள் காலங்காலமாகப் பயன்படுத்தி வந்த வழித்தடங்களும் அழிக்கப்பட்டுவிட்டன. இந்நிலையில், நமது பாரம்பரியம், காடுகளுடைய வளத்தின் அடையாளமாக இருக்கும் யானைகளின் பாதுகாப்பை உறுதிப்படுத்த பாதுகாப்பு நடவடிக்கைகளை மேற்கொள்ள வேண்டிய அவசியம் இருக்கிறது.

யானை வழித்தடங்கள் மட்டுமல்ல, யானைகளின் எண்ணிக்கையும் மோசமாக பாதிக்கப்பட்டுள்ளன. ஆண் யானைகளுக்கு உள்ள கவர்ச்சிகரமான தந்தம் காரணமாக, அவை கொடூரமாகக் கொல்லப்படுவதால் ஆண் – பெண் விகிதம் பாதிக்கப்படுகிறது. பயிர்களை சேதம் செய்யலாம் என்று நினைத்து மின்சாரம் பாய்ச்சப்பட்டோ, விஷம் வைக்கப்பட்டோ, அல்லது வேகமாக ஓடும் ரயிலில் அடிபட்டோ யானைக் கூட்டத்துக்குத் தலைமை தாங்கும் வயது முதிர்ந்த ஒரு பெண் யானை இறந்து போகும்போது, அந்தக் குடும்பம் தங்களது தலைவியை இழக்கிறது. இதன் காரணமாக அந்த யானைக் கூட்டம் அடுத்து என்ன செய்வது என்று தெரியாமல் திண்டாட நேர்கிறது. இது சிலவேளைகளில் அந்த யானைக் குடும்பமே சிதறி வெவ்வேறு பாதைகளில் பிரிந்து செல்ல ஏதுவாகிறது. அது மட்டுமில்லாமல் சர்க்கஸில் வித்தை காட்டுவதற்காகவோ, கோவில்களில் சேவை செய்வதற்காகவோ யானைகள் பிடிக்கப்பட்டோ, கடத்தியோகொண்டு வரப்படும் போது அவை குடும்பத்திடம் இருந்து பிரிக்கப்பட்டு நிராதரவாகின்றன. அவற்றின் வீடான காடுகள் துண்டாக்கப்படும் போது, உறவினர்களுடனான நெருக்கமான தொடர்பை அவை இழக்கின்றன. அவை வாழும் காட்டிலேயே அகதியாக மாற்றப்படுகின்றன.

Elephant and calf
யானைகளும் நம்மைப் போல சமூக விலங்குகள்தான். (Photo: Kalyan Varma)

நமது சமூகத்தைச் சேர்ந்த  ஒருவர் கொல்லப்பட்டால் நாம் மனமுடைந்து போராட்டத்தில் குதிக்கிறோம். நீதி கேட்கிறோம். எப்படியெல்லாம் முடியுமோ, அப்படியெல்லாம் நமது ஆதரவை அவர்களுக்குத் தருகிறோம். ஏன்?அவர்களின் வலியை நாமும் உணர்வதால்தான். யானைகளும் நம்மைப் போன்ற சமூக விலங்குகள்தான். அவை தங்களது குட்டிகளை அக்கறையுடனும், உறவினர்களை நம்மைப் போலவே நெருக்கமாகவும் நடத்துகின்றன. யானைகளை வெறும் உணர்ச்சியற்ற பொருள்களாகப் பார்ப்பது தவறு என்று அவற்றை ஆராய்ச்சி செய்த உயிரியலாளர்களும், யானை ஆராய்ச்சியாளர்களும் வலியுறுத்துகின்றனர். அவை நம்மைப் போலவே உணர்ச்சி மிகுந்த விலங்குகள், நம்மைப் போலவே சமூகமாக வாழ்பவை என்பதைப் புரிந்துகொள்ள வேண்டும். யானைகளின் தேவைகளையும், அவற்றின் வலிகளையும் நாம் புரிந்துகொள்ளாத வரை, யானைகளை பாதுகாப்பது என்பது மிகப் பெரிய சவாலாகத்தான் இருக்கும்.

யானைகளை பாதுகாக்க மத்திய அரசு யானைகளை தேசிய பாரம்பரிய விலங்காக அங்கீகரித்துள்ளது. மேலும் மத்திய சுற்றுச்சூழல் மற்றும் வனத் துறை அமைச்சகம் யானைகள் செயல்திட்ட அமைப்பை உருவாக்கியுள்ளது. அரசுடன் மக்களான நாமும் இணைந்து செயல்பட்டால்தான் யானைகளைக் காப்பாற்ற முடியும். அதற்கு தொடர்ச்சியான, ஒருங்கிணைந்த செயல்பாடுகள் தேவை என்று அந்த அமைப்பு பரிந்துரைத்துள்ளது (Elephant Task Force Report). யானைகளை பாதுகாப்பதற்காக அந்த அமைப்பு வழங்கியுள்ள முக்கியமான சில பரிந்துரைகள்:

  • யானை வழித்தடங்களை மாற்றும் செயல்பாடுகளை தடை செய்ய வேண்டும்.
  • யானைகளைப் பாதுகாக்கும் நடவடிக்கைகளில் உள்ளூர் மக்களை ஈடுபடுத்த வேண்டும்.
  • ஒவ்வொரு யானைப் பாதுகாப்பிடங்களிலும் உள்ளூர் நிர்வாகக் குழுக்களை அமைக்க வேண்டும்.
  • யானைகள் வாழும் சூழலியல், அவற்றின் எண்ணிக்கை பற்றி அறிய தொடர்ச்சியாக ஆராய்ச்சிகள் நடத்தப்பட வேண்டும்.
  • திருட்டுத்தனமாக நடக்கும் யானைத் தந்த வர்த்தகத்தைக் கட்டுப்படுத்த வேண்டும்.
  • பழக்கப்பட்ட யானைகள் மீதான கவனமும் நிர்வாகமும் மேம்படுத்தப்பட வேண்டும்.
  • அதிக மனித – விலங்கு மோதல் நடைபெற வாய்ப்புள்ள பகுதிகளில் தடுப்பு நடவடிக்கைக் குழுக்கள் ஏற்படுத்தப்பட வேண்டும்.
  • இந்த மோதலில் இழக்கப்படும் பயிர்களுக்குசெலவிட்ட முழுத்தொகையையும் நிவாரண நிதியாக பாதிக்கப்பட்டவர்களுக்கு அளித்திடல் வேண்டும்.
  • யானைகளின் முக்கியத்துவம், மதிப்பு பற்றி பொதுமக்களிடையே விழிப்புணர்வு ஏற்படுத்தப்பட வேண்டும்.
Elephant eye
யானையின் முக்கியத்துவத்தைப் பற்றிய விழிப்புணர்வை அனைவருக்கும் ஏற்படுத்துவது அவசியம் (Photo: Kalyan Varma)

யானைகளைப் பாதுகாக்க ம்மால் என்ன செய்ய முடியும்:

  • யானையைக் கொன்று பெறப்பட்ட அதனது உடல்பாகங்களை (உரோமம் மற்றும் தந்தம்) அல்லது அவற்றாலான ஆபரணங்ளை வாங்குவதைத் தவிர்க்கலாம்.
  • யானை வாழும் பகுதியிலிருந்து வெட்டி வரப்பட்ட மரங்களாலான பொருட்களை வாங்குவதைத் தவிர்க்கலாம்.
  • யானை ஆராய்ச்சி செய்யும் மையங்களுக்கு நம்மாலான தொண்டு செய்யலாம்.
  • யானைகளின், அவற்றின் வாழிடங்கள் மற்றும் வழித்தடங்களின்  முக்கியத்துவத்தையும் பிறருக்கு உணரவைக்க முயற்சி செய்யலாம்.

இந்தக் கட்டுரை Tamilnadu Science Forum (TNSF) வெளியிடும் துளிர் எனும் சிறுவர்களுக்கான அறிவியல் மாத இதழில் (October 2011) வெளியானது. இக்கட்டுரையை இங்கு தரவிறக்கம் செய்துகொள்ளலாம்(PDF).

Edited version of this article on Asian Elephants published in ‘Thulir’ – a science monthly magazine for kids from Tamilnadu Science Forum (TNSF). You can download the PDF of this Tamil article here.

This is a Tamil Version of article titled “Trumpeting their Cause” published in The Hindu Young World on 18th July, 2011.