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Print edition : December 30, 2011

An up-close view of wild elephants from a house in the Sigur forest in Udhagamandalam.

RIVALDO, behave yourself. Don't be so unruly.

The footloose tusker ignores the admonition shouted from the frontage of a tiny house, situated in Sigur forest on the periphery of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in Udhagamandalam, Tamil Nadu. Instead, he lifts his trunk, thrusting forward his immense tusks, and trumpets as a sign of warning. For anyone not used to the behaviour of elephants in the wild, Rivaldo's threatening posture could be frightening. The tusker advances menacingly but stops abruptly and becomes calm when he is within arm's length of the house. The quick transformation provides an interesting input not only to ethology but also to the study of human-animal relationship.

Don't worry. He is just a crazy elephant [said very affectionately]. Not a killer or a rogue, says Mark Davidar, the owner of the house in the wilderness, as we watch the scene from the verandah of his house. The house is called Cheetal Walk after the cheetal [spotted deer] that came to its courtyard soon after the owners moved into the place in 1967. It was only in the 1980s that elephants began to frequent the area surrounding the house and got accustomed to the presence of humans there. Since the area around the house is not fenced, wildlife moves around freely in the vicinity, offering an up-close view of their activities. The house's proximity to wildlife had warmed the hearts of the renowned ornithologist Salim Ali and the great field biologist George B. Schaller.

MARK DAVIDAR IN the verandah of his house, "Cheetal Walk", in the Sigur forest.-

Mark Davidar, a postgraduate in marine biology who had worked with the Bombay Natural History Society and the Madras Snake Park before moving into his father E.R.C. Davidar's home in the wild two decades ago, has developed a passion for elephant-watching. Although he did not declare it, Mark's other passion is perhaps football: he has named his elephant visitors after star footballers Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Roberto. Rivaldo is the chief protagonist of Cheetal Walk's elephant story. The other tuskers just follow his rumbling orders. The bull elephants, in fact, live up to their given names. They display a variety of moods, mainly sporty and mischievous, but are respectful of Mark's home. They stage mock charges, or bluffs, and sometimes have aggressive bouts, locking tusks and entwining trunks, but hardly inflict any injury on each other. Sometimes they have a noisy showdown and then rub shoulders in a show of camaraderie.

Rivaldo appears to be the naughtiest. He stretches his trunks or legs without any rhyme or reason and sometimes, on an impulse, charges towards the house. But he tamely withdraws when Mark admonishes him. Mark is unable to hide his affection for the elephant when he says, in spite of all the bad behaviour, Rivaldo is a large-hearted gentleman. He says this has been proved many times. No wonder he calls the elephants his guardian angels.

Rivaldo (top and above), the chief protagonist of Cheetal Walk's elephant story, reaching out for the binoculars in the verandah. He had on one occasion found a pair and even broken them.-

As we stand watching Rivaldo's bluff, Mark picks up a pair of binoculars and watches other tuskers standing at a distance. Before Mark came to live in Cheetal Walk for good, he had holidayed frequently in the house with his parents and two siblings. Romantically and emotionally drawn to the elephants, Mark has, over the years, struck a unique rapport with them. The elephants themselves can distinguish him easily in a crowd of people as they are familiar with his voice and face.

DAVIDAR AND CONSERVATION

E.R.C. Davidar bestrode the Nilgiris like a colossus with his pioneering activities in nature conservation. A zealous trekker and a meticulous wildlife observer, he knew every nook and cranny of the blue mountains. In 1954, he came to Udhagamandalam (or Ooty) as a lawyer representing a Madras (Chennai)-based solicitor's firm. He was associated actively with the Nilgiri Wildlife Association as its secretary, and when the organisation was renamed the Nilgiri Wildlife and Environment Association, he played a crucial role in it, which made him a legendary figure among wildlife enthusiasts. He conducted a number of conservation surveys and has left a repository of knowledge for posterity.

ROBERTO AND RIVALDO during their daily walk around the villa in Sigur.-

The well-known naturalist Theodore S. Baskaran wrote in a tribute in The Hindu dated April 25, 2010, on the passing of Davidar at the age of 87: Davidar was one of the earliest advocates of nature conservation operating in an area when environmental protection had not been institutionalised. Cheetal Walk is one of his celebrated works, of delightful articles. They are thrilling and unforgettable as they reveal his deep association with wildlife observations.

E.R.C. Davidar held that no romance with the Indian jungles was complete without a meeting with its lord, the elephant. His stay at Cheetal Walk provided him plenty of opportunities to watch elephants at close quarters. (Sigur plateau is an identified elephant corridor.) During Davidar's early days in Sigur, Udayar was the most regal of the tuskers he knew. On one occasion, Udayar almost trampled a servant of the house. Bumpy and Kumariah were the other tuskers that moved around Cheetal Walk then.

RIVALDO BREAKING A bamboo cane.-

Davidar recalled in his book Cheetal Walk: Living in the Wilderness:

Our relations with Bumpy was the most refreshing experience. The tusker repaid us in his own way by giving us pleasures in his company and acting as a watchman. Mark used to say his relationship with the elephants was getting into a spiritual plane. When asked why it is spiritual, Mark would reply, because tuskers are my gods, protecting me'.... The more we observed the elephants, the more we were convinced of their similarity with human beings. They are affable or crusty, noisy or quiet, outgoing or withdrawing, aggressive or amiable, displaying a whole range of human behaviour. The common predictable character is their unpredictability.

AFTER DUSTING THEIR backs with mud to remove parasites, the trio, Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Roberto, walk away into the thicket.-

Now Rivaldo has replaced Bumpy as Cheetal Walk's guard. He has been watching the house for nearly 10 years. Mark says he is intelligent but gets violent unnecessarily. Yet he is a peace-loving animal. Once Rivaldo waylaid a car belonging to Mark's friends who were visiting Cheetal Walk. Filled with anger, he was about to smash the car. But good sense prevailed and he withdrew silently, says Mark.

Mark understands the nuances of a tusker's behaviour. Yet he is cautious. When Rivaldo advances in an angry mood, Mark merely rises from his chair in the verandah and shouts: Rivaldo, this is too much. Go back. Your trumpets won't frighten me. I said go back. Rivaldo makes a grumbling noise, snatches a coir mat from the verandah and hurls it at a tree. He then tries to smash a chair. Again Mark raises his voice and the animal drops the chair. But not one to give up without drawing more attention to himself, Rivaldo stretches out his trunk to reach the chair, and Mark shouts: Stop it, Rivaldo. I will chain and cage you. Only then will you understand the value of freedom. Cool your heels. Don't waste your energy. Stay cool always, it will help you to live much longer.

(Above) Locking tusks in a playful mood, (below) digging for roots, and having a friendly bout.-

Mark's reprimand has the desired effect and an interesting scene follows. Rivaldo shakes his enormous head and flaps his ears, and recedes. He stands motionless for a few minutes, as an epitome of innocence and discipline, and then fades into the bamboo clusters. Mark knows the tusker has not left the vicinity and so picks up his binoculars and scans the bamboo clusters. He sees Rivaldo watching him through the bamboo culms as they sway in the wind and, on being spotted, move away and then once again watch him through the culms. Rivaldo's hide and seek brings much laughter, and Mark sinks into his chair looking pleased.

Experience has taught Mark how to handle the tuskers. We cannot predict their character because basically they are wild. The tuskers must be disciplined with harsh words as a teacher disciplines an unruly student.

It was the wildlife photographer N.A. Naseer who enthused this correspondent to visit Cheetal Walk for a rare experience with wildlife. The writer and Dr R. Sugathan, a well-known ornithologist, spent four days in Mark's habitat in the wild. On receiving them, Mark's opening remarks were: Don't use mobile phones in the verandah. When you watch wildlife don't make any noise. Don't talk to each other. Don't go out during night. No smoking please. The discipline here is strict. Maybe sometimes irksome to you. But you have to adjust. Violations are not tolerated. Don't use electricity at night.

Although sufficiently warned by Naseer about Rivaldo's mock charges, this correspondent was frightened on seeing the angry elephant for the first time.

The elephants' presence around Cheetal Walk has helped keep other wildlife at bay. The place is a colourful kaleidoscope of wildlife.

A big picture of Che Guevera adorns the wall of Mark's lair. The shelf on the wall is filled with books. Among them is his father's book on the forest brigand and elephant poacher Veerappan based on local lore. Davidar Sr. had maintained that the building of Cheetal Walk was not merely a property acquisition but an affair of the heart.

So, from 1967 onwards, whenever the family came from Ooty for a holiday, it was treated to stunning spectacles. Spotted deer would congregate in the yard, forage, and also leave a large amount of droppings, which the family would remove; elephants would parade down the corridor; bisons, or gaur, would stop and glare; and predators could be seen in broad daylight chasing their prey. In the night, the sonorous breathing of the tigers was the sound that thrilled and frightened the inmates of the house most. The tusks of the elephants would gleam on moonlit nights. Added to this, wild dogs, hyenas, sambars and colourful butterflies and birds made the atmosphere romantic.

The words God Bless Our Home adorn the front door of the house. Mark says the tuskers are a blessing. They can easily reduce the little house to rubble, but so far they have not even touched a window pane with their trunk. They protect and fortify the little house. Sometimes they extend their trunk into the kitchen window and rob watermelons, cabbage or plantains. If caught red-handed, they withdraw quietly.

CHEETAL WALK, SET in sylvan surroundings.-

The wildlife photographer T.N.A. Perumal said: A stay in Cheetal Walk is a rewarding experience for wildlife photographers. Hundreds of wildlife moods, especially that of tuskers, can be drawn from there.

E.R.C. Davidar's study on the Nilgiri tahr attracted George Schaller to the precarious condition of the mountain goat. Schaller came to the Nilgiris and Eravikulam in Munnar for a tahr survey. In a recent response to this writer's mail, Schaller gratefully remembered: Though a lawyer by profession, E.R.C. Davidar's passion was wildlife. I trekked along with him in many parts of Nilgiris, High Ranges and Anamalais. He had the possessive eyes of a naturalist. His continued help encouraged me. When I visited Eravikulam National Park, the abode of Nilgiri tahrs in 2006 September, I was amazed by the kurinji flowers bloom as well as the tahrs moving silently as a tourist attraction. Davidar's great works had helped to instil in the public an appreciation of the mountain goats for their beauty and habitats. Davidar's daughter Priya Davidar, who teaches ecology in Pondicherry University, was touched when she read Schaller's note.

Rivaldo stands like a sentry in front of the house.-

Schaller held that at least once in a lifetime everyone should go in pilgrimage into the wilderness to dwell on its wonders. The pilgrimage to Cheetal Walk in September was a humbling experience.

G. Shaheed is Chief of News Bureau of Mathrubhumi in Kochi.

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