Tracking the Indian elephant

Published : Sep 10, 2004 00:00 IST

Elephas Maximus: A Portrait of the Indian Elephant by Stephen Alter; Penguin Books, Delhi; pages 328, Rs.350.

NEXT to the tiger, the elephant has received a lot of attention as a subject of wildlife writing in India in recent years. There are those who have proudly documented their exploits in the cruel sport of elephant hunting, and some of these accounts have been compiled in The Great Indian Elephant Book: An Anthology of Writings on Elephants in the Raj edited by Dhriti Lahiri-Choudhury and also in P.D. Stracy's Elephant Gold. Then you have the ecology of this magnificent animal in the writings of the biologist R. Sukumar. The other genre of elephant writing is to create a fictional elephant character and weave an ecologically authentic story around it, such as Nirmal Ghosh's moving novella Lord of the Grassland. Some books of this genre have been published earlier for children. The latest on the subject is the book under review, Stephen Alter's well-researched work on the Indian elephant.

The elephant is one of the earth's oldest creatures, dating back to millions of years. Of the two species, the African and the Asian, the latter has been declining fast in numbers, with only about 50,000 left in the wild. Compare this with a population of 3,00,000 African elephants. Of the surviving Asian elephants, India has the largest population - 28,000 in the wild and 3,500 in captivity. The tropical forests of India and their floral biodiversity provided the ideal habitat for the animal to flourish. Even during British Raj, the government realised the vulnerability of this animal, and as early as 1871, the elephant was declared a protected species in the Madras Presidency. In independent India, there is mounting pressure on its habitat as a result of deforestation and a flourishing trade in contraband ivory. The population of wild elephants has been reduced to pitiable numbers. The Government of India set up Project Elephant in 1992. However, because of the predilection of the elephant to wander over vast areas, its protection has been a daunting task.

Equipped with a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, Stephen Alter travelled around the country. He visited the sanctuaries, fairs and temples. Evidence of his diligent work in the archives can be seen throughout the book. Alter demonstrated his penchant for writing about the outdoors when he brought out the anthology Great Indian Hunting Stories in 1988. This work demonstrates the captivating style that he developed as a novelist. His accounts of his encounters with people and places, such as his first visit to the Department of Environment to discuss Project Elephant, are peppered with humour. Alter does not depend on wildlife studies for his livelihood, and this endows his writings with a freshness of approach, as it has done in the writings of a number of people before him, including E.P. Gee.

In the process of tracing elephant stories, Alter deals with important issues connected with conservation in India. For instance, the activities of animal rights activists whose misguided enthusiasm can work against efforts at conservation. They take up issues with zeal but alienate large sections of people from the cause of conservation by their abrasive approach. They confuse animal rights with vegetarianism and mix up these two ideas with conservation. Last year, the activities of some animal rights activists led to a crisis in the production of life-saving drugs. It was solved only with the intervention of the Prime Minister. Alter deals with this issue when he writes about the controversy surrounding a rogue makhna elephant, which had killed nine people near Gudalur, not far from the Mudumalai sanctuary in Tamil Nadu and was eventually caught and rehabilitated in the camp. Animal rights activists accused the Forest Department of cruelty to and ill treatment of the elephant, which was denied by the department.

The author deals with the different issues involved in protecting the elephant, such as the conflict between humans and animals. In recent times, there have been many reports of elephants periodically straying into farmlands and villages bordering sanctuaries. Alter points out that most of the deaths listed as caused by wild animals were owing to trampling by elephants, but he does not go into what leads to such confrontations and the pressure on the elephant's habitat. Similarly, the problem of poaching receives cursory treatment. The wildlife trade, particularly trade in ivory, is a complicated problem involving legal questions.

MANY people, who have contributed to our understanding of this wonderful animal and worked for its conservation, figure in the book, including Dr. Krishnamurthy, the veterinarian, Dr. N.V.K. Ashraf of the Wildlife Trust of India, S.S. Bist, the forester, and of course India's "elephant man", R. Sukumar. Alter tells the story of Sabu the elephant from Mysore and how the legendary film-maker Robert Flaherty discovered him. We also get a short account of the bandit Veerappan and his activities in the Thalavadi ranges.

The author also focusses attention on a subject that has been touched by very few, that of temple elephants, which are kept chained most of the time and are hardly exercised. In fact, the Bombay Natural History Society has done a study of temple elephants, and it points to the pitiable condition of these animals. Alter, however, avoids talking about the circus elephant because he finds the cruelty involved in its training and performance quite repulsive. We get an interesting account of the Sonepur elephant mela. However, some of the accounts of his visits read a bit like a travelogue.

THERE are two areas that Alter has failed to look adequately into. The first is the paleontological evidence related to the history of the elephant in India. A number of fossil remains of the elephant belonging the Pleistocene Age have been unearthed, the latest from Kashmir. For the historical period, Indian art history can provide valuable insights about elephants. For instance, the elephant family depicted in the massive 8th century relief sculpture referred to as Bhagiratha's Penance in Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu or the 11th century elephant frieze in the Somnathpur temple in Karnataka.

The second area is the lack of references to the elephant in the literature of Indian languages, which provide a fascinating history of the association between the elephant and humans over centuries in India. For instance, there are 56 terms to refer to the elephant in Tamil, with separate words for elephants used in rituals, for day-to-day work, in battle and in ceremonies. There are many references to elephants in battle and their behaviour in Kalingathuparani of the Sangam period - for instance, with each term relating to the elephant, or any other animal for that matter, a capsule of knowledge.

The exhaustive bibliography includes little known monographs such as Trautman's Elephants and the Mauryas (1982) and E.S. Varadaraja Ayyer's The Elephant in Tamil Land. This bibliography will be of great use to researchers who want to pursue the subject. However, Harry Miller's pioneering article in National Geographic on the "kheddah" operations in Mysore has been omitted, and when Alter quotes or cites a Tamil work, he does not mention the title of the work, though when he quotes Sanskrit he talks about "Meghadootam" and "Shakuntalam". I am sure that there are plenty of references to the elephant in Kannada and Malayalam, and in the literature of regions where the elephant can be found. Films, such as Thevar's Hathi Mera Sathi and Flaherty's Elephant Boy, should be listed separately with a clear indication that these are films.

I cannot think of any reason why an index has not been provided in a book of this nature, which would have greatly added to its utility. If a reader were to look for a reference to The Elephant Protection Act or Theppakadu, for instance, how would he or she locate it in this book?

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