My name is Appu.I am studying in 4th Standard in a school near my hamlet Sambarkod in Attapady. I want to share with you the story of a wild elephant who has been the friend of us children for some years. We share the waters of the river Shiruvani with many animals, the grandest one being this huge tusker and his family. The other children who joined me in making friends with this lone tusker were 14 year old Prasanth, 16 year old Sivakami, my classmates Manu and Kathiresan along with 7 year old Eshwari devi. What attracted us to this tusker was his silent, calm grace and the quiet way in which he came down the forested slopes of the hill opposite our hamlet as dusk spread its darkness to drink water. Not even once did he make a noise or trample the fields and scare or attack us.
I started admiring his size, the ease with which he carried the huge body, his shapely tuskers and lack of greed or hurry..it was as if he had grown up with the ancient hills and river that made our land so special in Kerala. We decided to observe and note his behaviour and he rewarded us with many special sights of his unique character. We noticed that once he became confident about the attitude of our people towards him, he started bringing the group which consisted of some juvenile tuskers, a matriarch female, few young females and 5 small calves. We had such fun watching the calves swimming and bathing in the waters, frolicking in the muddy shores of the river and being pampered by the rest of the herd. We took care not to make noise or disturb them as they were with us for so short a while.
After some days with us the elephant herd vanished..my mother explained to me that elephants love to travel and explore new areas..and that they have a mental map by which they keep moving for water and food. She assured our group that the animals would return to our hamlet because we treated them with reverence and care. She spoke of the huge tusker as Raja- the King of the jungle whose visit according to the tribals in Attapady would bring prosperity and health to the soil and us.
Days passed.. and I got engaged in farming and school. I love being in the small piece of land that my parents and grandfather were looking after. We planted bananas near the river, our own special crops like ragi(finger millet), chama(little millet), cholam ( maize) on the drier parts of the slope…I had a small patch near to the house where I grew pumpkins, cucumbers and beans.
But somewhere in the back of my mind I kept waiting for the elephants to return. It was then that I realized that I had developed a special love for these huge animals. I started collecting pictures and paper cuttings about elephants, made a special corner with elephant pictures that I worshipped everyday, made a notebook full of drawings on elephants and so on. All except my gentle mother made fun and called me “Elephant crazy”….she alone smiled at my reverence towards Raja.
One evening I returned from school to see my usually energetic mother in sadness and silence. After some time she blurted out that the elephant herd had come and eaten away all of my specially planted field of red lentils and pigeon peas. She was afraid that I would be angry and upset that no one tried to save the field. Instead I was so happy that the elephants had a good meal and actually my anger was about the villagers who drove them away.
But little did I know then that not many of the people from outside who settle near the tribal hamlets and take land on lease shared my love for the elephants. As summer increased and water became scarce, my tusker and herd stayed near the shrinking waters of Shiruvani and started visiting our fields more. But if it was bananas, he would leave half or more for us…but little were the settlers willing to have patience and tolerance. They started a warfare on the gentle giants by throwing crackers into their midst, dousing kerosene onto huge torches and burning them all around the herd, shouting and beating drums ..so much so that it very soon became a conflict zone. They complained to the Elephant squad of the Forest Department that life has become a danger for the people.
The tribal community in my hamlet kept quiet because we knew that if we leave the elephants alone for a few days they will return to the forests and not trouble us. But the settlers who had no bonds with the forest, animals, land and soil had no reverence or patience..they just wanted to make profit from the bananas and cotton and leave.
We understood that the behaviour of many people especially after evening hours were also adding to the problem. Though Attapady is known as a prohibition zone there is rampant illicit brewing in many areas…not only do men who walk senseless along lonely paths encounter elephants and get killed, the elephants maraud the brewing centres attracted by the smell of “wash” that is an additive to the local brew!
One day the incident that we most feared happened..our Raja gave a small slap to a drunkard whom he encountered on his path and refused to move away..and the man died. From then on, the Raja became known in his victim’s name- Peelandi. What we witnessed after this killing is too gruesome for me to describe. My mother prepared me for the inevitable –either Peelandi would be killed or taken away. The Forest Department and a team of settlers worked with Kungi elephants for 2 days, cornered the giant with a JCB and managed to load him on to a lorry trapped in between big logs and huge ropes. It was a heart wrenching sight- I stayed inside my home unable to stand the war cries and shouts along with the occasional desperate and helpless trumpeting of my gentle animal friend. I wished that me and my friends had the courage to run out and lie in the path of the lorry blocking the transportation of Peelandi. But we were small and powerless and he had the notorious name of a “killer”. No one saw his gentle, patient, silent side and the wisdom of many years of walking the hills with his loving herd….no one had time to discuss that we had made roads and canals, cut forests and turned into agriculture all that was theirs too. No one wanted to start a dialogue on the need to share water and food with them since we are responsible for decreasing and destroying their sources of life. No one was willing to state that elephants are animals that need large areas to walk and search for food and maintain their special and deep family bonds!All they saw was a serial murderer…and they took him away to be trained and tamed at an Elephant Camp somewhere!
I felt the loss of a dear person and mourned his absence for weeks. My mother consoled me with the fact that he was alive..but I wondered if the training and seclusion in the camp was worse than death..how can an animal so majestic and free be really alive in captivity? My friends got me two orphan goats to help overcome the pain..but my pining for Peelandi and his herd, their special ways, their smell and stomach rumblings will never fade…
When I see the mangoes and jackfruits I long to invite him to share it with us..after his farewell, none of the herd came back..I wait still for the first crackling sound among the river side vegetation that signals their return.Maybe the little mischievous and energetic elephant with small tusks will return to be my friend…
Anitha.S in conversation with Rajamma, Pappa, Santhi and the children of Sambarkodu Ooru in Attapady on Oct 4th– WORLD ANIMAL DAY!