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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of four. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Ethics and coexistence with elephants

The Johns Hopkins University Press is on the verge of giving birth to a hefty and thought provoking volume of essays about Elephant Ethics.

You do not want to miss it. In fact, you will want to buy a copy.

It was a creative coeditorial endeavour of yours truly and environmental historian Kate Christen, So check it out here, and order your copies.

In case you are wondering how a camera trap codger ever got into something like this, it was "Elephant Bill" who sparked my interest in elephants, and domestic elephants in particular.

When Colonel J. H. William's career as a "teak wallah" for the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation ended, he wrote five books about life in the Burmese jungles. They weren't masterpieces of colonial literature, but they were factual and created vivid images of the scenery, people, and life in and around the Burmese elephant camp. They captured my imagination.

Elephant camp life became a reality when I was sent to Nepal as scientific adviser to the Smithsonian-Nepal Tiger Ecology Project in the late 1970s. I made up to two trips a year.

The project was situated in the Chitwan National Park, a former hunting reserve of Nepal's rulers in the lowland deciduous jungle known as terai. The project employed four elephants and twenty-four villagers as mahouts, cooks, drivers, and shikaris, who were professional animal trackers. The government's elephant camp or hathisar was a stone's throw from our field station.

Elephants were indispensable -- not only as the most economical mode of jungle transport, but also as a means of capturing tigers. The "bieth method" of big game hunting is a Nepalese cultural tradition. Tigers and many other large mammals won’t breach a bieth cloth, which is nothing more than a very long and flimsy piece of muslin standing 4 feet high.

Witnessing tiger and rhino drives from elephant back was a drama that kindled a lasting interest in elephants, elephant culture, and elephant conservation . . .

Before sunrise the preparations begin with hushed tones of Nepalese banter. Two dew-soaked shikaris have returned with the news -- last night a tiger killed the buffalo that was tethered in the jungle.

With the sounds of hacking and spirited throat-clearing the camp comes alive. The smell of fresh cow dung wafts up to the porch. The mahouts and shikaris are moving about, but all you see are the red ashes of their beedies -- the vile-smelling little brown cigarettes of south Asia -- floating here and there in the darkness.

As you sip a tumbler of hot tea the dawn breaks. The men have done their work. Over a dozen elephants or hathis are loaded with bundles of bieth cloth, and the shikaris pile on, eight per elephant.

It's your turn to mount the kneeling pachyderm. The ropes creak against the machan. Your hathi stands unexpectedly, and you lurch forward and clutch for security. Your mahout smells of mustard oil and a rotten tooth, but there is also the leathery scent of live elephant.

In the morning chill your hathi trundles off though the thickets and down the sandy banks of the River Rapti, one of the Ganga's myriad but mighty tributaries.

Into the water the hathis plunge, and just as suddenly all progress stops.

What's the delay?

Plunk . . . plunk . . . plunkety-plunk . . . Why, it's the pause that refreshes. The animals drink deeply of the silty water, while steaming dung balls begin their voyage to the sacred Ganga.

One by one, the hathis resume the march through the tall grass of the flood plain, and within an hour the motley gang of mahouts and shikaris stand in a glade near the tiger's kill. They know their jobs well, and deliver you to a tree with the gunner. You take his weathered Capchur gun as he climbs out on a limb beside you.

Now the shikaris dismount and disappear into the tall grass, draping the muslin on sticks and grass canes. When the bieth has been laid, two cloth fences diverge several hundred yards through the rank growth like a work of Cristo's art.

A brainfever bird calls in the distance. You don’t know what will happen, but you feel safe. Yet, it seems an ungodly place, a coarse crude kind of jungle, not the verdant forest of Rousseau's canvas.

The clamor of a distant riot shatters your reverie: the tiger drive begins. In a few minutes you discern the hathis cruising like ships in a sea of tall grass, and the mahouts are clearly in a lather. One hathi has a bloody head. Its mahout, a wiry little Tharu has been using his bilhook. The sight bothers you.

The tiger appears from nowhere, and looks over its shoulder. You hear the crack of the gun, and it races into the forest behind you. The clamor ends.

The mahouts light up their beedies, and everyone waits.

Twenty minutes later the shikaris make off on the koonkies -- the confident "commander elephants" -- to locate the darted cat.

Later you stand in the shadows of the elephants as the tiger is being collared. Suddenly there is a jabbering commotion . . .

"What the hell?! Waaaah!!" -- you are stumbling backwards to get out of the way.

An old wrinkled cow elephant, Chanchal Kali by name, has bolted. It's as if someone has popped her clutch, she rushes forward with an ear-piercing stentorian blast and stops short of the now twitching cat, while her cursing mahout pounds her scaly dome with the back of his kukri.

Later you learn that in the 1950s the Rana family had Chanchal Kali trained as an executioner. If any downed predator showed signs of life, her job was to deliver the coups de grace. A crushing forefoot on the cat's chest was all it took, and she hadn't forgotten.

Indeed this is another world . . . and that's how it started.

If the survival and welfare of elephants concern you, be aware that there are many perspectives. Elephants and Ethics examines the philosophical and historical roots of conflicting views, and seeks common ground for viable solutions.


Hugh Griffith said...

Congratulations on the book! I must admit, the pachyderm section of my library is a little slim. Time to give it some heft!

Owlman said...

Kudos on your book Chris. I will have to save my allowance for a while but would love to add it to my bookshelf eventually. Interesting background blog.

mdmnm said...

Fantastic post, thanks! Looking forward to the book.

ST said...

This post paints a picture.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Wermer,

Your book certainly sounds very interesting. However, I can't seem to find a link to the table of contents either at the JHU Press Page or elsewhere. This would really help people who are interested. It'd be great if there's a link to this that you could post. Could you help?

Best wishes