Living on the edge

You are Mallesha.

A fifty-six year old farmer. You live in Maguvinahalli, a village on the northern edge of the famous Bandipur National Park.

Bandipur

Every year, at the end of summer, you till your meagre 4 acres, sow some jowar and some sunflowers. For weeks you work in the baking heat. Once the monsoons arrive, you continue working, in the pouring rains.

Sunflower crop ready to harvest

Once the seeds have sprouted and you have a crop, you don’t relax, no sir, you don’t. You build a thorn fence around the field. And a machan (platform) on the peepal tree in your field for you to sit up on, all night. Waiting and watching for the elephants.

Machan in a field

Yes, the elephants. They come from the forest, to feast on your precious crop. Last year, your brother Murthy lost everything in a single night to a herd of 9 elephants. It happened at the very end of the season, a few days before the harvest. He still owes the moneylender 14,000 rupees.

picture-15

So for several weeks you get no rest at all. Night after dark night you sit up on the machan, shaking your head and muttering to yourself to keep sleep away. They are eerily silent, these elephants. You have to be alert all the time.

You look out of the machan, moonlight outlines the distant hills. The silence is broken by the roar of a speeding vehicle on the highway. It used to be a small dusty strip when you were a boy. Now it is dangerous to cross with all the tourist traffic.

Moon

You have heard the tourists pay 3000 rupees for a day at the hotel at the edge of your village. You could buy seeds for a whole season with that! Why would they spend so much just to see some elephants? They could instead sit up in your machan, for free.

The gentle breeze lulls you into a dangerous calm. Your head tilts. You sleep.

Krrrshhk! You are suddenly wide-awake, but it is too late. You fumble for the match and light a firecracker. The wick forms an arc of light, then bursts. Your hand is shaking as you throw another. It is louder than the last. One of the elephants lets out a cry. You can feel the earth shake under you.

As quickly as they came, they are gone. But the silence is not comforting. You sit numbly, not wanting to move.

Dawn arrives and reveals the damage. In the ten minutes they spent in your field, the elephants have taken half your crop.

Sunflower crop destroyed by elephants

Lead settles in your stomach, you can’t even feel anger. Slowly, you tuck the matchbox and firecrackers into the folds of your dhoti. And walk home.

The dawn chorus of forest birds breaks the heavy silence.

Farmer standing in his destroyed jowar field

10 thoughts on “Living on the edge

  1. A very touching story. We as wildlife enthusiasts so often miss the human angle behind such conflicts

  2. Well articulated.. very touching.. guess we realise where the anger stems from when we read and try to relate to instances like these… are we asking people to make a choice between survival and conservation?

  3. Very interesting story. but then who is encroaching….the farmers or the elephants ? its high time we prevent people from farming close to such sanctuaries.

  4. So many people quickly take the side of the animals when it comes to human-animal conflicts; this is easy when it’s a case of humans poaching or trapping animals; but when it comes to instances such as the ones above, there are no easy responses.

    This is why eco-tourism is needed. If Mallesha could have tourists sitting up on his machan, experiencing the “authentic” (ugh! I hate that word) tension of waiting for elephants and dreading that the crop will be destroyed….Mallesha would be able to make some money and afford some solutions… There are no easy answers, but with a will, we could work our way.

  5. I agree with Deepa, it’s easy for us to sit on our high horse and indulge in armchair preaching.
    But where do we suppose the food that gets put on our table comes from; the oil that we use to cook with? Considering India is still a country where the vast majority of ppl are involved in agriculture, to feed an ever-growing population, and yet we don’t have enough food to eat… are we not all collectively responsible for injustices commited on both sides of the conflict?

  6. Anush, Christina: Thank you

    Vishnupriya, Nayantara: Conservation is often about these dilemmas, but we’ll never have answers unless we grapple with the difficult questions, no?

    Ayyappan: The people who live along the boundaries of parks such as Bandipur are among the most marginalised – they are poor, often landless, very often dependent on rainfed agriculture, have limited access to education and healthcare, and sometimes belong to the wrong castes/communities. Are we going to consider them “encroachers”? We who live in the cities “encroach” on forests in myriad ways – through dams that bring us electricity, through mines that bring us iron and steel, but living far away from the locations of these activities, we think ourselves guiltless.

    Deepa: Eco-tourism is not always all that it is made out to be. Of course, some do it well, but sometimes it is mere greenwashing of conventional tourism. Perhaps another post on that some other time!

  7. Recently i spent few weeks with Bandipur JLR as Naturalist. I saw the Sunflower fields and machans. The conflict is not a easy one to solve.
    I feel the electric fences around the fields powered by solar energy is a good option as used by some of the farms around the park.
    But there are way too many farms around the National park for this to be a feasible solution.
    There were a group of students from UK doing for some project on Elephant conservation (i’m not sure where they were from). Hope to see some good results out of that.

    Also, I heard that there was a leopard which had its litter in a Sunflower field, though this might not affect the crops, it is not a good sign for conservation.

  8. Hi,

    Recently I read a similar story named “The rightful Inheritors of the Earth” by Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, written originally in Malayalam. It is about the same topic-a farmer surviving against all the troubles posed by various animals in his field. Once, his wife decides to kill the rats and all other troubling animals. It here that the author wonders why he should kill them. What right does he have to take their life. They are also rightful owners of the land which he has purchased for farming.

    I find it difficult to blame either the farmer or the elephants, here. Both of them are doing what is required for their survival. Though this is not a new problem for the farmers, there is no proper solution for it.

    Electrified fences might help the farmer, but what about the elephants?

    As the population is increasing day by day, millions of such problems are caused.

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