January 9, 2010
Dubare - FINAL DRAFT FOR BOOK - ANY COMMENTS
As design and publishing for the book starts, I am putting excerpts from the book. Please suggest what needs to be done wherever cracks appear. Also, please remember that there are a lot of photos revolving around the text - 15 photos at least for each section
THIS ONE IS ON DUBARE ELEPHANT CAMP
The entrance to the camp is dramatic and moreso in dusk. Wearing life jackets and positioned cautiously on a boat that can accommodate not more than a dozen people - that is all that stands between them and an imminent dip in the Cauvery, one looks out into the river. The boatman pushed the boat away using a bamboo pole and soon the scene changes as large trees loom in the distance. The boisterous crowd is left behind as silence takes over and you are at the middle of the river looking at the Dubare Elephant Camp. The forest stands tall as you disembark from the boat and strain your neck to look what’s in the ahead. Giant trees, the likes of which is seen usually in television shows in faraway lands stretch upwards, kissing the skies almost. Rosewood, lagerstroemia, teak, flame of the forest, wild mangoes and many more species is all that stands in front of you and an enviable holiday that has few parallels.
For in Dubare reserve forest, just north of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, in the Coorg district, lies several hidden gems that truly invoke the beauty of the forest in the eye of the viewer. Yes, more than the famed tiger or the elusive leopard or the giant that is the elephant, it is the forest that takes centre stage by its diversity and sheer beauty and holds its ground at Dubare. That and the fact that a person can touch and be one with the elephants in a natural setting without fear of being trampled over by some unruly giant is perhaps the singular thrill of this unique experiment of the Forest Department of Karnataka and Jungle Lodges and Resorts.
Receptive to new ideas
The forest department of Karnataka maintains elephant camps across the state for a variety of purpose. Elephants were traditionally an instrumental part of the logging business and camps were set in various parts of the state to enable smooth operations of these activities. Usually, located deep inside forests, these camps provided livelihood to indigenous communities, besides engaging in timber logging. However, with the stoppage of these logging activities across the state, there were few options for these elephants. It became increasingly difficult to offer work to the pachyderms.
The forest department and Jungle Lodges and Resorts decided to cooperate in a unique project towards a tourism based management of the Dubare Elephant Camp. The genesis of the resort was in a simple suggestion that the existing elephant training camp be put to some better use as their utility for timber cutting and logging was not practical in the current regime and most of them had no work. It was suggested to transform their activities and present it as a tourism activity. This would help generate income from tourism and also keep the elephants busy. The camp was located close to the tourist hub of Madikeri within the district of Coorg and this favourable location made it ideal for such an initiative as there was a captive tourist who already visited Coorg as part of his holidays and would love to include Dubare in his or her itinerary.
Thus, Dubare became a prime location for this experiment and soon, activities were designed around the elephant interaction programme. There were many elephants who have been either kept in captivity or domesticated over the years. There are some who have begun their natural lives at the camp and many who were captured at a relatively young age, all being trained by the mahouts. It provided a rare opportunity for the common man to feel and touch the elephants at a close quarter. This camp thus served the purpose of promoting elephant based tourism, educating tourists on elephant management and also promote the message of the need for a peaceful coexistence between man and animal. It is spread over a vast area for free roaming with the Dubare reserve forest behind the camp.
Dubare is situated in the district of Coorg. Coorg is a vast mountainous region with three distinct taluks, Somwarpet, Madikeri and Virajpet, covering an area of more than four thousand square kilometers with about five and half lakh people. Density of just 191 people per square kilometer makes it one of the most sparsely populated regions in South India, with few urban concentrations and the sweet aroma of coffee and spices pervading the senses everywhere.
Dubare lies on the banks of the Cauvery, about eighty kilometers from her source at Talacauvery. Located aptly so, as the Cauvery is the singular presence that occupies the landscape in the district of Coorg. The entire hilly country of Coorg is devoted to the river for the bounty she provides and much of the popular lore in Coorg is usually associated with the great river Cauvery. Besides, coffee also defines Coorg along with the fragrance of pepper, rubber and other spices also grown alongside the major crop of coffee. People who visit Dubare get an opportunity to see the flourishing agricultural practices of the people who grow a diverse variety of rice on the valley floors and plantation crops in the hills, some of the bounties of the river and her tributaries.
A beautiful water-locked forest, Dubare is located at the eastern end of the district at an average altitude of around 900 metres. As we drive from Dubare to the west, the altitude rises sharply with the Tadiandamol peaking at 1750 metres and Madikeri lying at an average altitude of more than 1400 metres above sea level. The Western Ghats is at its prettiest here and the rains exceed in its more than 4000 mm at various places, much of the water drains into the Cauvery providing Dubare with an intensely lush riverside vegetation and the sight of the river at its brim several times a year.
The cabins are located close to the elephant camp, next to the flowing Cauvery and are simple in nature, snugly fitting into the surroundings. Woodwork done to taste ensures that one feels part of nature while gazing at the setting sun over the Cauvery. A wonderful idyllic location, the Dubare Elephant camp is much loved by nature lovers throughout the country. Although, it was set up relatively recently, it has acquired a special status as an unexpectedly unique holiday.
Home to Giants
The giants have a place of pride at Dubare. Giant trees, a larger than life riverine landscape and above all the gigantic elephants. Fuelled by a high rainfall regime, the river often brims over and the trees grow to a height uncommon to large parts of India. The elephants here too form an integral part of the forest. This is the land where the giant beast roams with abandon, where the smell of coffee pervades all senses and where an unique experiment of introducing the general population to the experience of handling real elephants has worked wonders and brought thousands closer to nature and at the same time aided in conservation by imbibing valuable education to the common man.
Elephants were once the prime free ranging animals of the Indian forests and the giants at Dubare used to roam as far as Mudumalai in Tamil Nadu and till Hassan and northwards in Karnataka. Man would be perhaps living close to where the giants ranged but were adept on dealing with the issues that arose with having such giant neighbours. But they had taken smartly to the presence of these giants, cultivating unattractive crops in the foraging area and thus discouraging them from ravaging the crops. Times have changed since then and the elephants have been subjected to a much lesser natural roaming area, making it difficult for them to maintain their high intake of diet and causing distress to farmers who find it convenient to protect crops by artificial methods rather than cultivating lesser attractive crops for the elephants.
Dubare being located in a prime forest belt was home to one of the many camps and is an important refuge for the elephants as the river forms a natural barrier and protects the elephant from the pangs of development. Crossing the river, one is witness to the deeply eroded water front, as a result of the daily passage of the elephants for their vigorous bath. This eroded river front is also commonly seen in natural forests as elephants usually have a few strategic points where they come to quench their thirst, resulting in eroding the front. This assists other smaller animals as well and soon becomes a highway in the forest. It is here at the Dubare Elephant Camp, where JLR and the Forest Department of Karnataka together conduct the Interaction Programme.
The programme which begins early each day is open to casual visitors and guests staying at the nearby wilderness resort managed by JLR. As in other JLR camps, naturalists interact with guests, especially trained to talk about elephant behavior, and take them around the facility.
The programme begins with vigorous bathing of the giants. The naturalist takes the guest to the bathing area and along with the mahout, guides guests to start the bathing. It is a sight, watching the mahout ambling down the steep slope on the elephant, a slope that most humans can’t maneuver. The mahout, in a time tested sequence stops near the water and gently coaxes the elephant inside the river. The elephant, perhaps tired after a long night foraging in the forest drinks the water to his heart’s content. An apparently nonchalant mahout meanwhile rolls a pack of tobacco and deftly places the roll in a corner of his mouth. Just as suddenly as we all are watching the proceedings; the mahout barks a harsh order. The elephant agitated knows what to do next, yet it resists. The mahout shouts at him, the crowd waits in expectancy, the elephant trumpets loud, some guests slip in the confusion as they try to move further away from the giant and then as suddenly as the commotion started, it stops. The elephant decides that it is time and with a slow motion inspired move from the movies, gently rolls into the water, setting a mini tsunami in its wake, drenching unwary guests standing at one corner. The mahout chuckles at this and decides to go about his business with an air of someone who knows his business well. Perhaps, there is none in the world who performs his work with as much craft as these mahouts, engaged in similar work for the past few centuries, perhaps.
A rough stone in his hand, the mahout vigorously rubs the elephant who is content and placid for now. Once in a while, the mahout looks up and invites the reluctant guests to try and bathe the giant. Guests, several of them unacquainted to the giant and perhaps so close to an elephant for the first time in their lives, gingerly places his hand on the giant’s vast backside and immediately recoils. A brief grin and he exclaims with wonder that the skin is so rough and immediately starts back at the elephant and rubs hard. The hairs on the elephant’s body are on alert and it is never easy to bathe the elephant as the prickly nature of the hair makes the soft hands of us humans seem fragile in comparison. But the guest keeps on trying and after a few seconds, perhaps tired, asks his young children. Apprehensive and eager at once, the children walk up to the elephant and then in a frolic abandon rub the giant, who has perhaps been sleeping through all the commotion. Now, as a few minutes have passed, all the other bystanders, egged on by their respective mothers and wives and brothers and husbands join in the bathing procedure. By nine a.m., all guests are totally drenched, slightly muddy and immensely happy - a smile in all the faces. Tourism perhaps at its best.
In another few minutes, as the other elephants join the first batch, the naturalists take the guest to the next site , a feeding place. But a final surprise awaits the guests as the scrubbed up elephant, struggles and gets up causing another tsunami and drenching a few more people. As the mahout calls all the guests to be blessed, in a secret signal called dalle, the elephant raises his trumpet, drenches everyone and majestically moves for his food.
An old building that is the kitchen for the elephants is located at one corner of the camp, where mahouts prepare breakfast using a mixture of ragi, jaggery, horse gram and salt. As there are more than twenty two elephants at any given time, it is but confirmed that breakfast takes a long time. Horse gram is boiled for up to five hours and then made into a paste. On the other hand, ragi powder is mixed with water and a little salt and cooked. Finally, the gram and ragi is mixed and made into a ball of about two kilogrammes each and fed to the elephants. The preparation is cooled and then rolled into a ball which can be easily put into the giant’s mouth. The naturalist explains details of an elephant’s daily requirement and invites a few guests to try feeding the elephant. It is an exhilarating experience dropping the huge ball into his mouth and watching him gulp up the content in the blink of an eye.
Feeding done, the guide takes the guest for a brief session about elephant ecology and behavior. He speaks of the role of the mahout in ensuring that the elephant is kept in a good state. He also speaks of the various elephant commands and opens up the fascinating world of these giants to guests from all across the world.
Management of the camp is a serious task and the forest department ensures that the elephants are well taken care off. A roster is maintained for all the elephants with full details such as name, lineage, sex, age and so mentioned in it. This information is frequently shared with the guests for their education. Besides, special care is provided for the mahouts who belong to the Jenu Kuruba group. These mahouts and their helpers, also known as kavadis, spend their entire life with an elephant and are known to consider the elephants as their family members and not just any animal. Experts at the art of managing the elephants, they are trained in this form by their fathers and soon they pass it to their children. It is a sight to behold, when you see the mahout talking to his son in the camp, and both the father and the son whispering messages into the giant ears and lovingly watch the elephant trumpet loud. This is the world of the elephant and the mahouts of Dubare
More than Elephants
A friend once said that if all the camps of JLR were to be compared, Dubare would stand out, not for something very singular in its appeal but for the aggregate of experiences that the camp provides. A serene location, lots of elephants to interact with at close quarters, some beautiful patches of ancient bamboo forests and a small quaint village of tribals or indigenous people who make these forests their home. Dubare thus, whilst set up as an elephant camp is a wonderful location matched perhaps by the very best nature camps in the world.
It is small with several pleasurable surprises. While walking silently one evening, we were amazed to see some shadows on a tree in the distance. Is it an extra surprise that Dubare is going to throw at us. We walked closer and Uday the guide told us to keep quiet. Silently, we sat on the banks of the Cauvery and were witness to a unique incident that shall remain etched forever on our memory. A number of painted storks were appearing in view. Some storks had perched on a tree while others were circling in the sky. One by one as if on cue, a bird would appear on the horizon and start circling the lone tree, circumventing the entire breadth of the river in a single swoop. The circles would reduce in size and slowly, the bird would swoop next to where we were sitting and almost as if inviting us to its abode, would in a single soundless swoop, perch on its next. The giant circle it made in the sky made us recollect the endless circles we saw at the camp. The circles that we saw in the forest today were no ordinary circles. Engraved on soft mud, they were a reminder of the precious wealth that is being lost in the nation now, even as we breathe. These precious circles in the forest, that was once a common sight is reducing by the day. These circles made by those giant pachyderms who roamed free once, their giant legs, ungainly in sight but soft and soundless as if they walk on sand. These are the circles made by our venerable elephants, circles that reduce in numbers even as we breathe in the air that is ours.