June 8, 2012

Experiencing an Unique Tour - The Elephant Interaction Programme

Dubare in Coorg is one of the many elephant camps set up by the Karnataka Forest Department which in association with Jungle Lodges and Resorts (JLR) conducts the hugely popular Interaction Programme every day on the banks of the river Cauvery.

The programme which begins early each day is open to casual visitors and guests staying at the nearby wilderness resort managed by JLR. Trained naturalists interact with guests and take them around the facility, explaining in detail about elephant behavior, it ecology and ensure that guests return back with a greater understating of the giant animal.

The programme begins with vigorous bathing of the giants. The naturalist escorts the guest to the bathing area and along with the mahout, guides them to start the bathing. It is a sight, watching the mahout ambling down the steep slope atop 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.

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 to cook. 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 the elephant’s daily requirement and invites guests to feed 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. Tourism, perhaps at its best.

The interaction programme is one small but interesting component of the management a camp. 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. 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 and then whispering a message into the giant ears and lovingly watch the elephant trumpet loud. This is the world of the elephant and the mahouts of Dubare.