If you want to see wildlife, then you must explore a forest on foot, and quietly. And that is exactly what Richard Bence did on a recent trip to the Western Ghat mountains in Kerala.
At the start of the year I joined a field biologist on a visit to the Tirunelli-Kudrakote elephant corridor project supported by World Land Trust (WLT).
Mr Ramith is a biologist working for Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and, as it turns out, he spends a lot of his time examining prodigious piles of poo. Elephants eat 200kg of vegetation a day and this results in 45kg of dung.
Being a stressed out Londoner, I wanted my elephant hit - right now. Going on 14km treks was all well and good, but dung in itself had limited appeal and I could only find interest in the flora and fauna for so long.
Apart from a few notable exceptions like my Mum, humans of any variety, shape or form are not my favourite species. As Yann Martel’s eponymous character says in the film Life of Pi: “What you don’t realise is that we are a strange and forbidding species to wild animals. We fill them with fear. They avoid us as much as possible.”
I too find humans far more frightening than wild animals - although I am mindful of the fact that living with the threat of elephants stampeding though my front room might be a rather stressful way to live.
For that is the purpose of World Land Trust’s efforts: to minimise conflict between these magnificent beasts and rural communities. As the human population increases, the animals’ natural habitats become threatened. So, WLT takes a socio-holistic approach by helping to re-locate the village people to another plot thereby creating harmony for animal and human.
Clash of culture
WLT’s efforts are paying off, but protecting wildlife is a big task in a country that‘s developing at lightning speed.
Initially I had no interest in experiencing the brash modern face of commercial India. I wanted the exotic, eternal India, the one with elephants, tigers, flying giant squirrels, cobras and faded colonial grandeur (although not necessarily in that order or all at the same time).
But halfway through my trip I found myself in a shopping mall in Mangalore. Seeing the locals being so easily seduced by distractions (an inflatable bucking bronco looked particularly tragic and incongruous in an Indian shopping mall) and dead-end promises made me sad.
But it’s really none of my business – and in fact, as I was to find, spending a few hours in a temperature-controlled environment free of traffic noise has its appeal given the hot and horn-honking alternative out on the street.
Championing nature conservation
Later, out in the field, a world apart from air conditioned shopping malls, we finally came across elephants, foraging happily in a conflict-free field where villagers once lived.
I had much to learn from Mr Ramith’s quiet, patient observation skills. During my trip I came to realise that a butterfly could be just as impressive as an elephant if looked at in a less all-or-nothing light.
The prospect of championing nature conservation in a country that is developing as rapidly as India is truly daunting. But while brave organisations like Wildlife Trust of India and World Land Trust are doing sterling work, elephants at least are in safe hands.
WLT's Elephant Corridor Project is creating a network of forest corridors to enable Indian Elephants to move safely between protected areas. After the success of the Tirunelli-Kudrakote corridor, WLT is now fundraising for a corridor in northern India to link the Corbett National Park to the neighbouring Ramnagar forest.
You can support the Elephant Corridors Appeal by donating to WLT’s Action Fund and specifying Elephant Appeal in the comments box.
Video clips of Indian wild dogs (dhole) and elephants »