On one of my first nights in India we went looking for elephants.
Someone had alerted the forest department that 4 elephants had been spotted on a major highway linking the cities of Bangalore and Mysore. Mobile phone-captured images had hit the papers the previous day, clearly showing 4 elephants running along the edge of a multi-lane motorway.
The field researchers at A Rocha India (an NGO specialising in elephant conservation – whom I worked alongside in the making of the film) drove our team into the action. The team consisted of myself, volunteers, a forest department officer and the NGO field researchers who regularly assist the department with driving operations.
Pedal to the metal we raced through small towns and residential areas dimly lit by street lights until we reached a forested clearing and parked up. The evening orchestra of insects, barking dogs, human hubbub and the gentle hum of traffic was interrupted by flashes of light and the loud bangs of firecrackers. We nervously waited at the car as some of our group went into the darkness armed with torches to join the forest watchers as they made a line to drive the elephants through the clearing and out into the open.
When you look at the mosaic landscape that surrounds Bannerghatta National Park you realise how challenging this situation is to manage. With 40% of the northern range of the park within Bangalore’s municipal limits, the landscape quickly erupts from forest to dense urban settlements with major roads and railways scattered throughout. Bannerghatta is perhaps the only elephant inhabited national park in India that lies this close to an urban metropolis. Within just a few kilometres, escaped elephants find themselves deep in human settlements.
Bannerghatta National park is a long but narrow fragment of the expansive Mysore elephant range that extends across the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. This range is home to the largest congregations of Asian Elephants in the world and Bannerghatta is home to around 160 of them.
As India’s population has soared this range has constricted but elephants still make large migrations between territories to look for new mates and habitat. Despite inviolate pockets like Bannerghatta and other major parks including Nagarhole and Bandipur remaining fenced and protected, there is little that can be done to stop these giants dispersing beyond their man-made boundaries, enacting the typical behaviour of a large migratory species.
That first night I was struck by how impossible the management of elephants becomes once they breach the confines of wilderness and become trapped in the maze of towns and cities. Not only having to navigate through a labyrinth of man-made structures but also contending with the presence of local people.
Drives mostly take place at night because moving elephants during the day would be too risky for members of the public. One major drawback of working at night however, is not being able to see, and in spite of their size, elephants are very skilled at disappearing without a trace. And on this occasion, the efforts to drive the elephants from their forest grove proved unsuccessful – the elephants had moved on, we were too late.
That same night we drove on further. Members of the public had alerted the forest department of elephant sightings in a patch of territorial forest a few kilometres away – the elephants had somehow given us the slip. When we arrived we saw evidence of elephant movement – broken fences and collapsed walls. Department staff and vehicles surrounded the wild enclave and again formed a line within it to try to flush the group of bulls out so they could be pushed to an area of safety.
The scene was chaotic with various different forest department’s called upon, along with police and other land managers present. After some time it seemed the elephants had vanished once again under the cover of darkness. The vehicles congregated and the department staff regrouped to discuss their possible movements and how to proceed.
Just as the dust had settled, a local gentleman in great panic drove up on a moped. He was screaming hysterically, explaining how a group of elephants had intersected him on his way home from work – this moment is captured in the opening sequence of Driving Elephants. Driving up a narrow road he found himself head to head with a group of bull elephants. Unable to turn around and with his mother behind him he feared for their lives. And, rightly so. Wild elephants are volatile are very dangerous, especially in the midst of such a stressful situation. Despite this man’s sighting just moments earlier when the forest department reached the location, the elephants were gone. It seemed that once again these animals had outsmarted this army of people, and as light returned to the sky, we retired for the night.
That particular group of elephants spent close to 2 weeks outside of the park and covered an impressive distance in the process – traversing a major river, highways and multiple towns. The forest department worked tirelessly to get them back safely but their efforts were continually thwarted by interference from members of the public. This became one of the most poignant take-aways from my time observing driving operations. Just how often members of the public obstruct and impede them.
When a wild elephant appears in your town or village (particularly those many kilometres from the National Park) you have every right to be interested. The problem is the congregation of crowds once the word has got out. Pictures and status’ on social media spread frenzy and before long swarms of local people create blockades to drives – unwittingly putting themselves and the lives of forest watchers at risk, often for a simple photo op.
When the forest department are alerted of elephant sightings outside of the park they track them and tend to surround them during the day to try to prevent them moving further – largely to avoid damage and destruction to people and property. In these human-dominated areas elephants avoid open spaces and take shelter in small oases of nature – forest groves, plantations and farmland. Routes are meticulously planned to drive elephants back to the forest as quickly and as safely as possible, trying to avoid major traffic routes and dense areas of inhabitation.
During the drive the movement of elephants can be incredibly random as they are under high stress, they will streak in any direction they think poses the least threat at that moment. Thus when they stumble across a barrage of people armed with cameras and smart phones they will likely double back and flee which puts the co-ordinated efforts in jeopardy.
The role that members of the public play became a pivotal point I wanted to raise in the film because creating awareness of their impact is a small way that change could be asserted quickly – certainly to residents of Bangalore and the surrounding areas.
The fact that driving as a management strategy exists is in itself contentious and opens up a broader sphere of problems facing elephants in the region. Inadequate fencing has been responsible for many escapes but even with reinforcements many elephants are able to pass through these barriers without much issue. In addition, many of the mechanisms employed to deter crop-raiding (which have proved successful in parts of Africa) – such as using bees and chilli fencing – are problematic in such a densely populated environment. The reality becomes just moving elephants from one farm to the next rather than preventing them coming at all.
It is a great concern that these wonderful creatures are being put into such hostile and stressful situations as they disperse from natal territories. It is a perhaps the biggest worry for the farmers on the fringes that are perpetually raided for the crops they require to sustain their families throughout the year. However, the farmers I spoke with were amazingly tolerant and resilient in the face of such strife on their doorstep.
Ravi Nayak who is interviewed in the film was attacked by an elephant on his way to work the first week I arrived and before I left, several months later, I had the chance to speak with him. Ravi had spent the preceding months in intensive care having suffered life threatening injuries and despite the scars across his body and the metal pins in his legs, his opinion of elephants as a species was remarkable. When asked what he thought of elephants following the attack, he simply responds that he was going for his livelihood as the elephant was going for his.
Without doubt, those living on the park’s periphery have a greater understanding of the ecological importance of their native wildlife and similarly the danger they pose. They are able to coexist – however haphazardly at times – through a laudable level of tolerance and a good relationship with the forest department, although this is not always the case.
Corruption in the higher ranks of this government department which is responsible for all the species within forest areas (and when they come out), makes them the victim of much persecution and blame. Whilst a few top officials may wrongly stockpile funds and resources for personal gain, those attributes are rarely found amongst the frontline workers.
Forest watchers are paid a very small salary and are expected to routinely put themselves in dangerous situations. Of the forest watchers we spoke to, several mentioned the burdens for their own families when they stay out for many nights on watch or during drives and the fear that they may not return at all. There is also tension in communities between forest watchers and farmers who suffer crop losses and who see them as part of the problem. Having spent time observing their work, I saw first-hand many dedicated frontline forest watchers, working ill-equipped but providing invaluable skills in the form of tracking and an unteachable knowledge of the forest.
Without doubt, there are many shortcomings with how elephants are managed and how the forest department is equipped to deal with this increasing conflict. What I intended Driving Elephants to show was the harsh reality of this struggle in an increasingly urbanised landscape. Whilst Bannerghatta might be slightly unusual in its placement, elephant excursions are commonplace across the country and with India’s population still increasing it will likely become an archetype of this increasingly urbanised issue.
Furthermore, I hope it raises awareness of a problem taking place on the doorsteps of many Bangalore residents – many of whom are unaware of the park’s existence.
Much the same as the rest of the planet, the larger issues prompting this conservation battle revolves around habitat loss and human encroachment. Whilst there are great strides being made to enhance connectivity with corridors across the country, without these short-term measures and perhaps a more pragmatic approach for population management, these incidents will likely become increasingly common in the future.
Thus the fate of elephants in Bannerghatta, for now at least, relies on the continual work of the forest department to keep them within the safety of the protected area.
Watch the film:
Driving Elephants (Official Video)
Visit kondorfilms.co.uk/driving-elephants & drivingelephants.netlify.app to find out more about the film.
Support A Rocha: arocha.org/en/donate