Mumbai photojournalist Anand Shinde shares his remarkable experiences as an elephant whisperer in Kerala. His initiative, Dialogue with Elephants, is an effort to change attitudes and mindsets towards the pachyderm, and keep it safe
In today’s times, elephants are much maligned for destroying crops. Such misconceptions about the animal hurts photographer Anand Shinde (35) who has been working with them extensively. The Mumbai photographer, who works for a national newspaper, has been working in Kerala for the last two years.
Anand Shinde speaks to elephants and understands their problems. Pic courtesy/Anand Shinde
Being unfamiliar with the language, he initially decided to work on a photo story on the state’s elephants. He visited the Thrissur Pooram festival which sees a huge turnout of male elephants. That’s where he experienced their capacity to shower love.
“It was a sunny day and the elephants had been standing for hours. The mahouts were sitting under the elephants, enjoying the shade and the elephants didn’t seem to mind. Though the mahout beats the elephant at times, they remain kind towards them. It struck me that this animal is different.”
The elephant Sunitha at Kodanad. Pics courtesy/Anand Shinde
Shinde began to study elephants, and met veterinary doctor Dr Jacob Alexander who guided him. Soon, he was devoting weekends to visiting the elephant centres in Kerala, such as the Kottor elephant centre and the training centre in Kodanad, where he met two baby elephants: Krishna and Ganga. While Ganga was healthy, Krishna had a fractured leg. “There was so much pain in his eyes. I realised that he was making a rumbling sound,” he recalls.
Shinde recorded the sound and when he played it for Dr Alexander, the doctor explained that only elephants can rumble (the sound can carry up to seven km) and it was an attempt to communicate.
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The next time Shinde visited the centre, he spent time emulating the sounds Krishna made. “We bonded and he started anticipating my arrival by making sounds. He would know when I reached the centre (even though the bus stop was 200 metres away),” he reminisces.
Comfort on call
Shinde started comforting Krishna during thunderstorms and when the elephant was unwell. “Elephants are highly sensitive. When they are young, members of the herd touch them to give reassurance. Perhaps, through my talks I was doing the same,” he feels.
The mahout and the injured elephant Krishna at Kodanad elephant centre with whom Anand (inset) bonded
Because elephants are herd animals, it is tough to ensure their survival: “They have a long gestation period of 22 months and if a baby elephant is separated from the herd, despite human care, chances of survival reduce by 50%. It’s because the elephant learns mannerisms from observing other elephants.”
When Shinde had to head to Mumbai due to a family emergency, Krishna passed away. He decided to honour Krishna and returned to Kodanad where he interacted with other elephants who were responsive to him too. Over the years, he shot thousands of photos of elephants and dozens of videos of their sounds.
Call for help
Shinde’s interactions spurred him to raise awareness about elephants. He started by making a presentation for the then Chief Wildlife Warden, V Gopinath (now Head of Forest Force) in Kerala, with his observations. It led to the birth of his initiative, Dialogue with Elephants. The elephant Bijlee (a 58-year-old elephant who collapsed on a Mumbai road) was the first elephant that he tried to help. “Bijlee was in pain and surrounded by onlookers. I advised that they should make space for her. She wasn’t eating as she wasn’t being fed properly (she was given chapatis which isn’t their diet; she consumed only fruits).”
Thereafter, Bijlee was shifted to the care of elephant expert Dr KK Sarma and Shinde wasn’t able to speak to him about Bijlee, who eventually passed away. “There was no reason for him to speak to me. I am just someone who has studied elephants and taken guidelines from Dr Alexander,” he reveals.
State of the matter
Ironically, while his efforts have been recognised in Kerala, his home state is unaware about him. But he is trying to change that through presentations to forest departments and ecological societies. With reports of elephants on rampage in Kolhapur, Shinde mailed the Maharashtra Forest Department offering help but didn’t receive a reply. A recent report mentioned an elephant attack on crops in the Konkan. Shinde is hopeful that he will get the chance to communicate with the elephants.
The mahout and playful baby elephant Ganga at Kodanad
“Elephants only go for nutritious crops,” he explains, adding that electric fences and burning chilli (some of the solutions opted for) only give temporary relief and angers them.
Summing up his experience, he states, “I have been among elephants for two years, and can predict their behaviour; I have been with humans for 35 years and still cannot do so. Elephants made me more human. Being with them is like meditation.”
Why they matter to our ecosystem
Anand Shinde explains that elephants are akin to the kamdhenu (mythological wish-fulfilling tree) of the forest. “They are a key animal in biodiversity. When they go to the river bank, they leave footprints in the mud. Water accumulates in them and insects like honeybees, butterflies and ants are able to drink this water. Elephants also travel a lot and consume fruits. The seeds of endangered species of plants are excreted from their dung and thus, such plants have chances to grow and survive. It’s sad that thousands of years ago, there were 11 species of elephants but today only three are left,” he rues.
Elephant Meenna at the Kottor centre
When elephants are happy, they flap their ears or bang their feet on the floor. They can smile and laugh as well. When they are unhappy, they keep their trunk, ears and tail rigid.
The herd divides their activities so that the mother gets time to eat more and produce more milk. If another male enters the herd and if the female thinks that the male is harmful for the herd or the baby, they kick him out.
If mahouts behave well with the elephant, the animal will reciprocate. Information courtesy: Anand Shinde
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Cesar Millan (centre). Pic/AFP
Real to reel: Films depicting animal whisperers
Silver screen is abundant with stories centering around people with a gift to communicate with animals...
The Horse Whisperer: The 1998 film starring Robert Redford and Scarlett Johansson, shows Redford as a talented trainer with a remarkable gift for understanding horses, who is hired to help an injured teenager and her horse back to health following a tragic accident.
Dr Doolittle: Eddie Murphy plays a doctor with the ability to talk to various animals. The film, which spawned several sequels is a remake of the 1967 film of the same name, which was inspired by a series of children's books.
The Harry Potter series: The film series' protagonist Harry Potter played by Daniel Radcliffe and the villain Lord Voldemort both possessed the ability to talk to snakes
Up: In this 2009 animated film, the villain, Charles Muntz, has invented a dog collar communication device that translates thoughts into human speech for Dug the dog and members of Alpha's dog pack. "Squirrel!"
Eliza Thornberry of Nickelodeon's animated TV series 'The Wild Thornberrys' can speak with animals after a spell is placed on her by an African tribal shaman.