ma·hout/ noun (from Hindi mahāvat ) : A person who works, rides, and tends an elephant
Dubare is known for its elephant camp on the banks of River Cauvery in the district of Kodagu, Karnataka. It is an important base for the Karnataka Forest Department’s elephants, many of which were involved in human-animal conflict situations, captured from the wild and brought here to be tamed. I recently visited the Dubare Elephant Camp and stayed at the Jungle Lodges & Resorts property, overlooking the river.
After getting the required permissions from the forest department, I drove to Dubare intending to capture the bond between mahout and mastodon, with photographs and interviews. A mahout is what traditional keepers of elephants are called in India. Many come from indigenous communities, have been mahouts for generations and share a deep bond with their elephant wards.
Like human beings, I was to learn that elephants had their own personalities and idiosyncrasies. Some were cranky and potentially dangerous to the uninitiated, while some were good-natured and calm. Others were downright playful and boisterous. The same, I might add, applied to the mahouts.
Here are a few stories of mahouts and their elephants.
Ram, Pavi and Manjunath
Ram was blinded in a battle with another tusker that also cost him a tusk. He was found starving in the forest and brought to the Dubare camp. Ram is a very old elephant and is estimated to be about 65 years old. Manjunath and Pavi look after him. “Ram is like my brother. I tend to all his needs. He is blind and cannot do any work but that’s okay. I still take care of him,” says Manjunath.
Partha is a three-year-old calf who was separated from his mother during a forest fire and was then brought to the camp where he bonded with both his mahout and a bull elephant named Kanjan.
Dobi – The head mahout
J.K. Dobi, the head of the mahouts, belongs to the Jainu Kuruba tribe and learnt the art of being a mahout from his father, who learned it from his father before him.
“We have been mahouts for as long as we can remember and have served the Mysore and Madikeri maharajas for hundreds of years. Elephants are like gods to me. I do not think we can live without them. I was born with them and we treat them like family members. And like family members, you get all kinds. Don’t forget that many are problem-animals that have killed people and trust only us. They are our livelihood and support us, just as we support them A lot of people think that this is a dangerous job, to tame elephants who have experienced conflicts. It really isn’t, but only if you know what you’re doing. If you are afraid however, you will die,” says Dobi.
Dev was captured three months ago in an area called Chattlle. Over months of raiding agricultural fields for food, two people who came into contact with him had died and many others had had a close shave. Dev was turning out to be a very real danger to farmers, so a capture operation was launched, and he was tranquillised with the help of 4 captive elephants. He was then sent to the Dubare Elephant Camp for training. JT Girish is the mahout assigned to taming Dev.
Kaveri – The gentle one
Kaveri, a 35-year-old elephant is never chained. She was captured about 12 years ago for raiding agricultural fields. The mahouts are comfortable letting their children play with Kaveri. According to them, she “loves children” and “would not hurt even an insect”.
Nanjunda and Sharath
Sharath relaxes outside a stockade or kraal housing a freshly caught elephant named Nanjunda. At almost 12 feet in height, Nanjunda is a huge elephant. He was captured in Hassan a month before this photograph was taken, after two people who came into contact with him died while he was raiding some agricultural fields for food. His frequent visits to the fields endangered the lives of many people around the area. The forest department decided to tranquillise him and handed him over to the mahouts at the Dubare Elephant Camp.
“I have pitched this tent right next to the stockade we keep him in, and I will not leave his side for 3-4 months. My family lives with me here. I consider it a great privilege to be able to make friends with this elephant, the king of the forest. Some people say we break their spirits but that is completely not true. We build a relationship with the elephant and eventually he trusts me,” says Sharath. “Do not forget that these are big animals who could kill us easily at any time. I talk to him all the time, bathe and feed him. Eventually he will see that I mean him no harm. All our elephants eventually, if they wanted to, could easily escape into the forest. The endeavour is to build a relationship based on mutual respect. I will bond with him for life.”
All photographs have been shot on Lumix.
My appreciation and thanks to the following people for their support, permissions and guidance.
- Sri Sanjai Mohan – Chief Wildlife Warden and PCCF (Wildlife), Karnataka
- Sri Punati Sridhar – Karnataka Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF)
- Karthikeyan Srinivasan – Chief Naturalist, Jungle Lodges & Resorts
- The mahouts of Dubare Elephant Camp, whose expertise, care and experience deeply benefit the state and its captive elephants.
- Nagaraju S – Naturalist at Dubare Elephant camp.