Where elephants roam (India)


The Hindu

Date Published
The only way to get to know an elephant is to have your own. That sort of defined how Prajna Chowta’s interest in elephants shaped up into a Foundation that is home both to elephants and her family

Sometimes it’s like a piano concert, and sometimes it can just be terrible. That’s how Prajna Chowta, who’s been working with elephants for almost two decades now, describes her relationship with these gentle giants.

Anyone who looks at Prajna Chowta’s life is bound to envy it. Life and work seamlessly blends in the green of the forest, near Nagarahole (Karnataka) where she lives with five elephants for friends, sharing a happy space with them at the Aaane Mane Foundation, set up to study and conserve the Asian elephant.

“You realise over time that you can communicate with them without words…and we’re not connected at all. That’s what is most fascinating about them,” says Prajna, who was on one of her rare visits to Bangalore. She was here to screen a film The Old Elephant Route based on her journey along the India-Burma border to trace a historic elephant migration route, followed by a discussion hosted by Friends of Elephants.

Prajna, who’s lived and studied in India, Africa and Europe, touring the world with her father D.K. Chowta, a businessman, art connoisseur and philanthropist, earned her masters in anthropology and art history at SOAS, London University. But she soon discovered, while working with the Jenu Kuruba tribe (predominantly mahouts) of Karnataka, that she was drawn to elephants. 

She currently divides her time between India and France, where with husband Philippe Gautier, she works on films and documentary projects. “I need to make a living to put money into the foundation, and to sustain!” She’s recently finished a documentary, screened on French TV, on the relationship between her and her seven-year-old daughter Ojas, and their relationship with elephants and questioning living such a life. “The questioning comes because this life is not valid in today’s age… 600 years ago? Maybe! I wanted the first years of my daughter’s life in an environment that was free and strong. And now I sometimes question myself ‘How can I keep her like this here?’ She must have her own desires…” After studying in Madikeri and being home-schooled, Ojas now studies in France.

Prajna is also working on her next book, which is set to be out in a few months. It brings to the fore sketches and stories of the life of tribal people and their relationship with elephants. It will be based on the legend of Paalakaapya, one of the first “elephant doctors” and a sage from the time of the Ramayana, whose treatise on elephants and elephant care was a prominent reference point for mahouts. Her own Elephant Code Book is a sort of treatise and handbook that addresses captive elephant management.

Prajna is one of the few women mahouts in the world, who spent a lot of time learning from traditional mahouts in Kerala. But, says Prajna there’s no real elephant training school. “It’s like cinema. You have to go and do it hands on. That’s how young boys from mahout families learn. You have to see the techniques used to communicate with elephants, see their intelligence. You have to have regular contact with them.”

And that’s the idea that got Prajna started as well, when a close friend said ‘The only way you’re going to know an elephant is to have your own’. “And what better place to live with them, than in their own environment? That was the most logical solution.” At her camp, older mahouts train younger boys in the ways of the elephant; almost 40 young mahouts have learnt from her Foundation. And while one would like to believe that the younger generation in traditional mahout families may not be interested in continuing their traditional occupation, Prajna says it’s just the opposite. “The tribal boys don’t want anything else.  They like the old life. They run away from school!” she laughs.

There’s no such thing as a typical day at Aaana Mane, says Prajna. “Every day is different, which is good.” But mostly, after tea or coffee and a “not real breakfast”, they go looking for the five elephants (two adult females and three of their young ones) of the camp, who go out to graze in the forests all night.

“The last couple of months we haven’t even had to call them back (a common practise among mahouts). They come on their own!” she says rather amused. Then it’s feeding and ration time. “And then the elephant day is pretty much over. In the evenings we check on them, to see if they’re tired…the last couple of months they have been calm.”

Prajna prefers the term man-animal “interaction” to “conflict”. “Then we’ll have to build a wall between us like between Palestine and Israel.” This is a 3,000-year-old problem, she points out, this turf war between man and animal for the same resources. “The difference is there are more people now, with and less land and resources. There are 45,000 elephants in 13 Asian countries and the largest number of Asian elephants in the world are in India.” She suggests that collaring elephants, an ongoing trial at the Foundation, will allow the forest department to keep track of elephant movements and could prevent human deaths and material damage in future by acting as a warning system.