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How a deadly conflict over coffee with humans in India is forcing elephants into cages

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Interview with Thomas Grant, producer of the new documentary Elephant in the Coffee.

In their new documentary Elephants in the Coffee, award-winning journalist and producer Thomas Grant and Indian American author and explorer D.K. Bhaskar showcase how the growth of coffee plantations in southern India has led to conflicts between humans and elephants. The conflict, which claims the lives of hundreds of people and dozens of elephants every year, has forced elephants into giant cages.

A professor of journalism at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, GA, Grant has worked for 30 years as a television and print journalist. He has won two prestigious duPont-Columbia Awards, a Society of Professional Journalists award and several other top journalism prizes.

In an email interview with the American Bazaar, he discusses the issues highlighted in the documentary and the making of the film.

How and when did you first come to know about the abuse of elephants due to the growth of coffee plantations in southern India?

My friend D.K. Bhaskar has been interested in elephants for a long time, and he worked as an elephant population specialist many years ago. He wanted to take students to southern India to learn about tribal mahouts, who have an ancient culture and tradition of caring for captive elephants. Through our non-profit organization, CLIC Abroad, which uses photography to connect young people of different cultures, we sent students from Wisconsin — with video cameras — to visit Anechowkur Elephant Camp in Karnataka in 2012. The earliest video in our documentary, a shot of a mahout using a long bull hook to back up a screaming elephant, comes from that trip. But there were only 11 elephants at Anechowkur that year, so we didn’t think about the broader ramifications of the elephant camps.

When we returned in Anechowkur in 2014, the camp held nearly 35 elephants. And four giant cages holding recently captured elephants sat in the center of the camp. A few days later, we learned of an active capture operation nearby, where we saw four more cages being built. That day, the government brought in two small tuskers and built the final walls of the cages around them. This led us to begin asking deeper questions about why the government was forcing so many elephants into captivity. Again and again we were told, these animals were killers; this elephant killed three people, and this elephant killed eight.

The implication, of course, was that there was something about the nature of these elephants that made them violent, that they had become a menace. However, that notion did not seem to fit. Elephants are a giant herbivore. They are worshipped as a god, Ganesh. Why would elephants become more violent toward people in modern times. The answer in cool scientific terms was “habitat fragmentation.” That is true, but not specific. Elephants have historically roamed all the forests of India, traveling from area to area to eat and find water, depending on the season. Now, that migratory pathway is blocked in many areas.

But what is blocking it today that wasn’t blocking it 5 years ago or 30 years ago. The one great change in Coorg, the area of Karnataka where we were staying, was the growth of agriculture and coffee plantations, specifically. The acreage planted in coffee has doubled in the past three decades. Yet it all still looks like forest, especially to the elephant. Coffee plantations multi crop with jackfruit and other trees, so there is food, water and shade for elephants.

What we discovered was not that elephants had changed their nature, but that humans had changed nature. The forest was no longer forest, it was cropland. And forest creatures that once roamed there were now seen as pests or “menace.” In the US, we commonly seek to destroy agricultural pests, even endangered wolves or grizzly bears if they are threatening livestock. India tries to strike another balance by capturing troublesome elephants and forcing them into lifelong submission. That is what we were seeing. As other efforts to prevent elephants from entering agricultural areas failed, as more people died in confrontations with elephants, the government began rounding up elephants and placing them in camps. Some say the elephants are happy there, measuring that by their lack of disease and longevity. But others see the chains and call it torture. We try to present a clear view and allow viewers to make up their mind.

How long did it take to film the documentary? What were some challenges you faced while filming?

The first footage comes from 2012, but most of the documentary was shot in 2014 and 2015 during two study abroad trips from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College to southern India. Other footage came from our friends in the region, such as Karthic Krishnamurthy, a biologist at Tata Coffee who has teams of people following elephants inside their coffee plantation.

Our greatest challenge was ignorance, I’m afraid. We had no idea what it was like inside a coffee plantation. It is so dense you cannot see through the trees. An elephant could be quietly browsing a row or two over, and you wouldn’t notice it until too late. I took three of my students into a coffee plantation where, to our surprise, there were 13 elephants. When the neighboring estate began setting off firecrackers to scare them away, we had to run for our lives, literally. One of my students had to climb a tree to get away. I will never do that again.

I may love elephants, but I also understand now how dangerous they could be within a coffee plantation. As one of my student says, you wouldn’t think that an elephant could sneak up on you, but they are so quiet you may not know they’re there until it is too late.

Do American consumers need to hold companies such as Starbucks responsible for some of the brutalities that happen behind the scenes while delivering products?

Actually, Starbucks and its partner in India, Tata, is the one company doing a good job of trying to reduce human-elephant conflict in coffee plantations. Their biologist, Karthic Krishnan, has teams following elephants on the large Tata estates every day of the year. Tata alerts workers with text messages, and moves them to another area of the estate when elephants are near. But Tata is a huge estate with 25,000 acres. They have scale that other farmers don’t have. There needs to be a cooperative effort by all coffee producers to extend elephant tracking to all plantations, and to move people out of the path of elephants as they move through.

This is where companies like Starbucks and Tata can become leaders. We don’t blame coffee producers for the problem of human-elephant conflict, but we do think they can be a huge part of the solution. We are in discussions with a company called Logos Technologies to test an aerial method of tracking elephant movements in the forest using surveillance technology developed for police purposes. They installed cameras on large balloons above the Rio Olympics, for instance, to track the movements of people over hundreds of square kilometers. We think such technology could be used to track elephants, and we would like to test the idea. Corporate giants like Starbucks and Tata, which have large foundations dedicated to humanitarian purposes, could help find broader solutions so agriculture and elephants can co-exist.

What steps should be made to ensure situations like this don’t occur in the future?

As above, there are a couple ideas that seem to work. First, tracking elephants and warning people away is an effective solution. There are many ways it might be implemented. We think aerial surveillance might work. In other areas, people call in elephant sightings to a central number that sends out alerts. Tata has crews follow elephants. This idea needs to be researched more.

But the idea of a buffer zone around the national forest has also been advanced. Most of the conflicts are within a few kilometers of the forest. Barriers like fences or trenches seem either impractical or ineffective, though barriers should be considered as part of the solution in specific areas.

But India and the world will need to spend money to reduce harm to elephants. For instance, mahouts are paid only $120 per month and often must live without running water or electricity as they care for the elephants. If we are to expect mahouts to live up to higher standards for ethical treatment of elephants, we must also treat mahouts ethically. That means better pay and living conditions should come along with those higher standards.

Finally, the government needs to quickly and adequately compensate people whose crops or loved ones are harmed by wild elephants. Compensation won’t save elephants, but it can reduce the animosity toward the animals. Right now, the greatest danger is that India’s attitude toward elephants is changing. Thirty years ago, a farmer would not have shot the god Ganesh, even if it destroyed his crops. Now, the elephant is often seen as a menace. When it becomes a menace, people begin to justify their own harsh actions as self-defense. This is our fear, that the culture will no longer see elephants as important elements of their world but rather as something to be eliminated from it.

What is your distribution plan for the documentary? Are you going to screen the film in India?

We have had some limited screening in India, mostly in Bangalore. We are seeking wider distribution now and have hired a public relations firm to try to help. But “Elephants in the Coffee” is the product of a non-profit, CLIC Abroad, and an agricultural college, ABAC. We did this because we thought it was an important issue for the world, not because we had television companies behind us. We are showing at film festivals and colleges now, and are open to anyone who wants to helps us bring it to their community. We had more than 200 people watch a screening at Georgia Southwestern University last night. Right now, we are dependent on donations and the public to try to get the film out.

In Elephants in the Coffee you are highlighting the fragile relationship between humans and elephants in India. Some would argue that, if you look around, similar relationships exist between elephants and several other types of animals all over that vast country. What is your take on that?

India is quickly becoming a modern giant, and as it industrializes, more and more human-animal conflicts occur. I think the people of India are the most entrepreneurial I have ever seen. They get things done. Under the British, elephant populations dropped from 200,000 to about 25,000. Under Indian control, elephant populations have stabilized. We are seeing improvements in tiger populations, too.

In my opinion, India has one of the wisest approaches to animals in the world. The Hindu culture respects animals has having a soul, and sees God in animals. In India, they have a tradition of snake rescuers who remove poisonous snakes from gardens and households, then release them into the wild. This gives me great hope.

However, I grew up in the West, where success is measured not in souls or happiness, but in money. The industrialization of India threatens to bring with it a number of Western values. When I see elephants called a “menace,” as though that applies to the entire species, I worry not just about elephants but about all animals in India. The West is a culture that sees the devil in snakes and other “menacing” animals. I hope India can continue to see God in them.

You have won nearly every award in American broadcast journalism, and worked on all kinds of project. How was this film different from some other documentaries you were part of?

First, I have been lucky to work with great people during my entire career, and they always did much of the heavy lifting for me. In this case, I also worked with great people, particularly DK Bhaskar, the most incredible photographer I have ever know. We would never have been able to get so close to this story without him. He has been the driver. And we have had incredible cooperation from many, many people in India, including the Karnataka Forest Department and Tata Coffee, even though they knew we might show things that were unfavorable to them.

Thomas Grant (Right) and D.K. Bhaskar

For all my career, however, I’d worked for companies that financed my efforts. The newspapers and television stations employed me and guaranteed that my work would have an audience. In this case, we found the story without having any idea how, or whether, we could could get the film out to a wide audience, or whether we could even get any of our money back. So we shot this film on a shoestring. Nikon provided cameras, which helped immensely. Sennheiser gave us a microphone, and GoPro gave us a camera. ABAC provided a grant to complete the editing of the film.

But for the most part, we had to reach into our own shallow pockets to fund the film, and to ask people for work for free to make it happen. And it wasn’t a project in our back yard. We had to travel half way around the world shoot it. It took years. And it is imperfect. But it is unlike any story about elephants you have seen before. Of that, I am proud.

Any final thoughts?

Just a couple of things. First, CLIC Abroad is a non-profit based in Lenexa, Kansas, and its mission is to connect students from America and India using photography to cross boundaries of language and culture. The film in an outgrowth of CLIC Abroad’s work, and tax-deductible donations are used to help more students from America learn about India.

Second, our Website is www.elephantsinthecoffee.com, and people can learn more about the issue there. Also, they can contact us to arrange for showings, and we will do our best to make the possible.