Dag Goering, veterinarian-photographer-conservationist, tells BHUMIKA K. that elephant trainers only need to be taught newer and humane methods to prevent cruelty to jumbos in captivity
A chance encounter with a newborn elephant and his mother in Jaipur welcomed Dr. Dag Goering, a Canadian veterinarian and photographer, into the vast world of elephants, turning him into a conservationist.
He started campaigning for the cause of elephants, and went on to set up Elephant Earth Initiative, involved in educating people about the magnificence of these animals and creating awareness about the kind of lives they lead when raised by people, supporting elephant welfare programmes the world over, including anti-poaching and elephant collaring projects.
Dag Goering’s pictures were on display recently at Bangalore’s Rangoli Metro Art Centre. Titled Elephant Enigma, the series of pictures was born out of his feelings that Dag says goes back to his first encounter. “In 2007, I came to Rajasthan, because I was interested in leaning about camel medicine. An elephant in captivity had given birth in Jaipur — something that hadn’t occurred there in 70 years. So the mahouts were nervous and requested me and a veterinarian friend from Help In Suffering (Jaipur-based animal rescue organisation) to give the newborn elephant a check-up. Seeing a newborn elephant of course was enigmatic for me. But the adult elephant suddenly grabbed me by the wrist and looked me in the eye. It was unnerving, exhilarating and the elephant’s eye had so much expression…” One of the pictures in the exhibition is a stark close up of an elephant’s eye surrounded by skin crisscrossed with lines. “I came away from that experience wanting to work with elephants.” The Initiative has done awareness programmes in North America, in Kochi and Bangalore in India, and is going next to Italy. “It sows the seed for people to get into activism,” he says of their awareness programmes.
He and his author-wife Maria Coffey also started Hidden Places Travels that organises elephant trips and adventure tours that fund the Elephant Earth Initiative. The two organisations works in Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, Africa and Europe as well.
Dag is pretty much tuned into the kind of man-animal conflict in India and says that when he was in Bangalore in 2008 too, like his visit this time, newspapers were filled with news of elephants creating havoc on the city’s periphery. “The problem has only become worse partly because India has an increasing population of both elephants and humans. As more land goes under cultivation, it’s coming to this boiling point where there is a clash of human need and elephant habitat.” But he points out that elephant experts in the country like Professor Raman Sukumar are advising the government well on this matter. India’s reverence of elephants as Gods have helped in a large way in their conservation in the wild, he agrees. But the problem lies with captive elephants — “that reverence doesn’t translate into how elephants here are kept in captivity. In Kerala, the situation of temple elephants is unacceptable,” he stresses, in much visible distress.
One of the programmes his Initiative plans is to offer elephant handlers and mahouts better training and handling methods that are more humane. It will also mean less disease and disability for the elephants, and lesser costs for their caretakers.
“I’m a vet and I know what it takes to do such things in a humane way. We have been talking about this in India and there is an openness to such a programme in Tamil Nadu and Kerala,” he says. Dag also stresses that mahouts are not cruel people. “They are often maligned and the problem is simply of lack of options and knowledge about how to treat elephants. It’s more ignorance than cruelty.”
They have recently completed a successful “target training” method in Thailand, much appreciated by mahouts too.