A young man, who had applied for the job of aane kavadiga (caretaker of an elephant), was struggling to make the pachyderm obey his command. When all else failed, he prostrated before the animal, begging for cooperation so that he could get the government job. The elephant, not surprisingly, remained unimpressed.
This was a scene in May at Sakrebailu camp near Shivamogga during the recruitment for aane kavadigas. The Shivamogga wildlife division had invited applications to fill four vacancies in the camp. The selection process is tough, as the applicants have to convince the recruiting panel that they can handle kumki (tamed, trained) pachyderms effectively.
Degrees don’t matter to elephants
The number of degrees obtained does not help one land this job. In fact, the recruiting agency does not consider educational qualifications. The applicants are asked to handle a tamed elephant in the camp in the presence of experienced mahouts and senior officers. The candidate has to get onto the elephant and ensure the animal listens to his commands and responds. Mostly, only those with prior experience in handling elephants land this job.
Many of those who appeared for the interview were from the Kalyana Karnataka region, and some of them were unaware of the challenges of the job.
An applicant said he studied BA and B.Ed. in Ballari. He had applied for the job as he was looking for a ‘secure government job’. “When I came here and entered the camp, I realised this was not my kind of job at all. It is meant for only those who have experience handling elephants. My certificates or educational qualification have no relevance here.”
In contrast, another applicant, who worked in an elephant camp on a contract basis earlier, was confident of getting the job. “The animal responded to my commands. Without proper schooling, I cannot hope to get any other job,” he said.
Dr. K.T. Hanumanthappa, Chief Conservator of Forests, Shivamogga circle, said, “Only those who worked in elephant camps on a contract basis, or those who handled elephants in religious institutions, can do the tasks we assign them. This time, many of the applicants had no basic knowledge of the job. They were carrying only educational certificates.”
Those selected get a basic salary of ₹18,600 at the beginning. The recruitment process was held simultaneously in Mysuru, Chamarajanagar, Kodagu and Dandeli as well.
No woman has taken up the job of handling elephants
For the four vacancies in the Sakrebailu camp, the department received 311 applications. Many unemployed youths had applied, hoping to get a government job. Eventually, only 14 appeared for the selection process. There were only two applicants for the one post reserved for women, of which only one application was accepted. However, she did not show up for the interview.
“So far, no woman has taken up this job. The job involves getting onto elephants, tracking them in thick forests, and bringing them back to the camp, among other challenging tasks,” said Khudrath Pasha, a senior mahout with 40 years of experience handling elephants.
Skill of handling elephants is passed on from fathers to sons
Though the jobs are open to all, only those from families with a history of handling elephants can get through the process. A majority of those in this tough job are Jenu Kurubas, and a few are Muslims.
Pasha picked up the skill from his father, who, in turn, was trained by his father. Both had worked in the same camp earlier. Now, Pasha’s two sons are doing the same job at two different camps.
According to researchers, the practice of capturing wild elephants and training them has a long history. Many centuries ago, elephants were made to carry water to temples. They were also trained to play a role in the battlefield.
Jenu Kurubas, who got their name due to their honey-collecting skills, have been involved in capturing and taming wild elephants. They pass on the skill to the next generation. Without them, the Forest Department cannot handle tamed elephants. Among other things, it would be difficult to organise the procession of elephants, including one carrying the golden howdah, during the Dasara celebrations in Mysuru without Jenu Kurubas.
Wild elephants are put in a kraal (an enclosure) for a couple of months to be tamed. The animal is kept in a closed enclave. Gradually, the mahouts take the animal under control by following a system that involves both punishment and rewards. It is basically meant to make the animal respond to their commands and obey orders. Some animals are taken out of the kraal within a month, while others require a longer duration.
The caretakers celebrate the occasion when the animal is out of the kraal. They also offer special pooja to Mastigudi in Kabini to seek her blessings, irrespective of the religion of the mahout.
In Sakrebailu camp, each animal is normally handled by two persons. The caretakers work under subedars, who report to senior officers in the Forest Department. They train elephants to handle special tasks. Well-trained elephants are deployed in special operations to capture wild elephants involved in man-animal conflict. They help the Forest Department staff trace the wild elephants, fire the tranquillizer dart, capture them, and load them onto trucks.
Youngsters not keen
The Forest Department does not face a shortage of applicants for the job. “We have sufficient number of qualified applicants. Many people in the service train their family members for the job,” said Dr. Hanumanthappa.
However, the caretakers say that the younger generation is not showing much interest in taking up the job. Many of them want their children to study well and get ‘better jobs’.