After the Oscar for Best Documentary Short was announced for ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ in a glitzy ceremony, far away in Los Angeles, U.S., the director Kartiki Gonsalves thanked on that podium, Bomman and Bellie for sharing their tribal vision that helped her make the movie. A moment of glory for the Kattunayakar tribe of the Western Ghats and their traditional wisdom.
The documentary revolves around a family who adopts two orphan baby elephants in Tamil Nadu’s Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and rears them. The two human protagonists of the film, mentioned on the world stage — Bomman and Bellie — however, have moved on from the Theppakadu sanctuary.
Bomman is now taking care of two elephant calves in Dharmapuri, also in Western Tamil Nadu, orphaned when the mothers were electrocuted by the illegal electrical fencing of a farm there, quite like the elephant Raghu in the documentary.
Unlike him, his wife Bellie is not a permanent staff of the Forest Department, so she no longer takes care of the elephants she helped raise together with him.
Bomman was inside the Palacodde forest in Dharmapuri on a mission to track the two elephant calves (on the Orders of the Madras High Court) and unite them with a herd or shift them to the safety of the Theppakadu elephant camp in Mudumalai in The Nilgiris district.
Bomman says he heard about the award on WhatsApp. “What can I say, I want to thank the two elephant calves and Kartiki, what else do I know?,” he says. ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ opens to the curly mane framing Bomman’s profile, with him declaring himself as ‘Kattunayakkan’ (King of the Forests).
“I could not eat for the last few days. The youngest calf did not sleep, or eat, kept crying for milk, the two calves kept coming back to the site where the three elephants (two female elephants and a makhna) were buried, lying on the top soil, rolling and crying. How can I eat after seeing this,” he asks. “They didn’t eat, and, we (his team) didn’t eat,” says Bomman.
“We have to find them. I’m worried about the little one,” he says, his worry reminding us of his loving chide of Raghu, in the Netflix documentary, for losing his bell in the river, the bell that would protect him, the bell that would lead Bomman to his elephant-son, in case he is lost in the forest. “How will I find you if you lose your bell,” he asks Raghu, the calf.
His wife Bellie is worried too, though for a different reason. She had a tearful union with the two calves in the film — Raghu and Bommie — after the announcement of the award. While she is happy, that on one hand, the two elephants she raised are the source of so much international attention, she adds, tearfully: “How can I be fully happy when my elephants are no longer with me?”
She fondly recalls the moment when Raghu arrived at the Theppakadu Elephant Camp, wounded emaciated, and with very little hope of survival. “Every time he fell sick, I would do pujas for his well-being at the temple,” she says. “I used to sleep inside the kraal with him, and he would never leave my side,” she adds.
Bellie says that she feels sorry for Bommie, the younger elephant. “Raghu is a boy. He will somehow make it on his own, but Bommie... poor thing, she’s still so young and deserves the best of care,” she said.
C. Vidhya, Deputy Director of MTR (Core Area), explains that Bellie was not a permanent forest staff member, but insists that she is not being stopped from visiting the elephants. “Even the public are allowed to visit the elephants. Why would we stop her?” she asks.
But Bellie has her logical reply: “After stopping me from taking care of the two, they are asking me to cuddle with the elephants. How can I do that? It is incredibly distressing for me and the elephants to be close after the period of separation.”