“A god that became a menace” may be a catchy phrase while talking about elephants in India. Or it might just succinctly put a whole lot of conflicting ideas in front of you. Internationally-renowned photographer and filmmaker D.K. Bhaskar and journalist Tom Grant have come together with students from America’s Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College to create Elephants In The Coffee, a 58-minute documentary.
Shot around Karnataka’s Nagarahole National Park and the large coffee estates skirting it in Kodagu and the Western Ghat region, the film looks at the fragile relationship between elephants and humans, in the wilderness, on cultivated land at the edge of elephant habitats, and in the human space, the city, says Bhaskar.
Some people assume that we have to take sides, that we must be either pro-elephant or pro-farmer, says Tom. “But we think we can be for both animals and people. This film is journalism. We are trying to show the world a problem, and some of the proposed solutions. We don’t pretend to have all the answers. We only believe that we must find a way for humans and elephants to co-exist,” adds the journalist. The students had earlier come to India as part of Bhaskar’s CLIC Abroad Foundation and spent time with the mahouts in the area. They were interested in problems that people face in small villages and agricultural areas.
They had no experience with farming outside the US. When they saw the multi-cropping in India, growing coffee, pepper, jack fruit and other crops all on the same land, they were fascinated. “Of course, they already had an interest in elephants, but they had no understanding of how they lived in the wild. When they saw what was happening with elephants in India, they had to change their way of thinking. This was a transformative experience for them,”adds Tom.
Bhaskar believes that research papers don’t communicate the gravity and future of the situation as much as visual impact with the common man can. Therefore, the film. “The West is deluged with reports on poaching of elephants, primarily in Africa, and the efforts to stop it. And Americans often read about it with interest over a cup of coffee. But they don't realise that their desire for coffee is one of the contributing factors for the decline of elephants in Asia. The World Wildlife Federation says that conflicts with agriculture is now the top threat to Indian elephants.”
But the real answer is more complex, he agrees.
Tom observes how right now, the conflict with agriculture is changing human perceptions of elephants. “Thirty years ago, the elephant was a god. Now, it is commonly referred to as a menace. This change in attitude is understandable when elephants are killing people and destroying crops. But we see the change in attitude as a sign that conservation efforts are in trouble. No matter how many people in the West or the East love elephants from afar, the future of the elephant depends on the animal’s treatment by people on the ground, by the people who live with elephants every day.”
Coming back to the film, Bhaskar reiterates how he thinks this film can help by showing people that their actions affect the future of the elephant. “We don't want people to stop drinking coffee. But we want people to ask that a few cents from their double-mocha latte might go toward preserving habitat. We can have our coffee and our elephants, too, but only if we consciously work to improve the situation for both farmers and elephants.”
You can know more about the film on www.elephantsinthecoffee.com. The film will be screened on April 23 at Bengaluru’s Suchitra Film Society, Banashankari at 11 a.m. Bhaskar will discuss the film after the screening.