Documenting the bond between mahouts and their elephants

Senthil Kumaran with elephant Moorthy

Senthil Kumaran with elephant Moorthy  


Award-winning photographer Senthil Kumaran documents the bond between mahouts and their elephants at Mudumalai, in a series that is being showcased at the Angkor Photo Festival in Cambodia

People dreaded the massive bull elephant Krishnamoorthy. When he roamed free, he killed 23 people. But after he was caught and trained at an elephant camp in Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, 130 kilometres from Coimbatore, he changed. One man played a major role in this. A parent, guide, trainer, and friend all rolled into one: his mahout.

Elephants in man-animal conflict areas are often pelted with stones or scared away with crackers. Their bodies even carry numerous marks from the attacks. “How does such an elephant, that was tormented by man, and in all fairness may consider man its enemy, actually grow to develop a bond with another man, his mahout?” asks photographer Senthil Kumaran. This is the question he explores with his photo series Tamed Tuskers. The series is being showcased at the Angkor Photo Festival in Siem Reap, Cambodia, from December 3 to 7.

Senthil Kumaran’s photo from the series

Senthil Kumaran’s photo from the series  

“I have been fascinated by elephants from the time I was a little boy,” says the 40-year-old, who is based in Madurai. “I would stand for hours in front of a neighbourhood temple elephant, and follow it around if it was brought to my street on procession.”

Senthil ventured into street and Nature photography a decade ago, drawn to elusive wild animals and forest landscapes. Gradually, he became an insider, using his craft for conservation efforts to help scientists and the Forest Department.

Documenting the bond between mahouts and their elephants

He has documented the rehabilitation of elephants in Tamil Nadu, man-eating tigers in the Sundarbans, taken part in State forest surveys, worked on a research project on birds, participated in conflict mitigation measures with scientists. This particular series is part of a larger documentary on the human-elephant conflict in India.

The capture of a wild elephant is often dramatic. It is followed by animal lovers with lumps in their throats, and science-backed circles with a ‘there was no other choice’ attitude. Senthil says that after all these years of working closely with rehabilitated animals, he has realised that “to save the animal, scientists have a compulsion” to capture it.

Documenting the bond between mahouts and their elephants

“These are ‘semi-wild’ since they are used to human presence and easy access to agricultural crops,” he says, adding that with all the enemies the animals earn, it is likely they might be killed by ways such as being electrocuted by electrical fences, while crossing railway tracks, or falling into trenches dug up on their path.

Once rescued, they are sent to camps such as those in Mudumalai, and assigned a mahout to help them ease into their new life. “These men are of the Kurumba, Malasar, or Kattunayakkar tribes and have been doing this for generations,” explains Senthil.

Gentle guides

The mahouts work with “stressed” elephants, each of which will take time to forget its often violent past. “The men spend around 10 hours a day with the elephants, bathing, walking, and feeding them.” Senthil remembers how the grandchildren of mahout Maran would sit atop his elephant. “He kept it tied near his hut and women would feed it tomatoes when they sat outside to chop vegetables.”

In Tamed Tuskers, Senthil has featured elephants with their mahouts as a black-and-white portrait series. He says he finds it incredible that such a powerful creature is capable of extreme tenderness.

“Kaleem, an elephant that killed three other elephants at the camp, lost 300 kilograms when his mahout died due to a heart attack,” he recalls. Senthil has a Labrador at home, and fondly recalls how camp elephants exude the warmth of his pet. Some elephants even took Senthil into their trust. “After a few days of getting used to me, elephant Krishnamoorthy let me feed him sugar cane. He even let me give him a hug.”

About the artiste Senthil Kumaran’s photos have appeared in several prestigious magazines like National Geographic, Terre Sauvage, and Better Photography. He has won The Hindu Photojournalism Award for his photo essay on the human-tiger conflict; the Geographical Photographer of the Year Award from Royal Geographic Society, London in 2007, and been recognised by bodies such as WWF, UNESCO, and Media foundation of India.

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    Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 2:11:32 AM |

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