When photographer D.K. Bhaskar and professor Tom Grant traveled to India about five years ago with students from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Ga., their plan was to study the fascinating culture of the mahouts, or elephant keepers.
But when they arrived in southern India, Bhaskar said they quickly discovered an extremely complex and deadly conflict between humans and elephants within the country’s coffee plantations.
“We went to India as part of the CLIC Abroad Foundation to spend time with the mahouts in the area, but when we got there, we found these captive elephants in cages,” Bhaskar said. “They were being brought there and forced into these huge cages because the elephants were viciously attacking people in the coffee plantations.”
The attacks were becoming so dangerous that fewer people in the region were interested in continuing the tradition of the mahout culture, Bhaskar said.
A mahout is an elephant rider that typically starts out as a young boy in the family profession, he explained.
“It is a profession that can only be learned in the community,” he said. “There is no classroom where you can teach someone to be a mahout.”
As the CLIC Abroad team began its trip to southern India, Grant, who is also an award-winning journalist and a former editor of Metro Spirit, said Bhaskar had told the students that there were about 10 captive elephants being held in this particular camp when he visited about two years prior to their trip.
“When we got there, what we saw was, instead of 10 captive elephants, there were nearly 35 captive elephants in this camp,” Grant said. “And there were four large cages in the camp where they had elephants who were being forced into submission by a mahout. So we began to wonder what was going on.”
While traveling around the region and talking to people involved in the coffee plantations, Grant said the team got a call that another camp for captive elephants was being established.
“They were bringing them to another camp that didn’t exist until that moment,” Grant said. “So we quickly drove a couple of hours to get to this new camp. When we got there, they were building these huge cages in this very isolated area and they brought in two freshly captive elephants, who were wild just hours before, to the camp. These elephants were now drugged and tied to trucks and they were forcing them into these cages. In fact, they were building these huge cages up around them right before our eyes.”
“We had no idea there was a conflict in the coffee plantations in that area of India,” he said. “That area is where about half of the wild elephants, approximately 15,000 of them, live and, over the years, they have been attracted to these coffee plantations. Because they are attracted to the plantations, they have these conflicts.”
As a result of that experience, Bhaskar and Grant decided to develop a documentary called “Elephants in the Coffee” to inform the world of this growing problem in India.
The following year, Grant and Bhaskar returned to India to continue to study and film the issues surrounding the conflict. During their visit, they spoke to several people in the region who had lost relatives to these elephant attacks.
“Elephants are wild animals and they are dangerous,” Grant said, “especially when they come in contact with humans.”
Unfortunately, because of the increase in elephant attacks, people’s attitudes about the animals are changing in India, he said.
Grant and Bhaskar are hoping their documentary, which will be screened this Sunday, Aug. 20, at Augusta’s Third Annual Black Cat Picture Show at Le Chat Noir, will help educate the world about this extremely complex conflict.
“About 30 years ago, the elephant was a god in India,” Grant said. “Now, they are commonly referred to as a menace. This change in attitude is understandable when elephants are killing people and destroying farmers’ crops. But it is a difficult problem that needs a solution.”
“Elephants in the Coffee”
Third Annual Black Cat Picture Show
Le Chat Noir
Sunday, Aug. 20
$16, single-day pass; $40, festival pass
For more information on the documentary, “Elephants in the Coffee,” and how to help support the CLIC Abroad program, visit elephantsinthecoffee.com. For more information on the Black Cat Picture Show, which is this Friday-Sunday, August 18-20, at Le Chat Noir, visit blackcatpictureshow.com.