By Sucheth P.R.
If you have only seen elephants on the big screen or locked away in a zoo, watching them at play as Prajna Chowta, 44, and her assistants try to clean them would make for an exhilarating sight.
“It is potassium permanganate, used to weed away worms,” she explains, while trying to hold on to a calf as she wipes its legs. As the lively baby breaks lose to chase its sibling, running in circles around their mother, Prajna laughs as she gives up, “It’s actually of no use, since the animals will wallow in the mud anyway.”
That things seldom go as planned is probably what makes life interesting. Though Prajna had opted to study anthropology and art history at the University of London, she ended up becoming a woman mahout researching and rearing wild Asian elephants.
Prajna and her husband, Philippe Gautier, a French film-maker, now divide their time between India and France. They spend several months every year with their pet elephants at the Aana Mane base camp at Dubare in Kodagu forest (Karnataka), the elephant corridor of South India.
Two decades have passed since Prajna heard the call of the wild. In 2002, she set up the Aana Mane Foundation with a clear aim to manage semi-captive elephants in their natural habitat. Living in a makeshift wooden shelter in the forest with bare minimum amenities, she slowly developed a bond with the big mammals.
The daughter of Darbe Krishnananda Chowta, a Tulu writer, businessman and artist, and sister of music director Sandeep Chowta, Prajna became passionate about elephants during college. “I was an anthropology student. As part of my studies I had travelled extensively through the tribal colonies across the country. Somehow the passion towards studies on ethnic people shifted to elephants,” she explains.
After her mahout training at Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary in Wayanad, Kerala, Prajna spent months in many elephant camps across India. In Arunachal Pradesh, she went on a group elephant safari of 350 kilometres with four elephants. “I spent days and nights in forests,” she says. “There was never a question of regret. Once I have an urge I stick to it. Everyone asks me why I do this. The answer is simple. For me, the forest is the temple while the elephant is its deity.”
At present, the foundation is working on a project to test the first prototypes of elephant tracking collars designed in India. GPS collars have been fitted on two tamed elephants Kalpana and Kunti, and scientists at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, are monitering their movements. The system transmits an accurate position of the elephants every two hours. “The GPS collars are essential in the management of captive elephants in their natural habitat,” says Prajna.
In future, some of the 3,500 captive elephants in India may be released in the wild and monitored round the clock. “It may prove useful in the mitigation of the human-elephant conflict in areas where the elephant habitat is fragmented and occupied by human settlements,” says Gautier.
Gautier has filmed elephants for a three-part documentary, Elephas Maximus, in which Prajna was the protagonist. Prajna and Gautier had also directed a full-length feature film Hathi in 1997. She also wrote a book in 2010 Elephant Code Book, which is a handy reference tool for elephant keepers.
After crossing a small tributary of the Kaveri it takes us over half-an-hour to walk through the forest trail to reach the mane (house) of Ranima, as Prajna is fondly called by locals and other mahouts of the state forest department.
“They are sensible and intelligent animals,” says Prajna. “Often I have a feeling that elephants share many human instincts. They return the love we give, and, on occasions, the animal may turn envious, too.”
“When a baby girl was born to me, my dearest elephant Kalpana became jealous and that continued till she herself got a calf. These are personal observations,” she adds.
After the routine check-up and care, Prajna now readies to take the elephants back to the forest. The four elephants, mothers and calves stand in a line and kiss Gautier with their trunk. Only after he pats them and nods, do they start moving.
“We let them go to the forest with loosened chains and they will return after grazing and mating. If they do not return for days, we send mahouts to get them back,” says Gautier.
Passion for Pachyderm
● In 2002, Prajna Chowta set up the Aana Mane Foundation with a clear aim to manage semi-captive elephants in their natural habitat.
● Prajna and her French film-maker husband, Philippe Gautier, spend several months every year with their pet elephants at the Aana Mane base camp at Dubare in Kodagu forest (Karnataka).
● At present, the foundation is working on a project to test the first prototypes of elephant tracking collars designed in India.
● GPS collars have been fitted on two tamed elephants Kalpana and Kunti, and scientists at the IISc, Bangalore, are monitoring their movements.
● In future, some of the 3,500 captive elephants in India may be released in the wild and monitored round the clock which will help mitigate the human-elephant conflict.