Saturday, June 5, 2010

Elephant in a well

Now all of have heard of the odd dog or cat, and sometimes even a goat falling into a well but it's for the first time I heard,  "An elephant has fallen into a well!" I know you might just be thinking I am mad but it really happened here.

5th June, 2010. Venoli village, Palakkad, Kerala

Elephants had been in the news the last couple of months. In Walayar, in Pudussery, in Malampuzha; all along the Palghat gap, for all the wrong reasons. They were crop raiding and searching for water and had even trampled a tribal woman to death. Summer has been very torrid for these gentle beasts and they could not all be blamed for the troubles they caused. Farmland on the fringes of the forest were mostly encroachments and blocked the elephants' access to the water sources.

Apparently a herd of 6 elephants had been wandering around the farmland around Pudussery village since late last night. Like us folks taking an occasional break in the jungles, the pachyderms decided to visit the concrete jungle! I was wondering what they found interesting in the middle of human habitation because it was a tightly packed maze of houses (more than 1000 according to a local!) with not much by way of edible material that elephants are fond of.

Anyway, they blundered through the road, probably lost and confused in the dark, till one of them suddenly disappeared from sight. The others, perhaps even more confused by this sudden disappearance of their friend wandered aimlessly finally ending up in an artificial forest in an industrial township.

Someone called me up and told me about an elephant in a well as I came home for lunch. I just grabbed my camera bag and ran, not bothering to check if the battery had any charge in it. When I reached the place the narrow road was lined with the fire force, policemen, forest officials, and hordes of excited people brandishing their cell phone cameras. I could not get close enough to the well mouth as it was cordoned of so I lifted my camera over my head and pressed the button.

BATTERY EMPTY, my LCD display said! Anyway, cursing my luck I backtracked. The wise people standing around told me it would take all day and probably the whole night before the operation was wound up. I returned because I couldn't keep patients waiting in the clinic. Besides my son would not be very pleased if I went off alone again. Winding up practice early, packed my son and niece in the car, and this time took the standby camera and sped off again.

The elephant was still there, and so were a few hundred people, braving the light drizzle. The TV crew were there and the press too. Everyone wanted a look and the guardians of the law were having a rather tough time.

The earth movers were shoveling earth around the mouth of the well, trying to create a slope into one side of the well so that the elephant could climb out. Now, if you don't know, there are no elephants trained in rock climbing as far as I know, anywhere in the world!
 So the only way to get a reasonably large pachyderm is to lift it out bodily with a crane, which in this case was impossible because the object of interest was some 25 feet below ground level and swimming in a 6 feet deep pool of slush, hardly 12 feet across!

 Every time the arm of the earth mover scraped the mud there was panic at the bottom of the well. The elephant, scared out of it's wits was going around in circles, searching for non existent exit. The operator of the earthmover was in his own state of panic, worried that the elephant would come charging out once it realized the  trench appearing gradually was an escape route.

It was getting dark and the drizzle was building into a steady downpour. The news was that the elephant in the well being wild had to be shepherded to the safety of the jungle over land. For this purpose they had requisitioned some trained elephants from Top Slip in Tamilnadu. That was not going to happen before midnight.

The sky looked threatening so we decided to go back and I planned to return later but the "kunki" (trained) elephants from across the border reached at 1 AM and the one in the well happily walked out of the well at 2.45 AM.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Morning Murder Story - Summer Scenes, Part 2

I start this piece with a twinge of guilt. Perhaps, if I had intervened I could have saved a life. It could have been my misplaced confidence that the predator was not likely to get to the prey, or my obsession with keeping the shutter firing as the drama unfolded, not three meters from me; but a life was lost and I'll carry that burden of guilt always.

An Eye Witness to a Murder
Saturday morning, a little past 7.15 AM, I picked up the newspaper and coffee and went to the office room. The morning was murky; Cyclone Laila was showing her abilities on the west coast of India too. I thought I'd open the door to let in some light. When I opened the door and my jaw dropped. Staring unblinkingly at my face from a few feet away was my old friend the Shikra!
It looked like it had become used to me, showing scant respect for a human being. It's attention was riveted to the bird cage my cook placed outside every morning. 
There were three finches in it they were and in total panic. The cage was strong and the shikra was too big to be able to squeeze it's head or claws through. It kept circling around looking for a way in. Climbing on the cage

Trying to get at one of the finches. All the while the three little birds kept moving to the farthest part of their enclosure.

For the next fifteen minutes there was absolute pandemonium. The shikra flying around the cage, a blurred mass of feathers outside, while the finches were fluttering around inside keeping as far away as possible from their tormentor. 

Finally the shikra settled on the chair to rework it's strategy. I could have touched it and it wouldn't have blinked. Such was the confidence in it's eyes. 
The last bird that stared at me like this was a Crested Serpent Eagle in BR Hills, but that was a juvenile and inexperienced with humans. 

It descended once again, looking at me confidently. The expression said, "Watch now. I'll teach you how to hunt". The event's that unfolded next happened in a flash.

 Before I realized what happened the shikra was "attached" to the cage beyond my line of sight. Realizing that something was horribly wrong I ran to the front door. I knew I was too late. The little finch was already dead. The shikra flew off dropping the dead bird. Perhaps the narrow gaps between the bars prevented the hunter from dragging it out but there was no escape from death. 

The two survivors are looking listless. Perhaps they realize that the cage offered no security. I've asked for the cage to be placed in the kitchen and I've convinced my son that the remaining two should be released. 

I've also realized the consequences of being wedded to the DSLR! One becomes oblivious to the world around you. Why blame media photographers!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Apartment on the Farm

With the population burgeoning finding living spaces is getting more difficult every passing day and soaring real estate prices don't help either. I thought that was a problem for us humans till I ran across some pretty determined feathered folk fighting for the best spot.

Place: Nallepilly, Palakkad District, Kerala, India

It was sometime in late February and I hadn't been to my uncle's farm for ages. It was the season for the ponds to fill with all sorts of visitors so I carried my gear along hoping for some nice exposures.

The ponds were rather disappointing and so were the paddy fields. Maybe my timing was wrong but I only came across the regulars; chestnut headed bee eaters, moorhens, jacana's and cormorants.

I returned despondently to my uncles house. I had lugged 10kgs of gear for nothing. Leaving everything in the house except my old faithful E3 I walked out to the cow sheds. There used to be some awesome spiders in the bamboo near the haystack. Then I noticed this barbet sitting on the "kotka puli" tree.

It had something clamped in it's beak and didn't seem keen on swallowing it. Something was brewing. I gave up the spider chase and withdrew into the cow shed. After a few minutes of looking around it turned in the opposite direction and took off. Destination: hole in the wall!! A dead coconut tree.

One moment it was there, the next it simply disappeared.

A few seconds later pandemonium!! Two mynas appeared on the tree and flapped around the place the barbet disappeared.

Seeing the commotion two parrots appeared out of nowhere, shooed the mynas away, and perched themselves on the tree looking really agitated.
One kept guard while the other went around the tree to make sure the mynas were nowhere.

A moment later another came flying to a point lower down on the tree. There was a large opening into which it jumped in dexterously.

It seemed to be ensuring that there were no illegal encroacher in it's home on the old coconut tree.

To give you the perspective. Look at the entire tree.

It's a community in there. I wonder who else  was there in that tall "skyscraper".

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Summer scenes in my garden

Mercury is soaring in Palakkad. The skies cloud over occasionally but no hint of rain. Summer showers have failed to materialize this year. The heat is oppressive and roads are deserted in the afternoons. The heat, not to mention the IPL matches, are keeping folks indoor.

Birds are no exception. They seek shelter of the few trees with a green canopy and my garden suddenly is like a bird sanctuary. I've kept bird baths in strategic places and they draw visitors all through the day. Yesterday morning I had a rather special visitor. A shikra, a small raptor.

Perhaps the heat was too much, it landed for a drink......
As it sat on the edge of the water pot it seemed lost in contemplation, till it saw me. It did not fly but shifted it's position so that it could see me without turning it's head.
After a few minutes it decided that the cool water was more tempting despite the fact that a rather curious human was standing only some 20 feet away. It decided to take the plunge.

After a few vigorous dips and shakes it climbed out, perhaps because my presence embarrassed it.

Although it looked rather wet and miserable it did not make a move to ruffle its feathers like all wet birds. It sat on the pot's edge and looked at me as if to ask, "Why are you staring at me? Can't you go away and let me be?"
I stood there with no intention of going anywhere. My camera was clicking furiously and the bird was watching me warily.
It must have realized, finally, that I was harmless because it turned back and plunged into the water again.
Then after a more minutes of cool soaking it clambered onto the edge again.
It looked at me with a rather disgusted look that said "Voyeur! Can't you let me enjoy my bath?" .....

............. then with a final vigorous shake to get rid of the dripping water it got ready to fly.
I know it'll return again, and I'll be waiting. Sometimes being called a voyeur is not all that bad!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Crossing

I've never been to Africa. The one place and an event I want to see before my time on earth draws to  a close is the wildebeest migration on the Masai Mara.

As if like a premonition, I witnessed one that gave me a gentle reminder that the time had come for the great crossing.

Place: Malampuzha reservoir, Palakkad, Kerala

The buffalo were crossing (not wildebeest!!). Sedately, wading through the shallows.

Till panic set in!! They turned as a group and rushed madly back into the safety of the waters. Some slipping in the slush and losing foot hold, others holding ground with panic in their eyes.

The reason. Local predators! Strays?

Five dogs with their owner?
Panic settles. The breath steadies, the heartbeats slow down. Is it safe?
Mid water consultation. The egret contributes to the discussion. The danger is fading from sight.
There is safety in numbers and the brave egret agrees!

The last one is safe and dry. The Crossing is over. Masai Mara or Malampuzha?