Out of town for the past 10 days, hence blog silence - and I'm now
writing to you from the southernmost tip of India, Kanyakumari where
the 3 seas meet. I'm here with the clergy from 2 CSI dioceses for
their annual conference...staying in a newly built centre where
electricity and water are so newly connected that they are erratic
even by Indian standards. Bishops here are autocratic in the extreme,
so the whole thing feels rather like Dotheboys hall....specially as we
sit and long tables and sing grace! We travelled here by coach...a 20
hour journey from hell on roads that gave up periodically and
degenerated into potholed dirt tracks...with a horn-happy driver and
50 overexcited Indian male clergy singing, I suspect, their local
equivalent of rugby songs! And on Friday we get to do it all again in
reverse....However, to be here overlooking the Indian Ocean is pretty
wonderful really....so it's churlish to grumble.
Rather than trying feverishly to fill you in on all that has happened
since I last posted, I'll try and get down to the internet cafe to
post a series of reflections on some aspects of the continuing mad
extremes that are my experience of India.
After the agony of our visit to the AIDS project came play time, as we
visited the Bhannergatta nature reserve for close encounters with
bears and deer, lions and tigers, all in their natural habitat.
Best of all, we mingled freely with a family of elephants, scratching
behind their ears, feeding them hay and leaping out of the way just in
time when they offered us an unsolicited shower.
They were so delightful with their air of benevolent wisdom, it's quite
understandable that so many conservationists devote their careers to
them. Among them are the staff of A Rocha India,- a branch of the
international Christian Conservation group,- and they had much to tell
us of their struggles. In a country with such huge social problems, where tens of thousands lack the basic necessities of life, taking time and money to conserve wildlife might seem a reckless luxury. What's worse, in many cases humans and animals are in direct conflict...Villagers scratching a living on the fringes of India's great forests face ruin if a herd of elephants emerges to raid their crops...Recently a government compensation scheme has been introduced, but it covers only part of the damage...and the excellent laws in place to protect wildlife are almost impossible to enforce. According to a popular saying here "It's a long way to Delhi" and whatever the law may say on this, or any other topic, grassroots reality is very different.
Outraged villagers take matters into their own hands or try to make a few hundred rupees by poaching...after all, the international ban on ivory sales doesn't matter if you are already operating outside the law. As is the way of things, when prosecutions are brought, it's only the small fry that are caught...the fat cats remain safe, hundreds of miles away.
So, elephant numbers have declined despite their protected status, their habitat threatened by Bangalore's urban sprawl and by the quarrying work (illegal again) that carries on even in the heart of the national park. We travelled on metalled roads that you'll not find on any map, to settlements that don't officially exist, following the stream of trucks that flows each day from quarries to city.
All in all, an Indian conservationist's lot is not a happy one,- but
the world would be so much poorer if in a decade the wildlife we were
privileged to meet could only be found within the safe but artificial
confines of nature reserves. A Rocha is working with both villagers
and city dwellers to educate them in the essential balance and mutual
dependence of nature and humanity. Elephants are sacred to the Hindu
god Ganesh, while Buddhism teaches reverence for all life...so
ironically their task is hardest with the Christian community. Our
tendency to confuse stewardship with ownership, or, more laudably, a
concern that starving children should be fed before we turn to
endangered animals, can make our education a slow process.
But even amid the poverty of India, I cant help but remember that when
the 5000 were fed, there were baskets left over...enough to share with
birds and beasts as well.
And I did so love those elephants!