Addressing the elephant in the room

Amrita Prasad
Monday, 24 September 2018

Sumesh Lekhi, writer-director of the film series Jungle Ke Baahubali, talks about his fascination with elephants and efforts needed to preserve their habitation.

The much-acclaimed film series, Jungle Ke Baahubali, is premiering on Epic Channel today. The series is a Hindi dub of Brave Age Films’ Bastion of the Giants and takes us on a journey into the lives of the Asian Elephant and stunning wildlife in the biodiverse verdant North Eastern jungles of India.
 
We chat with Sumesh Lekhi, who has produced, written, directed it. He is also the cinematographer of the series. 

When did you start working on this film?

I have been studying wildlife and spending time in forest reserves for three decades now. Elephants and big cats are subjects close to my heart and I marvel at the role they play in their environment. 

I lived amongst the forest department and villagers in North East India, where I witnessed in depth, and studied, the man-elephant conflict. It was quite alarming to see villagers, elephants and forest department in conflict every night. This is when the idea for the series was born and I started recording and writing down all my observations about wildlife behaviour especially when influenced by human presence, and the interviews and interactions I had with people. 

Did the experience of shooting the series change your perception towards wildlife?

When you spend seven years studying a keystone species or umbrella species like Asian Elephants, you realise, how from a large mammal like Asian Elephant to the smallest ones including beetles and even microbes, play a large role in making the ecosystem what it is. It is actually the sum of all the biodiversity together that makes the biosphere. Even in the series, we have blended various aspects of the jungles to bring a wholesome experience to the audience. 

What is your take on elephant conservation and human-animal conflict?

Elephants need home ranges of about 300 km. When we save their forests and migratory routes, we are saving human life too — these same forests give us clean water and air. Elephants need close to 250 kg of food a day, so they need to live in good quality habitat. We need to keep them away from human crop plantation, so that they are not tempted to raid fields for nutrition. 

We also need to educate villagers on the type of crops to cultivate so that elephants are not attracted to them, besides taking other mitigation steps like electric-beehive-chilly fencing. If crops are destroyed, then adequate compensation should be given to villagers so that they are not unduly antagonised towards the mammal. 

In a country like India, where the Elephant God is worshipped, the elephants live a dangerous life. Can you elaborate more on this?

In spite of being a country that worships Ganesha, huge human population explosion has put wildlife, including elephants at risk. They are losing their habitat due to indiscriminate and illegal use of the forest for mining coal and minerals, insensitive brash planning and construction of infrastructure projects.

The highways and railways of central India are cutting up prime wildlife landscape. Imagine 100 elephants lost their life due to rail accidents in the last decade! We are submerging huge forest areas by building dams and planning river linking projects that do not take wildlife into consideration. For example, the impending destruction of huge parts of Panna Tiger Reserve due to river linking. 

The list of dangers to wildlife and eventually to humans itself keeps getting longer and even in the face of global warming and situations of water extremes (drought and flood), the governments seem to be ignoring these at best.

What is your comment on animal conservation in India? 

The world perceives that Asian Elephants are mostly only domesticated and it is a surprise to the international audiences that more than 50,000 Asian Elephants still exist in the wild. Wildlife species and habitats across the world have crossed the tipping point due to almost 2 millennia of human impact. As a filmmaker, I tell international audience there is still hope, because a nation like India that has about 17 per cent of the world’s human population cramped in just about 3 per cent of the world’s area, still has wildlife due to its laws and old-fashioned respect for nature. 

People also marvel at the zero tolerance towards poaching in India, especially in Kaziranga National Park. In many places across the globe, hunting licences are given to people to take down wild animals. 

In India, killing of any wild animal under the Wildlife Protection Act  1972 is a serious offence unless sanctioned after deep deliberation by the forest department. But in the past few years, I see that the government have taken some very fast decisions regarding the destruction of our forests and consequently the wildlife in it. So more citizens have to come forth to work for wildlife and compel their governments and legislation to act in favour of conservation.

ST READER SERVICE 

Jungle Ke Baahubali will premier on Epic Channel, split into two parts. The first one airs on September 22 and the second one on September 29. Timings:  3 pm, 5 pm, 7 pm and 9 pm

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