Next to a quiet stream under a big mango tree, we were looking at a spectacular pair of birds. The birds were large, with dark eyes shining like river stones. Their feathers curved in a way that mimicked horns, extending from over the eyes to the sides of the heads and imparting a gruff, serious look. The owls had an unnervingly direct gaze that would break only when they blinked, slowly and deliberately.
I was with Kuruvi Siddan, an Irula nature expert, and we were looking at a pair of forest-loving Spot-bellied eagle-owls in Masinagudi, Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, Tamil Nadu.
We had found the owls after hours of walking; I was elated. I had many notes to take, and many photographs to make, but Kuruvi nudged me gently and asked me to get up. “It’s time for the elephants to come,” he whispered. “We must go.” Like most locals, he knew when elephant herds were likely to visit different parts of the forest.
He said it as casually as Google maps would announce a traffic diversion. No matter what the avian spectacle, he had mentally calculated the time it would take for the herd to leave an adjoining stretch and come to where we were; the eagle-owls would just have to wait.
This month, three Indian films went to the Oscars—RRR, All That Breathes and The Elephant Whisperers. Amazingly, all three films have stories of kinship with animals and inter-species intimacy forged through the flames of respect. Naatu Naatu, a song from RRR, won the Oscars for best song, and The Elephant Whisperers for best documentary short film. RRR has scenes with tigers and other wild animals fighting colonial oppressors, while The Elephant Whisperers explores the relationship between elephant caretakers Bomman and Bellie and elephant calves Raghu and Ammu in the Western Ghats’ Mudumalai. And All That Breathes looks at two brothers, Saud and Nadeem, who rehabilitate black kites in Delhi.
In some ways, to think of India is to think of iconic animals—elephants in the countryside and on currency notes, and, less recognisably, black kites in cities (often misidentified as vultures or eagles). Whether correctly named or not, wild animals are woven into the textures of our lives. In New York, you see peregrine falcons. In Delhi, you see “cheel”, the black kite. In London, you see foxes; in Guwahati, elephants.
During the covid-19 pandemic, I would watch black kites pant on my terrace, sitting with mouths open in the June heat. They were both extremely wild and extremely close—I saw a kite catch and rip open a palm squirrel; I also experienced the kite snatch a pizza slice from my hands. This was a mirror to what had happened to my mother, then a student of Miranda House, who was eating a sandwich in the lawns. “An eagle swooped down, scratched my hands and snatched my food,” she would say. She was mildly scared but mostly irritated, though she recounted the episode with some delight. In a gentrified campus or colony, this brush with grasping, rough talons was unforgettable. It had its own, uninhibited gravitas and became etched forever in the minds of two generations of women.
This brings me to my second point—not only do we have wild animals as part of our lives, but we remember conflict and forget peaceful encounters with them.
This renders importance to the fact that both All That Breathes and The Elephant Whisperers have protagonists who accept the weirdness and wildness of animals. These people lead lives that invite wild animals in as fellow travellers. This is also a reality for millions of Indians, who amble alongside elephants, tigers or large antelopes. For those who don’t walk these routes, the stories we read are (unintentionally) cloaked in conflict. Such as standoffs because of a leopard entering a building, a tiger in a field with farmers, or an elephant herd stuck on a narrow road through a hill town. What we miss in this event-based news cycle are the daily occurrences where nothing untoward happens.
Indian Forest Service officer Parveen Kaswan is posted at an elephant reserve in east India. Recently, Kaswan tweeted about the West Bengal forest department reuniting an elephant calf with its herd, the third such rescue in three years. Kaswan and others are trying to normalise the fact that small calves can fall into ditches or pits but should be returned to their families (instead of being taken to zoos).
Kaswan studies herd movement and admires the way the elephants use the landscape on a daily basis. “My favourite thing about elephants is how they use a space. An elephant herd in a single place will finish the edible vegetation in the area and then they travel to other places. They explore, they amble, they return. By the time they visit the original spot, it is replenished. It’s almost as if they know how to sustainably use an area,” he says. He also notes that the elephant mother allows the forest department to rescue the calf—almost as if she wants to avoid conflict as much as possible.
It echoes my own experiences in the forest—the matriarch of an elephant herd will wait for the entire group to cross a road or stream. She will cross at the end, always on the lookout for danger or vehicles; she leaves the moment the crossing has occurred.
To access their migratory paths or movement corridors, elephants go through villages and towns: In both Masinagudi and West Bengal, this is part of the daily lives of people. The braid of human-animal/wild-familiar is tightly woven.
Still, larger changes in the landscape are causing the ordinary nature of non-events to frequently fray into conflict. Large highways and mines disturb elephants and big swathes of high-tension wires and glass-coated kite strings lead to the death of birds of prey. The perception of dichotomy between new infrastructure and wildlife can be solved with the realisation that animals are a part of the landscape and must be accounted for, not glossed over.
The daily nature of both conflict events and non-events shows us that the future of planning has space for empathy with wildlife. What I take away from the Oscars this year is great dancing, but also an emphasis that human bonds with wildlife can be both tender and accepting of their wild natures. I also suspect that ordinary events—such as an elephant peacefully crossing an area or a black kite screeching from the city sky—are more important than we give them credit for. For things that happen daily are so great in number that they form the building blocks of life—they are like the functioning parts of our body we never pay attention to.
People amongst us who champion an everyday, peaceful existence with the wild deserve wider recognition. And while we can’t meaningfully award animals for being in Oscar-winning films, the spirit of co-habitation must endure much after the Academy Award applause dies down.
Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist and author of Wild And Wilful: Tales Of 15 Iconic Indian Species.
Also read: When hunters turned protectors: The story of the Amur falcon