‘When you harm elephants, the Gods will be displeased’
KOCHI: Sangita Iyer is an Indian-born Canadian author, broadcast journalist, biologist, and documentary filmmaker. Known for her advocacy for wildlife conservation, she also heads the NGO Voice for Asian Elephants Society (VFAES).
Recently, VFAES, along with Nature Mates Nature Club, acquired four acres of private plantation land adjacent to the Nedumkayam forest in Nilambur, with the aim to enhance elephant habitat. “It will be gifted to the Kerala forest department for rewilding and preserving wildlife,” she says. “The initiative aims to protect elephant habitats and migratory paths.”
Sangita shares her insights on issues such as the mistreatment of elephants and the Arikomaban conundrum in an interview with TNIE.
How did your journey with elephants begin?
When I was three years old, my grandparents used to take me to our family temple in Palakkad. I was captivated by a magnificent tusker there. It felt as though we shared an unspoken bond. Over the years, life took me to different corners of the world. Yet, the affinity I felt for elephants never waned. In 2013, when I returned to India for my father’s funeral, a conversation with a friend led me to study the plight of elephants here.
Subsequently, during a visit to Wayanad forest, I encountered a distressing sight — a tusker trapped in a trench. Its struggle highlighted the perils elephants face when they stray from their natural habitats. Further discussions shed light on the dire conditions faced by captive and wild elephants in the state. That compelled me to establish the Voice for Elephants Society.
Your 2016 documentary film ‘Gods in Shackles’ gets discussed even now…
It had a profound influence in several ways. It emboldened the media and activists to raise their voices in support of elephants. The film raised public consciousness. In a way, it paved the way for the introduction of robotic elephants in temples; we are planning to sponsor another robotic elephant next year.
Was there a backlash as the documentary became popular?
Yes, I faced criticism and even received death threats. I continue to face cyberbullying to this day. Some people label me a cultural enemy. I firmly believe in the essence of Hinduism, which is grounded in ahimsa. It’s important for people to understand that inflicting harm goes against the teachings of Hinduism. As per actual belief, when you harm elephants, the Gods will be displeased.
Elephant corridors have been a subject of discussion and debate in India…
Elephant corridors are narrow passages that serve as safe routes for elephants to move between two forest patches. They are crucial, as elephants are migratory by nature. Human activities have severely impacted these corridors; development has been reckless. This disruption has broken the continuity of forests. Elephants, being long-ranging animals, have their migratory pathways ingrained in their minds from a young age. They struggle to find their way and end up entering human habitation areas, causing conflicts. The media should raise awareness. Elephants should not be labelled “rogue”. Rather, if you think about it, aren’t we – the humans who encroach upon their habitats – the ones who should be called rogues?
What are your views on the Arikomban saga?
I am devastated. He had a home with his family and friends in the Chinnakanal region. Moving him to Periyar Tiger Reserve was not an ideal solution, as it was too close to Chinnakanal, and he naturally wanted to return. Currently, Arikomaban is in Tamil Nadu. I believe he is safer there. However, I fear that if he returns to Chinnakanal, he may be put into captivity permanently.
Was there an alternative solution?
Yes. In the Chinnakanal region, there were 200 families living in the 301 Colony. Out of those, 150 families had been relocated. Instead of shifting Arikomaban, the remaining families could have been relocated. Band-aid solutions are unlikely to be effective in the long run.
What are the key projects you have been part of?
We have been involved in several projects in India. One of them is the installation of high-tech devices called EleSense, which detect elephants on train tracks. We have saved 90 elephants between January and May 21 this year through this project alone.