It was a dinner conversation that got me thinking about elephants. I was speaking with Rachel Dwyer, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, and she was telling me about her research.
She studies elephants in Bollywood movies.
“The definitive film for elephants in Indian cinema has to be ‘Haathi Mere Saathi,’ made in 1971” she says. “It was the biggest [Bollywood] hit up to that point.”
Haathi Mere Saathi, which means “Elephant, my Friend,” is about a boy and his four wild elephant companions who save him from a leopard. Instead of raising the boy in the forest Jungle Book-style, the elephants move to the city with him. Even after the boy grows up, they continue living with him, as his friends and protectors. At one point, the elephants even tow his girlfriend's car when it breaks down in the middle of nowhere.
It's a fairy tale, of course. After all, elephants don't willingly follow us back to cities and they don't run around solving our problems.
That said, India does have hundreds, if not thousands, of domesticated elephants.
“There's a huge culture behind captive elephants,” Dwyer says. “Elephants have been captured in India for well over 2000 years.”
And elephants have long been part of Indian culture. They appear in Hindu mythologies and in ancient Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, art work and literature, so Indians have great respect for the animals.
We associate elephants with intelligence, benevolence, devotion and even beauty. For example, the ancient Sanskrit term Gaja Gamini means "she who has the gait of an elephant," and was the title of a 2000 Bollywood film.
All this talk about elephants in India made me nostalgic about my childhood days in the small southern city of Mysore. I'd occasionally see the pachyderms ambling down narrow streets with their mahouts — their caretakers — on their backs. Most of these animals belonged to temples, some to the royal family of Mysore. Elephants were also the stars of an annual procession for a Hindu festival.
I was always excited to see them; they were awe inspiring and yet familiar. I imagine kids in other parts of the country had similar experiences.
“[You] used to see elephants in the cities,” Dwyer says. “They were brought in for weddings and for festivals.”
But as I'm learning now, that's changed in most places. Mysore still has enough elephants for its festivals, but it's become harder to spot an elephant in urban areas. Now, there are laws that restrict or ban owning elephants. The Asian elephant is an endangered species, its population down by 50 percent in the past few decades. The biggest threat to its survival is loss of habitat.
As India develops and we clear more forests to build roads, railways and farms, elephants and humans are increasingly coming into conflict.
“Hundreds of elephants and people are killed every year, elephants mown down by trains on railway tracks,” Dwyer says.
They’re also struck by cars, and killed for raiding agricultural fields.
I'm all for laws that aim to protect elephants. India’s increasingly crowded and polluted cities are no place for these beautiful and intelligent animals.
But I also worry about the flip side of this. If the only news we hear about elephants is about conflict, and if kids these days don't have the luxury of seeing these creatures on their streets — like I did — are we losing the part of our culture that teaches us to respect these animals and coexist with them?
If so, we're losing something precious.