Among the more prominent collections to be showcased at this year’s Chennai Photo Biennale is Madurai-based conservation photographer Senthil Kumaran’s ‘Tamed Tuskers,’ the culmination of a decade-long effort of documenting human-elephant relationships across South India in all its deeply intertwining complexity. Senthil has previously exhibited at the biennale and is a veteran of wildlife storytelling. He has received 15 international awards and, in 2021, was named as one of National Geographic’s Emerging Explorers, primarily for his exhaustive cataloguing of the human-tiger conflict in the region.
In ‘Tamed Tuskers,’ Senthil spotlights the inseparable relation between elephants and their mahouts, who often in his words, “take care of the elephants better than their children”. The 20-photograph series closely focuses on the crop-raiding elephants and their behavioural changes, conflicts relating to their coexistence with humans as well as initiatives to mitigate them.
In a quick interview over email, Senthil discussed how his visual essay came together, the role of trained elephants in taming their wilder brethren and one rogue Asiatic elephant he could never forget. Edited excerpts:
I have been fascinated by elephants since my childhood. During my childhood, temple elephants would visit our street (in Madurai) often. When I was in class six, I got a chance to visit the Theppakadu Elephant Camp in the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. There were many trained male elephants there. One was tied and kept in isolation. When I enquired, I came to know from the mahout that it was recently captured from the forest.
This photo essay evolved over the last 10 years, during which I visited Mudumulai over 15 times for photo projects. I eventually befriended the forest personnel, observed all the elephants there and heard their stories. I also began to interact with the Kurumba community (an indigenous people, who have helped conflict resolution among humans and elephants). They trusted me and shared their experiences with me.
I had documented the human-tiger conflict since 2012, so I had a basic understanding of human-elephant clashes too. I followed the work of conservationists and elephant researchers, especially Dr. Ajay Desai who is the preeminent name on the subject of elephants in India. I was involved in various conservation activities like awareness programs, animal census, and animal relocation operations. I planned my travels based on the information I would receive from friends and acquaintances who were involved in man and animal conflict mitigation, animal monitoring, camera trapping, etc. in different locations in India. I would receive tips from NGOs and local villagers, sometimes forest officials would call upon my expertise for documentation. This is how I gradually improved my grasp of the issues at hand.
Right from my childhood, I had an avid interest in tigers and tiger-related stories. As a photographer, I always wanted to capture a majestic Royal Bengal Tiger. When I did get a call from a forest that a tiger had been spotted in a village in Periyar Nagar in Valparai, I arrived at the scene hoping to quickly get my prized photo. Instead I saw 500 to 600 villagers standing around the tiger, armed with sticks, stones and other weapons. It was tragic to see a tiger lying on the ground, wounded. The incident was a trigger for me to kick-start my visual documentation series on the tension between humans and tigers.
In India, we have never witnessed the kind of brutal human-animal conflicts that exist today. Over the last 20 years, we lost almost 15 lakh hectares of forest land. In the last 50 years, the elephant population has reduced by 75 per cent and 50 per cent of their habitat has been lost. People think this is a problem between the animal and a few villages. But in India, almost 85 per cent of deforestation occurs to meet urban demands.
Kumki elephants are a special group of animals that get trained in camps and have a close relationship with mahouts who use them to drive wild elephants that enter fields or human habitat back into the forest. They are also used by the Kurumba to catch the elephants that pose a threat to human life and train them. Additionally, they help during forest patrols to tranquilise man-eating tigers. It is obviously against nature to tame wild elephants and make them coexist with humans. But these conflict-zone elephants are lone rovers that can cause serious problems. To prevent this, they are rehabilitated in camps and trained.
I like the photo of Moorthy, 52, a male makna elephant. In 1998, Moorthy killed around 23 people in and around Kerala and Tamil Nādu border. Since this became a major concern, the Kerala Forest department decided to shoot and kill him. Severely wounded by bullets, he strayed into Mudumalai and was cautiously caught by Kurumbas and provided medical assistance. After a year of rehabilitation, Moorthy was calm and peaceful.
Two years ago, when I was invited to document elephants in the camp, I managed to get up close to several of them, including Moorthy. Once, when Moorthy’s mahout was a little farther away from him, I stepped forward and touched him. He did not harm me. Then I held his trunk and stood there for a while. It was one of the most memorable moments of my professional life.
Muskaan Gupta travels with a camera that doesn't fret to capture touristy pictures and believes visiting local markets is the best way to unearth a city's gems and jewels. She is Junior Writer (Native Content) at National Geographic Traveller India.