my Visa has run out

It’s hard to believe that my time in India—for now—is up because my visitor visa is about to expire. I admit that I thought by now the fencing would be in and the first elephant on her way. But things simply don’t work that quickly here. No criticism intended, just recognition of how the system works.

Practicing patience is a requirement when working in Asia. Even getting a map of the local area from the regional office is riddled with complications. The difficulty is not because I am a foreigner; the locals experience the same frustrating delays.

Without a doubt we are spoiled in America. If I want a map of any property in my county, I simply go to the clerk’s office. In all my years of using the service there has never been a waiting line and has always been a helpful clerk behind the desk ready to provide me with any information I need. For a nominal fee I receive—within minutes—a printed copy of the records of any property, which include acreage, dimensions, location and purchase price. Now that’s what I call customer service!

In spite of the difficulties encountered pulling together all the necessary documents, I am thankful for what we have accomplished in these past three months. As result of my daily excursions, I know every inch of the place — every land feature, hill, curve in the creek, pasture, rock formation and water catchment. I have seen what vegetation is thriving and what is struggling and how the serious lack of precipitation during this seasonal dry spell affects the area. Most important, I see the potential of this land and what a blessing it is for elephants and other indigenous wildlife.

Living alongside the villagers I now have an intimate knowledge of their lifestyle, activities, needs and challenges, and how they care for their livestock.

Although the village dogs have a canine community of their own, they are constant companions to the villagers. Basically ignored, they silently pad along behind the herder with his sheep, goats and cattle; accompany the village women doing laundry and dishes at the lake or collecting vegetation for the livestock; and shadow the village men collecting fire wood and resources for their homes. And then, at the end of each long hot day when lights are switched off and blaring communal music silenced, the dogs stand watch all night, protecting the villagers’ life and livestock by warding off intruders, including wild elephants.

With a great deal of necessary information already collected we will continue to pursue the area maps, surveys, property documents and the long-awaited final endorsement by the government. Let’s hope we can do it in record time.

In the meantime, while I abide by the visa requirements and await the docs required to continue the care center project, I am off to Nepal to continue the work I started last year. There are many elephants in need of pedicures, mahouts eager to learn new skills, veterinarians anxious to receive a new stock of trimming tools and a retirement center to brainstorm!

March update on India Care Center Project

From my lake-front office
Bannerghatta, India

The two months since my arrival in India have been filled — with meetings, brainstorming sessions, hiking through cinder-dry insidious forests and continual reality checks.

It is so important that I am here now—on the care center site—to study the land, the wild elephant activity in the adjacent forest, the habits of the local villagers and the laws that govern land ownership and use. There is so much to learn, I am ever thankful that everyone I am working with speaks fluent English.

The project’s scope widens
The project has remained focused on elephant welfare but its scope and approach has shifted a bit…for the better.

Initially, we planned to have a relatively small plot of land in exchange for the care center elephants being allowed access to the national forest. Allowing elephants nighttime access to the forest is standard practice for the forest department’s captive-held elephants and seemed like a viable solution to limited day time space.
But as I hiked the adjacent national forestland, I was disheartened to see how the forest’s resources are exploited. The forest herself appears to be barely breathing, suffering from over-grazing, intentionally set fires and the destruction of trees by the local villages that border the forest.

Seeing the poor condition of the forest made me realize how the wild elephants are struggling to survive, with not enough food, water or shelter to sustain them. The idea of adding even a few more elephants to the already stressed habitat—reducing wild elephant resources even further—was a deal breaker for me.

Following a frank discussion with the collaborators on the project, we decided to expand the land used for the care center, something close to 200 acres, thereby eliminating the need for the center’s elephants to use the forest.

No chains, no dominance
This change in operations has resulted in positive shifts in the facility design and style of elephant care.

The original plan called for a small plot of land and giving the elephants access to the national forest at night. But I recently learned that allowing the elephants into the forest overnight called for a compromise: the elephants would have been required to wear a drag chain on one leg whenever they were in the forest. The chain helps keep them from being mistaken for wild elephants by villagers and makes it easier for the mahouts to track, retrieve and return them to their home during daylight hours.

But now, with national forest use no longer an issue, there is no compromise required – chains will have no place at the care center.

You can imagine how excited I am about this unforeseen turn of events! I had almost been convinced that in India elephants will never be completely free of chains. But with our land expansion we will be able to do just that—keep elephants on a large tract of forested land, free of chains and dominance.

Infrastructure development and acquiring land
As result of this positive shift in the design of the project, we need more time for preconstruction development than earlier projected. We must conduct an expanded survey to identify land ownership. Surveying the entire tract of land will provide the legal assurance required prior to constructing the miles of necessary trenching and fencing.
This expansion also requires a follow-up communication to the government informing them of our desire to expand…even before we have begun!

We also have the challenge of acquiring a small parcel of land that is essential to the project but is currently occupied by another person. We have received assurance that this parcel of land—approximately seven acres—can be acquired.

In India, land rights are complicated but well defined, if not always enforced. In some cases property owners hold a deed and are permitted to sell to whomever they choose. In other cases, villagers and tribals who receive land from the government are allowed to pass the land down to family members, but are not allowed to sell outright.
Becoming familiar with the regulations is essential for anyone intending to own, lease or occupy land in India.

I am told that when it comes to land, possession is nine-tenths of the law and even in cases in which the land cannot be sold, occupants can accept payment to vacate. As I understand, once they have vacated the land, another person can occupy it, with stipulations that it be used for some agricultural purpose or forest restoration and it can never be sold. One small parcel of land essential to our project falls in this category.

I am keeping a positive outlook about acquiring this piece of land, which stretches across the edge of the lake, one of the essential areas for our elephants. Negotiations are underway. All I can do right now is wait.

Co-existing with wild elephants
In the meantime, I am tracking the movement and land use of wild elephants in the area. There is one section of the care center land they frequent. All the collaborators have agreed that no care center land used by wild elephants will be blocked to them. Our goal is to be mindful that our project, although well meaning and helpful to captive elephants, not cause hardship to wild elephants who use the land.
We have identified a small corridor just inside the care center property, adjacent to the national forest, where wild elephants leave the forest to enter the care center property. They have a well-established path, which will remain open for their use.

Protecting this wild elephant corridor is another unexpected development that makes me even more excited about the care center project. Being able to create a healthy space for captive elephants to recover and thrive, while at the same time preserving land for wild elephants who migrate through the area, feels like the right thing to do.

Care center and bird sanctuary
With an estimated 180 different species of wild birds in the area, the care center property is already a bird sanctuary. Never before have I been so enthralled by bird watching but from day one I was in awe of the many different birds and their beauty.

The lakes draw a variety of fishing birds, from the Indian Pond Heron to the regal Brahminy Kite. Their nonstop activity, sometimes entertainingly comical, has sparked my interest in studying these winged creatures with whom I now share my space.

The animated and gutsy Blue Eared Kingfisher was the first to catch my attention. His fishing perch is feet from my outdoor office. The first time I watched him make a catch, I admit to being a bit shocked that this minute blue bundle of constant movement disarmed his prey by bashing its head against a rock.

I’ve observed Brahminy Kites collecting branches for nest building, a trio of Red-Wattled Lapwings singing a chorus, a Black Shoulder Kite dive-bombing to catch a mouse and a Great Cormorant perching on a branch 30 feet above the lake on its awkward looking webbed feet. I’ve seen egrets of every size follow the resident horses, snatching up displaced insects. Then there were the stunning Rufous Treepie, Red Whiskered Bulbul and a pair of White Browed Wagtails who chased a Crested Serpent Eagle away from their favorite tree.

Being able to observe so much winged activity has opened a new world to me.

Survey and land
Surveying the expanded land is the next step required to move forward on this project. Acquiring the seven-acre parcel of land currently in negotiations will come after that, followed by a government endorsement of our expansion. All this needs to be accomplished before beginning construction.

Fencing and trenching
Only after the survey is completed, the extra parcel of land acquired and government approval secured can we begin work on the perimeter trenching and electric fence required to keep wild elephants out and our care center elephants chain-free inside. The fencing is estimated to cost $7 per foot/$36,000 per mile. The approximately four miles of trenching and electric fence will come to about $142,000.

Compare this to the average $100 per foot elephant sanctuaries in the US spend on fencing. For 7 percent of the cost, we can provide a safe and secure, chain-free environment for needy elephants in their authentic natural habitat while simultaneously protecting wild elephants and their land.

I am very anxious to move forward on this project but am cognizant that we cannot overlook any step or detail in our enthusiasm to make the care center a reality. If great journeys are launched one step at a time, who knows where helping one elephant at a time will take us.

Please visit my blog http://www.carolbuckley.com/elevisions/ and my Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/index.php?#!/carolbuckleyEAI so I can keep you updated on our progress as it happens!

Thank you for your interest and continued support. This care center promises to be more than any of us ever expected. Thank you for sharing my dream.
Carol

P.S. I am delighted with recent media coverage of our work. The Mumbai edition of The Midday covered my journey to India and the care center project,
http://epaper2.mid-day.com/showtext.aspx?boxid=7332346&parentid=167642&issuedate=04032012&edd123=Mumbai
And the Financial Chronicle mentioned the center in a moving review of the status of elephants in India.
http://www.mydigitalfc.com/knowledge/they-are-our-heritage-445

opinions

Recently I watched as a herd of domestic cattle wandered into an off-limits area. My mind raced with opinions and judgment about the person responsible for allowing the cattle to trespass, when I saw a small family of pig wallowing in the lake alongside the cattle. The pigs caught my eye for two reasons: they were having a glorious time running into the belly-deep water, throwing their bodies down and rolling in the mud, and I had never seen the village man with these pigs before.

I remember thinking that the pigs looked almost identical to the wild pigs in the area. I quickly assumed that a pair had probably been captured some time back and this was the result of captive breeding. I spent no more time pondering the scene before me. I had formulated an opinion that I had no reason to doubt: the pigs mingling with the domestic cows were themselves domesticated and owned by the same person.

Later that evening when I recounted the pig sighting, Vishnu asked, “Pigs? Are you sure? The village does not keep pigs.” I’d seen what I’d seen and insisted the pigs belonged to the herder from the nearby village.

Sometime later, as my mind wandered back over the day, my brain froze on the pig scene. What I had observed came together with Vishnu’s statement and in a flash I realized that the opinion I had formed was dead wrong. Because I had not seen pigs at the lake before, the cows were already at the lake when I saw the pigs, the two groups of animals appeared undisturbed by the other and all wandered off into the forest together, I assumed they were together. I was wrong.

I had jumped to a conclusion based only on what I’d seen and the information I had at the time. In fact, the pigs were wild. The village does not keep pigs and when Vishnu recounted my sighting to them, the village man said that he had seen the wild pigs as well and was quite surprised how comfortable all the animals were together.

This single experience has caused me to think deeply about how we formulate our opinions. How many times do we jump to a conclusion based on what we think we see or hear or based on limited information? I am now more mindful of the opinions I formulate and less impacted by the opinions of others.

blessing the land

I’ve seen footprints and elephant boluses and heard stories about the herds of wild elephants that frequent the area, but last night at 10:35pm I heard proof — my first wild elephant trumpet. It sounded like s/he was just outside my front door. The familiar sound brought an instant smile to my face. I stood motionless on my porch listening for more, any other sign of elephants. But there was only pitch dark and silence. I figured the music maker had moved on. But honestly, just hearing that one joyful trumpet was enough for me, for now.

I’ve been thinking deeply about our project, wondering what impact, if any, it will have on the wild ones. Of course my desire is to do no harm, so educating myself regarding wild elephant activity in the region is imperative.

This morning as I recounted the elephant music of the night before, the resident security man came roaring up on his scooter to announce that he had seen a herd of elephants. The night before they entered the property through a wide opening in the forest wall and proceeded to feast on bamboo, a fruitless mango tree and the huge Banyan tree that dwarfs the outdoor classroom area used occasionally for schoolchildren from Bangalore.

Several piles of manure suggested the size of the herd and age of some of its members. From the fertilizer they left behind it appeared that this herd included at least two youngsters, one only a few months old.

this sandle is a size 7, so you can see how small this calf’s foot is.

Out of curiosity we tracked the elephants’ movements, following piles of manure, footprints and discarded vegetation. A horizontal chain that extended across a dirt road lay in two pieces on the ground. The heavy lock that previously held it together was splayed open and discarded. Most likely one of the larger elephants stood on the chain until the lock gave way.

The amount of damage done was nil unless you consider leaf litter and a couple of broken branches a problem. After filling their bellies, the herd appeared to leave the way they entered.

I am getting such an education — wild elephant lifestyles in the Bannerghatta forest 101. Living on the land shared by wild elephants is a gift and a responsibility. I look forward to the days and weeks ahead. I am realizing that this project has the potential to be much more than anticipated. One world, one elephant at a time has taken on a much more complicated meaning.

One world, one elephant at a time — both wild and captive.

new neighbors


Well, I guess I’ve done it now. I will probably be arrested for dog nabbing.

Soon after arriving here, after Derrick abandoned me to return to his first home, a hungry suckling dog came scavenging around my place. I felt bad because there wasn’t anything for her to eat so I gave her a dish of soymilk. She was tentative and very apprehensive about allowing me even to walk past her. With her tail between her legs she’d scurry off to a safe distance from me. She would not take her eyes off me until I left the area.

Over the past two weeks her visits have become regular and more frequent. Lately she quietly stands on the threshold of my open door, calmly looking at me. I try to remember to cook more than I need so there will be leftovers for her.

She has also taken to spending more time just hanging out, most likely to spend time away from her growing pups. I knew she had one pup because I saw it as I walked through her village during one of my scouting expeditions. But yesterday I had a surprise.

When Momma dog came for her AM soymilk there were two, blue-eyed pups tagging along behind her. They looked to be no more than six weeks old; cute does not come close to describing them. They steered clear of me and one even let out what was supposed to be a ferocious bark to make sure I did not approach. Too cute.

Today when Momma dog stood in my doorway, patiently waiting to see if there were any leftovers, two cute faces peeked out from behind her. Their visit was not the surprise of the day; it was when I saw the pups playing on my porch—with no mom in sight—that I realized what she had done. Seriously, the pups were playing, let out one halfhearted whine when they realized Mom was gone, then plopped down by the porch step and fell fast asleep.

I looked for Mom but she was gone. We will see if she intends for this to be a permanent residence change or just an opportunity for her pups to get to know the neighbors. Either way, I hope their owners don’t think I puppy nabbed them.

thinking about the big picture


Things are progressing well with the care center — lots of discussion, meetings and scouting the land. But this time around the process is quite different from when my Tennessee sanctuary dream was becoming a reality. This time things are moving slower, every step evaluated and reevaluated by the team of people involved.

Vishnu is well respected for his conservation efforts by area property owners. At a meeting yesterday I learned that his land is unique to the area as he is honoring and restoring the forest with no motivation of capital gain. Apparently, over the years, many have tried to persuade Vishnu to turn the place into a high-end resort, but he has resisted all offers.

I love the fact that the land has been honored, forest replanted, wildlife respected and only limited numbers of humans allowed to bird watch and escape from the city.

Vishnu would be the first to admit he never imagined his restoration would benefit captive elephants. But there is a low-level, nearly undetectable hum here, like something is ready to unfold, blossom or be born. The land is ready to serve elephants again.

I am intrigued by what I am learning about the ways of wild elephants in a semi-urban environment. The fact that they can avoid trouble is nearly inconceivable with the degree of human encroachment surrounding their habitat. Putting myself in their skin is frightening. Every step they take brings them too close to human settlements. Everywhere they turn there is a road, a village, a rock quarry. They have no space and no safe haven; they must spend a great deal of time stressed by this mounting pressure, no doubt resulting in the same types of illness anyone experiences when exposed to constant low-level stress.

Being an optimistic person by nature I will not say the situation for wild elephants is hopeless, but being realistic, I admit it would appear that their chances of survival are slim. A major shift in the universal consciousness regarding our planet, resources and all life would need to occur, and quite soon, for mega vertebrates such as elephants, to survive in a free state on our planet.

Not a day goes by without horror stories regarding elephants, both captive and wild, making headlines worldwide. In India alone, several stories appear daily, chronicling human/elephant conflict, elephants mowed down by trains, buses and trucks driving through national forests, elephants electrocuted on tea garden estates by live electrical wires left dangling intentionally to curb trespassers. Ganesha is alive in the hearts of the people in Asia but the connection to his live counterpart seems to have been severed.

To date I have not seen a wild elephant in the forest bordering the care center, and honestly I believe I prefer not to. I can only imagine the toll the challenge of survival has taken on them. Where I would hope to see a calm and majestic inhabitant of the natural world, I am afraid I would see someone much different, a pale image of who s/he was before the human madness overtook their well-balanced world.

The care center will be a beacon, a haven for a few needy elephants and an example for other conservationists to emulate. But time is not on the side of the elephants, captive or wild. I can’t say for certain that our small project will change reality for elephants…but like I said, I am an optimist and stranger things have happened.

The Blue Eared King Fisher


One of the first birds I photographed on Elephant Lake was this stunning Blue Eared Kingfisher (BEK). The little guy may be small in stature but he has a huge attitude.

When I set up my lakefront office I was unaware of its real estate value to the local winged fishermen. For two days after my arrival, BEK fished from a nearby tree but, on the third day, a flash of blue caught my eye as he landed on a soiled rock jetting out of the dam wall only a few feet below me. The bird droppings on the rock and his territorial behavior made me realize that my outdoor office was his preferred fishing location.

The first evening he was brave enough to claim his fishing perch, he kept cocking his head in my direction and bobbing his body up and down wildly — all 5 inches of him — in a way that could only be interpreted as “go away.”

I understood what he wanted but hoped that diverting my eyes would suffice. I remained perfectly still and completely quiet and he soon turned his attention to dinner. Within minutes he caught his first fish, a glistening slender silver catch easily twice the length of his beak. Returning to his rock jetty perch he swallowed the fish in one gulp, but only after bashing its head on the rock. The head bashing was kind of shocking, but it was quick and precise. I don’t know why I assumed that all fishing birds eat their catch live.

I have been working from my lake front office for nearly two weeks now and BEK and I have settled into a very comfortable pattern. I arrive early to avoid disturbing his routine, respectful of the window of time when bugs land on the water, fish swim to the surface to feed on the bugs and the blue eared wonder dives down and snatches a meal. I admit to being intrigued by the feeding process but divert my eyes during the head bashing.

While I download emails and catch up on communications, my blue eared neighbor goes about his business, hardly paying attention to me. But I can’t help staring at him when he is not looking, he is so irresistibly stunning.

tribesmen and internet signals

I woke at six–just as the morning light was creeping over the granite hilltop—feeling refreshed and happy as a clam! I went to sleep under a bed of stars and woke to birds singing and a fabulous sunrise — simply heaven. I feel like myself again — I just needed to get out of the city!

Derrick greeted me with a downward down stretch followed by his mellow tail wag. We hiked up the hill to see if I could get cell reception, but no luck. Actually, what I really wanted to do was some exploring. Derrick had the same idea and led the way. The granite rock formations on these hilltops are inspiring.

Back at the house, Derrick went into a barking frenzy. I heard rustling in the nearby underbrush and expected to see a deer or two. Instead, I caught a glimpse of three wild pigs– two adults and a piglet — scampering in the opposite direction. I was excited — my first wildlife sighting!

Mahadeva, a local tribesman, is helping me get comfortable with the area. We spent all morning hiking the property. It really is spectacular. One feature that the elephants will appreciate is the diversity of the land, from pastures to rocky hillsides, forest and, of course, a beautiful lake. I saw that one of the creeks feeds fresh water into the lake. Partially spring fed — just another plus.

This land is elephant country. At one time all the land around here belonged to wild elephants. I have been thinking hard about this reality.

Late this afternoon I decide to set out on another hike, this time to see if I could find a cell phone signal. I was gifted a pin drive which, if in range, will give me wireless internet service for my computer. I was determined to locate a signal.

Vishnu says he gets reception in front of his house but I did not, so I hiked further. I finally did get a signal and wouldn’t you guess it was smack dab in the middle of elephant country on the shore of the lake. I had to laugh out loud. What a fabulous place to set up my mobile office. I plopped myself down on a granite bench and was able to send and receive emails while watching a variety of birds fishing on the lake.

This care center is going to be more than I even envisioned. It is heaven and the elephants will love it. I am so happy to be back, to make dream real.

Getting Settled In

This afternoon I said good-bye to Bangalore, piled my bags into Vishnu’s vehicle and headed out on yet another classic Indian adventure. Vishnu is a collaborating partner of the Care Center project and long term conservationist, friend and supporter.

Not wanting to appear to be a sissy by hiding in the back seat, I strapped myself securely in the front passenger seat. I had to remind myself to breathe. You have not experienced “rush hour traffic” until you have been in downtown Bangalore at five in the evening.

The streets were full of focused drivers making a mad dash for every open inch of road space, and I mean inch. I would never be the passenger on one of those motorcycles. The women sit seemingly so relaxed, dressed fastidiously in their flowing garments, many sitting side-saddle, hardly holding on to the driver in front of them. For sure I would have the driver in a death grip and would screech each time another vehicle blew past us.

Dodging pedestrians, motorcycles, bicyclists and mobile venders — just to name a few of the moving obstacles — while jockeying for the front bumper position with every manner of bus, car, truck, motorcycle and moped, is a well-earned skill. When I wasn’t covering my eyes to avoid the six dimensional road mayhem playing out in front of me, I was remotely able to appreciate the organized chaos.

Daylight hours on the highway are treacherous enough, but when the sun sets and drivers flip on their head lamps, the result is instant blindness. Seriously, I cannot figure out how drivers stay on the road and avoid hitting not only oncoming traffic but any of the other obstacles that appear to pop out of the darkness directly in front of you. I guess people who pay to be terrified by an amusement park ride would consider this serious fun!

It was pitch dark by the time we turned off the main road. I never thought I would be so happy to see a poorly maintained pitted dirt road. I could finally relax. After a few minutes we drove under a raised guard rail and entered the National Forest. I immediately felt things shift. Vishnu slowed the vehicle to a comfortable speed and appeared to be breathing in the surroundings. There is a wonderful feel to this place — quiet and peacefully alive.

Even though our trip was less than 50 kilometers, it took more than three hours to arrive “home.” Oh, yes, of course, there were numerous stops along the way. A few kilos of rice, a cylinder of propane, and some fresh produce added a colorful flavor to the experience.

As we pulled up to my new home-away-from-home, the headlights spilled over Derrick, poised welcomeingly on the porch. His tail wagged gently, in a soft, unhurried manner. Derrick is an ex- street dog who won the heart of Vishnu and his wife. Like most street dogs, Derrick is wise, has excellent street smarts and is a soft bundle of golden sweetness.

I silently hoped that Derrick would abandon his master for at least one night and stay at my place. I guess he read my mind because when Vishnu turned to leave, Derrick calmly headed towards my open door. I wondered if by chance Derrick was allowed in the house, but actually, I know better. Vishnu gently told him to stay outside. I’m not sure which one of us was more disappointed, Derrick or I. We shared my dinner under a star-bright sky and I fell asleep with a smile thinking of this new pup in my life.

Dogs are the same the world over. It makes no difference if they are a shabby looking street dog, a pampered pedigreed show dog or the rescued mutt that brings us such joy. They are amazing creatures who provide protection and unconditional love. They have so much to teach us.

the start of a new year

My departure to India is fast approaching–really fast–I leave Jan 18th. I am grateful for your well wishes and support.

It’s time to pack my bags, put the phone on “vacation”, make arrangements to store my vehicle and deliver Java to her Auntie Kate. The two are best friends which makes leaving Java behind more bearable.

Although my plane ticket is round trip, I do not know when I will return. That will depend on how quickly the Care Center Project progresses. Top on the list of priorities are two chain-free elephant corrals, the perimeter fencing and a fresh water well.

Without unforeseen delays we should be operational in a few months!