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

progress report of sorts

Each day living at the proposed care center property brings more insight and, in some cases, more unanswered questions.

The temperature has heated up, causing afternoon activities to slow down. Even the shade offers little relief. Thank goodness for the breeze that has proven to be a near constant in this area.

Today a group of college students arrived to tour the property. This is a popular education sight for the conservation minded. The students, all city dwellers, were given an opportunity to see how desperate the situation is for the forest in this area.

Included in the group was a man who has dedicated his life to bringing awareness to India’s conservation issues. We shared a few minutes of conversation and he expressed true dread about the future of the area’s forests. When I commented on how important it is for the youth to become involved in conservation, he bluntly said he felt there was not enough time for us to wait for this new generation to turn things around—at least not in this immediate area. It was a sobering statement from a person who has studied the deterioration first-hand. I felt his desperation.

As the students followed their professor down the levee, responding to his questions about plant life and its purpose in a forest area, the resident Brahminy Kite soared overhead. This was her third cruising over the lake this morning and she was putting on quite a show. Her massive wingspan and grace were spellbinding. Keenly eying the lake below, she circled and soared, gently dipping toward the water.

A much smaller bird pestered her with dive bombs but the Kite expertly shrugged the pest away with a well-calculated twist, dip and spin whenever the attacker got too close. As she soared overhead I was able to get a few good photos but none that really did her grace and precision justice.

I am learning, out of necessity, about land holdings here. The jigsaw pieces of this puzzle are finally coming together to give me a clearer picture of how things work. Perhaps I should have read up on India’s land laws before coming but, honestly, the thought never crossed my mind. I naively assumed that you buy land, sell it, lease, rent or give it away. I now have a clearer understanding of other ways a person can acquire land, how land can be occupied and how possession is—or isn’t— regulated.

According to those I have consulted with, one of the important things for me to know is that occupation is nine-tenths of the law. But more on that later.

The collaborators on the care center project are meeting regularly to provide progress reports on each partner’s responsibilities and to discuss questions and issues as they arise. Everyone is dedicated to the project and wants to make sure we have considered every eventuality before taking the next step.

The time that is being taken to ensure we don’t overlook anything in the early planning stage has been invaluable to me. More often than not, I awake in the morning with a much sought-after solution to a challenge or with a new idea that I had not yet considered. The work that is being done on a subconscious level—while I sleep—makes me laugh because, without question, I am working on the project day and night.

In the process of developing the project I have been fortunate to meet many very kind and gentle people. They share a passion for the project, which is a blessing. I clearly remember while dreaming up the Elephant Sanctuary for Tarra that many people, mostly colleagues, were less than supportive of the idea. Of course my family knew very well that the dream I had been dreaming for so many years would indeed come to fruition and could not have been more supportive. So to have complete strangers, with no vested interest in the success of the care center project, show this degree of interest and support is very gratifying.

On a wild elephant sighting note: A few nights ago an adolescent male was seen harvesting jack fruit from the tree on the perimeter of the village only a few hundred yards from my house. The fellow was sly and silent; I did not hear a sound. If it had not been for the village dogs sounding the alarm, no one would have witnessed the midnight raid.

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.