Wednesday, August 5, 2020
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The Pawn

“ That is ridiculous. You can’t issue a shoot at sight order for Cooper” I said and in the moment of anger added, “Had you not turned a blind eye to illegal felling, he would have never ventured into human habitat in search of food”,  my voice betrayed my temper and the forest ranger grew livid.

“Who are you to question me, with your fancy camera and conservation bullshit? Are you questioning my integrity?  Your Cooper trampled a man to death and triggered a forest fire that has reduced hectares of this forest”

I mellowed down. I was dealing with men who had Cooper’s life in their hands, powerful men.  “Sir, but he was just looking for food, poor guy. The villagers should have not tried to ward him away with lit torches. Even then, he only tried to move away from them. But in the mayhem, he had found himself trapped with the electrified fence to his back and the villagers blocking his escape route. He charged at them, only to clear his way to the forest”

My defense had no effect on the ranger. 

A couple of days ago, a man had been trampled to death by Cooper while trying to flee from the threatening villagers. The torches that the villagers carried had fallen down in the melee and had set fire to the dry grass shrubs that formed a natural border between the forest and fodder crops that the villagers grew. The fire couldn’t care though, about vegetation and habitat. It had burnt with equal fervor on both sides, spreading its wings mightily. The dry leafless branches of the forest trees crackled and burst into flames. Hamlets with thatched roofs fell easy prey to it.  The damage was extensive. Somebody had to pay for it in blood and it looked like Cooper had to.

“Stop calling him Cooper dooper. To us, he is as good as a criminal and we will call him only as Nondi Karuppan.” The ranger barked at me before climbing into the jeep. It was a signal to say that the conversation had ended and I as his sud ordinate, the official photographer attached to Anamalai Tiger Reserve, had to join him without delay. I meekly hopped into the jeep.

I had once suggested to the ranger that calling the majestic creature, a limping black animal, Nondi Karupan, was an insult and requested him to consider the name Cooper. This was ranger’s way of putting me in my place and Cooper’s too, for showing unwarranted cleverness.  Several times during that day, he would continue to address Cooper as Nondi Karupan and every time I would cringe. 

To me at least, the Tusker would always be Cooper.

As we drove through the dusty tracks, my mind went back to the first time I met Cooper.

***

Six months ago, I joined as a trainee photographer at the Anamalai Tiger reserve, my dream job at the place where I grew up and where I fell in love with animals in the first place, the western ghats. The hooting macaques, the laughing hyenas, and indomitable bison and unique Nilgiris tahrs, one big diverse family.  But the one that fascinated me the most was the stately elephants. 

When I let my boss, the forest ranger, know about my love for them,  he said the contour canal area was the elephant’s watering hole and added he would find a person to accompany me there at the earliest. In my excitement, I did not heed to his advice and sped away to the spot on my own.

Throughout the drive, I noticed how much the landscape had changed since I left a decade ago. The lush rolling grassland now looked barren brown. The once thick evergreen forest stood devoid of its foliage but was lined by bare trees lifting up its arm, begging for rain. Swathes of land had trees cut to stumps.  Later I learned that illegal felling had grown rampant here with rangers, officers and politicians all having a thumb in the pie. The monsoons had then after begun to delay by days, weeks and then finally by months, turning the forest into semi-arid land.  

I finally reached contour canal at dusk and placed myself at the vantage of a tree branch to get a glimpse of the animal I adored. Soon enough, I heard grunts and low trumpet echoing. Then, a hundred yards from me, I saw a humongous black animal, Cooper. He looked frightening by his sheer size, a 5-ton behemoth. As he passed by the tree where I was perched, ruffling as he went, it set several branches swaying. Before I could gather my wits, I fell down with a thud behind the passing elephant.  He sensed me and turned around. Here I was facing a giant who could outrun me at any terrain, let alone his area. To him, I was an intruder, a foreigner who had to be dealt with. His eyes seemed to narrow in on me for a minute, for that long eternal minute when I stood there shaking, helpless and at his mercy. He gave a grunt, turned back and proceeded to the water. I slipped out behind him and hurried back to the ranger’s office, my legs still buckling under my own weight. 

“Who do you think you are? Hero or something? Did I not ask you to wait until I could find someone to accompany you? Do you know who you met there? Your death, that is what you met there. Nondi Karupan could have pulped you all over the forest floor that we would have to scavenge for your bone to bury. ”  The ranger was justifiably angry. 

Nondi Karupan, he explained was a crafty lone tusker, who had hoodwinked the forest guards every time they tried to track and study him.  His size and colour had made him into an intimidating being of lore.

A sudden surge of bonding rose within me.  The beast knew his powers and yet had held his restraint and let me live. Only a superior animal could exhibit that kind of compassion and deliberation.

For the following months, the guards and I tried to study Cooper’s movement around the forest. While the guards concentrated on his physical features, like his pronounced limp, folds of the ears, length of the tail shape of their trunks, etc, I was completely engrossed in his behavior. He was exceptionally intelligent. Once he crossed a man-made moat dug by a coffee plantation owner, by throwing a couple of fallen trees over it and creating a makes shift bridge.  He went on to feast on the succulent coffee berries as the owners watched on helplessly.

Two things struck me then, his ingenuity in using tools and his necessity to come into the plantation for food, which I observed he usually did not.  Could it be the delayed monsoons again that had parched his grazing grounds? 

It must be, for again, two weeks ago, he had strayed into a barley field bordering the forest. After some altercation, he retreated without any harm to the field or him.

Then three days ago, he again came back looking for food. This time though, he refused to cower immediately. He must have been famished. The villagers tried to scare him away with torches.  Cooper, hungry and trapped, charged at them killing a man and injuring several others. The torches soaked in kerosene set alight the dry shrubs and fallen leaves and the flames started spread resolutely. Fire tenders who had been never trained to contain forest fires in the first place, couldn’t control its determined infantry-like march. 

Birds were the first to flee. In flocks, they were seen flying, against the wind. Bison and Tahrs were seen going up the rocky hills to escape the wrath. Macaques scurried from branch to branch, little ones clinging to their mother for their dear lives. Later when I went into the affected areas as an official photographer, the fire’s impact hit me again. Peacocks and short flight birds were seen with burnt tails and plumes. Several fledglings were roasted alive. A young doe dragged its hind limbs which hung uselessly from her body. She would have been caught in the stampede during the escape and mangled her legs. Many macaques showed singed skins, pink and raw against their black and grey coat. A macaque infant, burnt to death reminded me of a human baby, jolting my conscience. 

Finally, after two days now, The fire showed some waning.  It was time for the ranger to assess the damage. But firstly, he would have to appease the villagers who would be baying for blood.  He cleverly issued a shoot at sight order for Cooper before visiting the hamlets.  

When the ranger reached the hamlet, their local MLA was already there, consoling the villagers. He could relate to their plight he said. One of his timer mills was now a pile of ashes. I knew this was a reserved constituency and it had to be retained by the MLA at any cost.  He had already declared compensation for the losses suffered, adding man-animal conflict would be dealt with iron hands. Not to be outdone by the MLA for his generosity and compassion, the ranger joined him informing the villagers about the shoot at sight order procured. He also declared with a flourish that he would not sleep until he had seen the end of Nondi Karupan. The villager hooted and clapped.

I realised now that it was man against cooper. It was beasts against animals. It was the system against nature. I knew who would win this round of the battle. I knew eventually, who would win the final war. 

***

Photo By: Francesco Ungaro

***

This is an entry for #InnsWoods, #Artales18, A Room8 writing event. Checkout the event guidelines here:  https://writers.artoonsinn.com/artales18
The event is sponsored by Manoj Paprikar, Author of Death at Midnight by ArtoonsInn room9 publications. Manoj Paprikar is a doctor by profession and a writer at heart. Through his latest venture with room9publications, he earnestly brings forth the plight of the medical profession that affects both the healthcare providers and patients at large.
Get your copy of Death at Midnight here:
www.artoonsinn.com/shop or
https://www.amazon.in/dp/8194132649

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Sarveswari Sai Krishna
Sarveswari Sai Krishna
The author wishes to write like J M Coetzee, cook like Nigella Lawson and earn like Beyonce and at the end of the day, not look like something the cat dragged in. If wishes were horses...
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