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Woman Mahout Nibha Discusses Why India Fails To Solve Human-Animal Conflicts

  • IWB Post
  •  April 25, 2018

Nibha Namboodiri is an environmentalist who is actively fighting for animal rights. Her latest effort has her standing up to the entire state of Kerala to help release a wild elephant back home in the Wayanad forest.

The elephant is languishing in a small wooden cage stationed at the Muthanga elephant camp in Wayanad, Kerala, S. India. He is terrified and under severe stress from the trauma of capture, transport, and being confined in a small space. The stress of being alone in a new place, human proximity, change of diet, inability to carry out his natural behaviors, etc. can even make him collapse.

Talking to Nibha Namboodiri brought me face to face with Shreeya, the writer. I write about people and their stories. These words that I type out are open for the world to read and interpret. My words carry the responsibility of translating and channeling sentiments, thoughts, life’s work and philosophies of those to choose to share with a lot of care and sensitivity. For someone like Nibha whose work demands responsible and honest reporting, I feel the onus of bringing her fight and war for the elephants against an entire system to the readers to not just scroll through, but to stand by her side and voice for change and demand justice. Excerpts:

Ask Google, and the first thing it digs up on you is the first female mahout in Kerala. How did this come about?

I am fighting to destroy that title. It was a long time ago and wasn’t that big a deal. I finished college and decided to venture into nature and conservation. I began working with an NGO in Coimbatore, and an opportunity presented itself to train as a mahout in Kerala.

Now, this training was really a step in the right direction with Mahoutry being a professional occupation that is handed down generations without any proper training or schools. The workshop wanted to talk about sensitization toward this large mammal. The situation has not been very great for the elephants in Kerala. They are not treated properly. So this workshop was mainly to train the people who care for the elephant and to focus on better treatment.

My role in the entire process was that of documentation. I was in charge of manual keeping of all things that were happening and translating it into Malayalam and Hindi. But during the process of writing down, I realized I had to do it myself to be able to write better. I needed to write from experience of riding an elephant and getting off it. I discussed this issue with my senior and spoke about getting a hands-on training with the boys out in the field. My senior is a very liberal man. There was no discussion about gender. He did question my physicality because I am not sporty enough but I said I would manage. A local photographer caught a moment of me riding an elephant and the next day it made it to the papers. First woman mahout, he called me. I didn’t even realize what had happened. I was busy with my course. I didn’t understand the impact. This had become a sensation. And the reason why I do not approve of this is that I do not want to be an icon. Media creates a story and wants it to be alive; so sensationalizes an issue. I have been stuck with the title, and I am trying hard to get rid of it.

You speak about not understanding the impact the story had but perhaps it opens doors to other women who read these stories. Don’t you agree?

Being called an icon made me very uncomfortable. Gender equality to me is not about doing the same thing as a man, and that is what feminism has become in today’s times. Our inner metal is what counts. If I try to be a man, I am automatically designating the work a man does, to be the bigger work.

“Be who you are and be equal,” is what I believe in.

What does feminism mean to you?

To me, feminism is about contributing as per my potential. My profession is largely patriarchal and male-dominated; I use my position as a woman amongst men to talk about humane treatment and care for an animal. And, people listen.

So, are you trying to tell me that being in a male-dominated profession and pursuing a career in it does not inspire women?

When I chose this line of work and life, was I inspired by women or was I inspired by the job itself?

I grew up watching documentaries on Mr. David Attenborough, Jane Goodall, and Sukumar. What fascinated me was what they were doing irrespective of their gender. So, I take a relative approach. That is my way of working. We need to understand that we live in a patriarchal system which is different from the discussion on gender. It is all about life perspectives.

I understand what you’re saying but I think that you are missing certain crucial points about the idea of feminism.

(We agreed to debate on the same in another interview.)

Moving on, I really want to talk about elephants today. So, why don’t you tell me something about Kerala as a society?

What do you mean, as a society?

Kerala has the highest literacy rate. Are women really empowered, here? Does literacy make a difference?

It’s very easy to correlate statistics to the quality of literacy. When we say Kerala has a 100% literacy rate, we’re just talking numbers, and that does not always translate the truth. So, when you ask me about the literacy rate and empowered women, I am not sure. But from my experience, in the middle class, the importance that is imparted to education is growing. In Kerala today, your birth decides your gender, your caste, and your political party affiliation. It’s true if you do not have a political party of your choice, you are treated like an outcast. If you speak to the school teachers here about their political inclinations, you will realize their ideologies are largely influenced by those of their husbands and their fathers. They do not have an individual choice. So, the minds are still controlled primarily by men. But, Kerala is still faring better.

You must have heard of the Kudumbasree movement, started by the Communist Party. It has created these local collectives of women who arrange themselves as local self-help groups. Women from 3 to 4 households come together to find and create work for themselves and become financially empowered. These groups are seeking acceptance in Kerala. That is a huge positive.

But, talk about the atrocities and their behavior toward women, and the representation of women in the popular political parties? The situation is not very great or something to celebrate about. We are given electoral rights. But, do we know who we are voting for? And do we know why? I haven’t done a study on this subject so I cannot really talk much but I know that we have a long way to go.

How did you develop an interest in elephants? And what are they like?

As I said, I finished college, and I knew I was interested in nature and conservation. I got a job with an NGO and from there got involved in a training program to care for elephants. I was working with the largest mammal on land! Who wouldn’t want that job? It was just one of the initial things that I had started, but as I got to know them, I got deeply involved with their issue.

I knew I had to do something with them. Being around them is wonderful. Elephants are just a complete package. They are beautiful to watch, wonderful to be with. Absolutely gorgeous animals! They are intelligent and dangerous. What can I say? I am blessed to be working with them.

What else consumes your time apart from elephants?

I was focused on elephants until 2005. After which I took a long break. I was disillusioned with the entire thing. It is not an easy job you know. The fight is against an entire system. Guess you know what is happening with the entire Jallikattu episode in Tamil Nadu, and Kerala is much stronger when it comes to such subjects. It is exhausting. Being who we are is not easy. It is not a successful career. (Again, it all depends on how you define successful). I was battling depression for a very long time, not knowing what to do. The brutality in our work area was increasing, and I lost faith in the judiciary and the media. I had to take a break.

But one day I woke up thinking, this is just what I have to do. So, I tried to pick up from where I had left. I began working on the local environmental issues. Right now I am busy with the restoration of a river.img_1 (3)

Along with a few friends, I began studying the river that passes through our village to estimate the population of river otters. I realized we cannot look at the problem in isolation. The environment, pollution, the water quality, everything mattered.

I am also very interested in sustainable development. I got associated with an organization called Uravu where we tried to push for bamboo as a material for livelihood and sustainability. Bamboo is the safest alternate material for construction, household material, and green technology. So, yes, my hands are full.

Why animal rights alone?

Animals and human rights to me are linked. We are all a part of a large web. We cannot talk of Human Rights without understanding animals have rights, too. We have to learn to co-exist. I have never made the distinction – why animals and not humans or why human beings and not animals?

I turned to animals and nature when I was just a child and with time and age I decided to become a voice for them.

But now, if an opportunity presents itself I also get involved in the issues of minorities, oppression, human rights. So, you can say I am a jack of all trades.

When we talk about animals not having a lot of voices speaking for them, is it because it becomes difficult to sustain oneself monetarily?

You know people who worked for such causes have a difficult life. It might appeal to the Bohemian and the radical human. But, it is tough. I was speaking in Coimbatore to a group of students, and I was asked about this. Students found this life and career very fascinating. But, we need to understand that when you choose this profession you also choose a value system, a philosophy and a way of life.

It is sad that we always try to quantify things. There are some things that cannot be valued the traditional way. Gandhi was not paid but had it not been for him, we would not have found our freedom. I am not comparing myself to Gandhi but what I’m trying to say is that there is something else that is bigger than the money for those who really care. So, we have to find the balance between our own survival and what we are working for. There are no paid jobs here. Who wants an environmentalist? We are at war all the time. The world is dominated by people who choose to ignore nature and climate. Look at America and look at Trump. There is no space for people like us. Nobody hires us. Nobody pays us. If you are lucky, you might get into WWF and get to work on a project for long.

So, choose what’s important.

It is not the best thing for me. I am always failing in finding a balance between my finances and doing what I am doing. But I am going to continue doing this.

If the world thinks we are important, they will hire us and pay us. That is not the case now.

If I, too, won’t care, who will?

Things are difficult, so people also choose to do it part-time. While they have a steady job, they come and join us for specific projects. But, this field requires people who can invest their entire lives for the greater cause. Hopefully, the future will be different. The future will recognize us and pay us.

Why don’t you tell me something about your childhood? And what was your childhood dream?

My childhood was pretty normal. My father was traveling all the time so, it was a Nomadic life. It was in the 8th grade that we traveled all across India with my dad’s work.

My father was associated with NGOs as well. He was an engineer. He turned down government jobs because he could not bear to be stuck in bureaucracy.

My parents have never been conventional. They worked out of passion. They never believed in the mundane things like saving up, settling down, having a home of our own. It was only when the question of higher education came up that my parents decided to settle down in Coimbatore.

We always have intelligent conversations in our house. We were never forced to choose. My brother and I lived independently and with complete freedom.

And you know I never wanted to be a doctor or an engineer or a school teacher. I hated math. I loved literature. I was a dreamy girl. I didn’t have concrete plans, but I knew I had to do something similar to what I’m doing now. My idea was very vague. And, in a place like Coimbatore, my ideas were wild. So, I struggled for a while. I tried sales and marketing. I just couldn’t sell club memberships. I hated the entire idea of it. So, I left.

A zoo outreach program had started in the town. I went there and got a job as a personal assistant to Sally Walker. She has done amazing things for conservation in India. That’s where the project with elephants came up. After I had returned, I discussed taking this project further with Sally. But as an organization, they were not very interested in taking this up. So, I left and decided to do it on my own.

I also had an NGO of my own for a while. So, yes life has since been a roller coaster ride.

Tell me about relationships in your life.

I am married. And have a 15 y.o. daughter. I am 43.

The break I told you about in 2005 was a break from everything.

When you are with somebody that requires a lot of commitment, and you have other matters that need priority, it becomes difficult to balance. Nobody understands, and I needed stability to address these issues that are important to me. So, yeah.

Getting back to the elephants, issues of conflict between the elephant and humans in Kerala region have surfaced. Why and how does this happen? And, how are you involved in it?

A few months ago, a wild elephant was captured in the region of Wayanad. He was accused of raiding crops. I don’t know if you know about this, but, human-elephant conflict is a huge issue in the fringe areas of the state. And, there are many reasons for it. All human created. Humans have encroached upon their lands. I believe you know what an elephant corridor is. Every animal, even the birds, have a specific time for migration when they move from one habitat to another. Corridors have been demarcated for the elephant as a safe crossing zone. The elephant has an internal radar that guides them. The humans block these corridors.img_2 (3)

Encounters turn into conflicts. Humans are afraid of losing property and their crops. And, the issue escalates to a very high level. In November last year, there were huge riots on this issue. The humans threatened the Forest Department to raze the forest to the ground if the elephant was not captured. The animal was accused of killing 4-5 people by newspapers.

The Forest Department was not able to decide, and that’s when I stepped in. Negotiations went on for so long that I decided to go to court. The department had to take the responsibility for rehabilitating the elephant seriously.

It was decided that the elephant would be moved to Parambikulam region in Palakkad. There were local protests there as well, and the elephant was refused entry.

The anti-forest sentiment around the world is growing. And I don’t know why. Maybe we should ask the large majority of people who voted for Trump, and this sentiment is gaining popularity in political agendas. This is scary. The press in Kerala does not help it either. It misinterprets and misrepresents the facts and makes statements like man vs. animals in headlines. How can you ask to choose between a man and an animal? We have no right to say which is more important. How do we come to an agreement and how do we make peace? Decisions are still pending. Nobody wants to make an uproar.

I have been working so hard for everyone involved to come to a common consensus. We have a lot of expertise today and advancements in technology that will help us monitor the movement of elephants. But, nobody wants to listen. Instead, it’s easier to brand the elephant as a killer. The media reports the animal as aggressive. That is nonsense. Anybody would get aggressive in a confrontation. You cannot marginalize them and treat them unjustly.

Does it fill you with anger?

Anger is an immature word. I don’t want to use that. It means I’m assuming that people do what they do deliberately. We cannot blame. We have to negotiate. The environment, nature, the people that you grew up with, all of it affects us.img_3 (2)

So, it is only a matter of perspective that is at clash. I once believed in right and wrong. Now I understand that everybody has a lot of gray shades in them which are more than 50!

How we grow as an individual and how we grow out of it? That is our challenge.

How long can we be angry and bitter? It is only going to destroy self, and the world will walk over.

I am reminded of the dog’s curly tail story by Swami Vivekananda. That story released all my anger and helped me find my breath again. I am trying to be at peace.

Nibha Namboodiri can be reached at nibha.namboodiri@gmail.com

This article was first published in February 2017.

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