A rapid growth in India’s development and the human population has slashed the forest vegetation at a devastating rate of 150,000 hectares over the past 10 years, resulting in significant destruction of wildlife habitat. This ecological imbalance and the fight for living space has led to increased conflict between humans and wildlife across the country.

As migratory, nomadic animals that can walk up to 20km a day in search of food and water, elephants in this part of the world has had their usual migration paths disrupted by farming plantations, settlements and the construction of roads and highways.

As they lose their forests, the elephants increasingly come into human-inhabited lands, inadvertently destroying agricultural land and crops. Some elephants even become habituated to crop raiding and teach their young to do the same. The affected communities have resorted to setting up electric fences and sometimes poisoning to protect themselves and their livelihoods.

For the Kurumba people, a tribe from the Western Ghats, their relationship with elephants stretch back centuries.

Known as world-class elephant tamers, the Kurumba have been engaged in the tradition of taming wild elephants for over 400 years, passing on their knowledge and expertise from generation to generation.

Working with wild elephants, which has each killed several people and were captured from areas of conflict, the Kurumba undergo a long process to tame and train them, eventually earning the trust of the elephant and forming a relationship of respect between man and beast.

Throughout the process, no sharp tools or weapons are used – the Kurumba only uses a thin stick to touch and communicate with the animal.

Even though they have the opportunity to get jobs and good salaries in Hindu temples in urban areas caring for elephants, they never leave their original homelands.

They do however work with the forest department which sometimes uses a few elephants for tourism safaris, removal of weeds and fallen trees, and patrolling during the monsoon season when it is difficult for vehicles to enter muddy areas of the forest.

In recent years, intensive subsistence farming like tea plantation, extension of railway tracks and highway has obstructed the migration of many elephants, disturbing their usual course of path. These human occupied forest spaces were once the habitat ground for wild elephants, leopards and tigers have become endangered and were threatened by humans due to the conflict over the survival. These innocent wild elephants were electrocuted at an astonishing frequency in India. Wildlife Protection Society of India, records a sharp uptick in 2016 with 43 elephants killed accidentally by damaged power lines or intentionally by illegal electric fences. More than 50% of the Asian elephant population has lost their habitats in the last 60-75 years.

These cruel conflicts has brought huge countless losses of many in both the lives. The execution during Human and Animal Conflict by physical encounter is often out of retaliation or to prevent future conflicts.

The tamed elephants, also known as Kumkis, are in turn used to tame and train newly-captured elephants from the wild. Kumkis are also very effective in leading wild elephants which have strayed into areas with human settlements back into the wild. They are a part of the Kurumba family, where men and beasts work together for over 12 hours a day.

About the artist

Senthil Kumaran Rajendran is a documentary photographer and filmmaker from South India, known for his documentation on the human-animal conflict straight from the fields for over a decade. He has documented the Human-Tiger conflict emphasizing the tiger conservation and the livelihood issues of the tribes who are living within the tiger reserves. His ongoing research project covers the extinction of the coral reefs and erosion of the small islands surrounding the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere. Recently, he has documented the primitive tribes who tame the wild elephants in South India. Currently, he is documenting Human-elephant co-existing issues and their mitigation measures in South India, also more focused on crop-raiding elephants and their behavioral changes and their associated lifestyle issues. He has won more than 15 international awards and his works have been displayed in over 20 countries worldwide. In 2019, he was selected as the 6x6 Global Talent artist from Asia by World Press Photo. In 2021, Senthil got an Emerging Explorer Award from National Geographic Society. He is now focussing on underwater photography and conservation films for NGOs and Forest Departments.

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