January 2017: I travelled to India on behalf of Canadian food brand Lee's Provisions to create a photo library of Indian elephants and document the conservation efforts to save them from extinction in the Kerela region.
I flew into Bangalore and met with Lee Capitana, founder of Lee's Provisions. We met the chief researcher Avinash and he drove us an hour and a half out of the city to the head quarters of A Rocha India. This conservation group is dedicated to saving the Indian elephant through very pragmatic methods.
We spent nearly a week living at the head quarters, and learning about the plight of the elephant. Daily we would take field trips to the surrounding farm land and country side to speak to locals or to observe the elephants environment.
A Rocha is located on the edge of Bannerghatta National Park which literally shares it's borders with India's second largest city: Bangalore. This immediate conjunction between man and nature: built out urban areas, farm land, and protected lands creates problems for the wild elephants that have annual migratory routes that take no account for maps, boundaries or concepts of property.
The biggest focus by A Rocha is to create or maintain Elephant Corridors that follow the migratory paths. These paths must be protected, fenced, and monitored to allow the free movement of the elephant as it leaves a national park and makes it's way through farm land, and dense urban areas. Without these corridors, the elephant will seem to rampage through areas that will bring it into conflict. This human-elephant conflict can often result in the tragic killing of the animal.
Farmers and local people, struggling with subsistence crops and poverty must protect themselves from starvation by fending off elephants and even killing rogue ones.
This opens up the discussion of the wider problem. As a visiting Westerner I struggled daily with my observations. My first week in Bangalore showed me a gigantic metropolis that sprawled for miles in every direction. I was warned by a scientist friend who had been to Bangalore a few times that I needed to wear a mask with active filtering because of the heavy metals in the air. I waved off the warning but after day one, I experienced stinging eyes and respiratory issues after lest than 30 minutes outside.
One lasting memory is seeing wide, long rivers winding their way through the city. But instead of running waterways, they were stacked two stories high with rubbish mounds. This pyramid of trash stretched as far as the eye could see.
From what I could see there was only a perfunctory trash and sanitation program run by the city: most locals I talked to said there was enough funding, but corruption stole the money away from these vital systems.
There was no health and safety regulation of any significance I could see. Infrastructure was in name only.
Despite this, I met a warmth and intelligence in the Indian people that I immediately appreciated, and it is a pull to make me return. However my long term impression is sad. Sadness that an entire continent is so environmentally polluted, it's people so physically sick, and it's government so corrupt that my hopes for the long term survival of the Indian people, let alone the Indian elephant felt hopeless, if not delusional.
Certainly I cannot speak about greater India. I am sure there are pockets of environmental beauty and humanity but the vastness of what I saw felt unsolvable by typical Western assumptions. I am still amazed by the illusion of Yoga, and lycra clad spirituality...walled compounds of Merchant-Ivory colonial fantasy where Ayurvedic masters will harmonize your troubles away. India is a country in deep crisis, that has crossed the line, is over the brink. It has already fallen off the cliff. And this is only one country with these problems.
I have never wanted to leave a country so fast. Despite my intense and wondrous experiences with the wild animals, and the beautiful people I met, I felt I had to get out before my health was irreparably damaged.
Having said all this: I want to return
Read Lee's journal that describes many of the images in this gallery.
All images shot on 35mm film.