In The Magazine

Letter from India

Thursday, June 30, 2016

I step off the plane into the chaos and heat of India. We arrive in Guwahati, the largest city of Assam, a northeastern state of the country, and one of its most isolated. I am here with Lexi Bowes-Lyon, creative director for the Elephant Family in the United States, and Ruth Powys, cofounder of the Asian Elephant Alliance and CEO of Elephant Family, an NGO that protects the endangered Asian elephant. Our final destination is the Kaziranga National Park. The reason we all are here is because TRH, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the royal patrons of the charity, are coming to Kaziranga National Park to visit the Mark Shand Asian Elephant Learning Center and to help paint the first two elephant sculptures that will launch the Elephant Parade in India. This event, organized by Elephant Family, will see 300 elephant sculptures adorn the streets of Delhi and Mumbai in 2017 and help raise awareness about the plight of Asia’s Elephants. Elephant Family is also organizing Elephant Parade Hamptons this summer, in partnership with Cadogan Tate. A collection of 50 elephant sculptures will be painted by artists such as Dave LaChapelle, Dustin Yellin and Ben Watts and displayed in various locations from Montauk to Southampton starting in July and culminating in a party and live auction of the sculptures on August 12, World Elephant Day.

We arrive early in the morning, and due to a lapse of communication between London and India there is no car waiting for us at the airport. It is Election Day for the local government, and we are told later that due to possible unrest it is a bad day to arrive. The downside for us is that absolutely everything is closed. Because Assam is quite isolated, and mainly because it shares international borders with Bangladesh and Bhutan, cell service for international phones is unavailable. The airport is very small, and soon it is almost empty; the only people left are the drivers, loitering outside in the heat. We finally notice an old man in the far corner of the room behind a wooden desk with an ancient phone on it. It turns out that calls can be made from it in exchange for cash, and within an hour an official from the Wildlife Trust of India, a local partner of Elephant Family, is there to pick us up, and we set off on a five-hour journey to the Kaziranga National Park.

The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It provides one of the last wild habitats for the Asian elephant. The sanctuary also hosts two-thirds of the world’s great one-horned rhinoceroses and is home to the highest density of tigers among protected areas in the world. It is also a place of large breeding populations of elephants, wild water buffalo and swamp deer.

Because of Election Day, the roads are packed with people. In every village crowds are lining up in front of small huts to cast their votes. I am surprised to notice that the majority are women, their pink and orange saris bright against an arid landscape.

Even knowing the statistics about overpopulation in this part of the world, I am still surprised by the density of the population. There is not a single break in space that is not taken by a house or a store. It goes on for hours. Nevertheless, the landscape is beautiful, lushly green and wild. Houses intermixed with working fields, narrow roads full of fast-moving trucks that weave between cows. Everything is moving at a chaotic speed, and yet with a seemingly perfectly rehearsed fluidity.

This lack of space is one of the major problems facing the region, the human-wildlife conflict where a fight for space and habitat is part of the daily life. Leopard and tiger attacks are common, as well as elephants trampling villages due to a lack of space. Elephant Family has been creating elephant corridors and relocating whole villages away from the ancient paths of the elephants providing both people and animals safety in their surroundings. Earlier this year, Elephant Family helped to relocate a remote village of 19 families who were living in a crucial elephant corridor in the Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong landscape to a safer and better location. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are due to meet the local people who have been relocated and to hear their stories.

Inside the park we stay at a quaint lodge. The royal couple is arriving the next morning and is staying at a lodge down the road. They will be taken on an elephant safari and to visit a veterinary clinic that rehabilitates baby elephants, before coming to meet the people of a successfully relocated village, see Mark Shand’s memorial obelisk and an Asian Elephant Learning Center, and paint the two elephant sculptures.

The next morning we drive down a long, twisty road that goes through tea plantations and ends at the veterinary center connected to the sanctuary run by the Wildlife Trust of India. There are cows languishing in the middle of the little road, and the hum of birds and insects is in the air. The world media has gathered in the designated area under a makeshift podium made of bamboo sticks. It is a warm day, but because we are in the foothills of the Himalayas the air is cool and crisp.

The duke and duchess make their way on foot from the sanctuary to the center, accompanied by Ruth, who tells them about the project and the work the charity has been doing in the region. The duchess has a soft voice and speaks to everyone around her, from the local artists to the kids to the officials surrounding her. She asks questions and listens attentively to the answers. The prince is at ease and curious. Together they move from one point in the small square to the next, looking at photos, talking to people and finally arriving to paint the elephant sculptures.

The princess paints a dainty flower on the trunk of her elephant, it is pink and green and has three petals, after this she hands the brush back and laughs. Prince William is about to give back his brush as well, but then goes back to painting his elephant. “I have to do a better one than her,” he jokes., stepping back to admire his work.

The royal couple will spend their last night in Kaziranga at a lodge, having dinner with local officials while we return to ours. We are in the middle of dinner on the terrace when the fans and floor begin to shake. It goes on for a few seconds then stops, in a minute it happens again but with more intensity. Earthquake. Then all the lights go out and we are in the inky black of the Indian night. We are ordered to go downstairs and have to feel our way down. In a few minutes the lights are back on but no one is allowed to go back so instead they make a bonfire and set up tables among the trees and the dinner goes on as if nothing has happened.

That night happens to be a celebration of the local New Year, so the men from the local villages go around the homes and sing traditional blessings. They come to us, and beating their drums they dance and sing, their faces illuminated by the light from the fire. Soon they move on to the next house and then to the next, going on all night. As we leave the next morning at dawn the royal couple are on their way to Bhutan.

As the mountains and plains of Kaziranga fall behind giving way to villages and everyday noise I hope the natural beauty of this place can remain so forever.


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