Encountering Elephants at Konni Reserve in Kerala

Even with the voracious encroachment of clothed two-legged predators upon their territory, there are reportedly some 25,000 elephants still in the wild in India. And if you know where to look, quite a few of them can be found in Kerala, the state where we spent a month volunteering. But alas, their stomping grounds are nowhere near ours. So we had to settle for the next best thing: getting close to the majestic gray dumbos in a special reserve that’s reserved just for them.

So it came to pass that on a Sunday in June we joined a carload of people on such an expedition, a car driven by our friend and sometime chauffeur Saja, car also containing the school director and her precocious 10-year-old daughter (who speaks even better English than her ma) and headed out on a one-hour drive, past Chengannur Mahadeva Temple (only 1500 years old, ho-hum) to the Konni Elephant Reserve.

We didn’t know exactly what to expect, but when we think of a “reserve”, we generally think of many acre of land that is kept more or less in its wilderness state. That isn’t what we found at Konni. It’s a small place with just a few behemoths kept in pens and/ or in chains. They’re well-conditioned to follow the commands of their keepers; when one of them wants to sweep the ground where the pachyderm is standing, he’ll whack it a couple of times with a stick, and the beast will nonchalantly lift its foot. And life goes on.

They’re splendid critters, no doubt about it. But we’d much prefer to see them in their own habitat, now outs. This “reserve” was essentially just a small elephant zoo. There was also a museum with some exhibits of interest, including an elephant skeleton. And there’s an eco store where you can buy herbal medicines and such concoctions.

This center was established in the 19th Century for the purpose of training elephants, and originally the animals kept here were captured in the wild. But the government outlawed that practice in 1977; so now the beasts housed here are rescues (generally raised here after being lost from their herds as babies). So the facility does some good in the world. And it produces zero waste, even recycling the elephant poop — and the fibers in it are used to make paper. Overall, it was an esthetically pleasing little facility that didn’t take long to tour. Before leaving, we sat down for the obligatory cup of tea with coconut cookies at the refreshment stand.

On the way back, we stopped at a river where some people were taking rides in round boats that looked like baskets, and were available for rent. While we were there, two different families approached us and asked to take selfies with us. Nice folks, but it still seemed awkward to us to be singled out as a photo op.

Our congenial driver stopped one more time before we got home, to purchase some fried snacks from a street vendor. We still don’t know exactly what they were, but they were vegetarian and quite yummy. Like all the other food we’ve encountered in Kerala.

Back at home, we rested up before getting ready to tackle another week, beginning the next day when the school kids would once again charge like a herd of elephants.

June 19-20, 2022

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