The Wild Forage
- By Arkin Chakravorti
20 Sep 2019
My experience interning with the Foundation for Ecological Research, Advocacy and Learning (FERAL) was enormously fun and enlightening. I worked on the Frontier Elephant Programme (FEP) for two weeks that was packed with meaningful work, insightful knowledge, and really bad dad jokes.
On my first day, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. and was picked up by Nishant Srinivasaiah, an elephant biologist, in his Maruti Gypsy. The Gypsy had seen better days, but it had grit, so I liked it. We then picked up Nicole, one of the other members of FERAL, and set off to a farm in Palya, Tamil Nadu, a three-hour drive away from FERAL’s office.
During the ride, Nishant explained how the elephants were entering mango farms situated close to the forest to feed on fruit; and that crop damage by the elephants produces significant monetary losses and frustration for farmers. We discussed the potential dangers both farmers and elephants faced and contemplated about how these negative interactions could reduce the farmer’s tolerance towards the elephants.
In Palya, we would be working with Anand Reddy, to find effective long-term solutions to this problem. But for the time being, a more short-term solution would be needed. The mangoes were almost ready to be harvested, so elephants came to his farm almost every night. In additional to eating fruit, sometimes they dropped some branches and fruit. Farmers would often use this fruit as animal fodder or simply discard them, as they were unable to find buyers.
In an effort to reduce some of the monetary stress he faced, we would sell these mangoes in Bangalore at a reduced price, as most of them had been prematurely harvested. All proceeds from the sale would go to Anand and his family to compensate them for their losses.
We arrived at Anand’s farm around noon and were warmly greeted by Anand and his relatives. The first thing I noticed about Anand and his father was their long hands and arms, and I thought maybe they had become like that from years of picking mangoes from tall trees.
After exchanging pleasantries and tasting some of their delicious organic mangoes, we went for a walk around the farm. As we walked with Anand and a few of his relatives, they explained some of the daily challenges they faced at the farm, mainly how birds and insects were eating the mangoes. They also shared their concerns about the recent elephant visits and the subsequent crop damage that they incurred.
While Nishant listened to the farmers’ concerns, I was distracted by the beauty of the farm. Within the peaceful, green setting, there were rows upon rows of lush mangoes trees; most of them bearing unripe Badami and Mallika fruit. There were cattle and goats sparsely scattered throughout the farm, whose droppings fertilized the flora. I noticed how, to keep out elephants and other uninvited visitors, the farm’s perimeter was protected by an electric fence. However, I doubted that the fence had any success in deterring the elephants.
After capturing numerous photos of the farm and its inhabitants (unfortunately, we did not encounter any elephants), we packed and loaded a few 100 kilos of fruit into the Gypsy and headed back towards Bangalore.
On our drive back to Bangalore, Nishant, Nicole and I exchanged stories and told awful jokes to forget about the sweltering heat. When we reached Bangalore, we unloaded the mangoes, and separated them based on their quality, with the help of another team member Abhilash.
The next few weeks were very busy since we had to package, distribute and promote the mangoes that we collected from Anand’s farm. During my time spent at the office, I would respond to mango orders from customers and help design promotional posters and logos, which was a very fun process. The poster had to send one clear message: these mangoes were shared with elephants.
The mangoes were selling quickly. During the last week of my internship, FEP sold mangoes in collaboration with Black Baza, a sustainable and biodiversity-friendly coffee enterprise, at an event called Bhoomi Habba. The objective of Bhoomi Habba was to increase public awareness of the environmental issues faced in Bangalore, and to showcase inclusive and sustainable alternatives. I helped to promote the mangoes and explain FEP’s mission statement at the stall. I also had the opportunity to engage and network with other sustainable enterprises (i.e., soap-makers, bakers, and organic food vendors) at the event. Afterwards, I helped make mango deliveries around Bangalore to various organic grocery stores and restaurants. The businesses we delivered to were glad to receive the awesome mangoes.
Overall, it was the best internship experience that I have ever had- It never felt like work. I was motivated to learn and contribute as much as possible because of the meaningful work we did. Moreover, Nishant and his team were knowledgeable, friendly, and down to earth, which made working with them pleasurable. Although I did not see any elephants during my time in Jawalagiri, I am happy to know that I ate and sold mangoes that were ‘shared with elephants’.