Saturday, September 13, 2014


The unlikely duo of a mahut and a film maker launch a crusade for the conservation of elephant habitat and against speeding trains that have killed 70 elephants in West Bengal since 1974.
Birendra Shandilya
Though worlds apart, the undying love for elephants and the passion to protect them has brought 60-year-old Mohammed Jaan Baksh, a mahut (elephant keeper) from North Bengal and Ashok Patel, a 36-year-old film maker from Mumbai, together.
Patel who went to school at St Joseph’s, Darjeeling had always cherished to become a film maker while his parents insisted that he take up a regular job. After completing his schooling and college at Bangalore, Patel tried a stint at business in Delhi.
Not having made much headway Patel made up his mind to follow his dreams and left for Mumbai. In Mumbai he started with editing films. However 23 September, 2010 changed Patel’s life completely.
On that night at around 11:30 pm, 3 elephant calves, 3 females and a tusker were mowed by a speeding train on the Dooars track in North Bengal. A lactating mother was dragged around 300m on the tracks before the train came to a halt.
“The news of the death of 7 elephants on the night of September 23, 2010 shook me to the core. It is then I decided that I should do something about it” stated Patel.
In 1961 the then Maharaja of Coochbehar in North Bengal was in search of a Mahut to send an elephant to Balurghat ( Baksh’s home town in North Bengal.) 11-year-old Baksh managed to secure the job. Thus began his tryst with Shivprasad- the Elephant. Shivprasad was later put down for killing a man despite Baksh’s plea that the elephant was completely normal.
With Baksh’s 23-year-old tryst coming to an end, he resigned from his post and returned to tilling his fields.
However the Mahut in him won and Baksh returned to Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary, Jalpaiguri talking up the job of training elephants and Mahuts.  Baksh has trained more than 50 elephants and double the number of mahuts. At present Baksh looks after Urvasi- a female elephant.
Together Patel and Baksh have been crusading  for the conservation of elephant habitat along with  stopping  trains from plying at night on the killer Dooars railway line. The speeding trains are responsible for hundreds of elephant deaths. As part of this crusade they  have created “God on the Edge” a highly acclaimed docudrama.
“The natural habitat of elephants has been fragmented by human settlements, railway tracks and roads. Numerous elephants die on these killer tracks every year while moving through their age old corridors” stated Patel.
According to  Government figures around 70 elephants have died in the State by speeding trains since 1974. Out of these, 67 alone are in North Bengal.
Having spent his childhood in North Bengal; having gone to St. Joseph’s, North Point, Darjeeling and his  father being in the Indian Forest Service cadre in North Bengal, Patel has been closely connected with nature and wildlife.
“Baksh is truly sad with the state of affairs. He hates the speeding killer trains and has been crusading for slowing down the speed of the trains to 25km/hour; hooting frequently when passing through elephant country ( as elephants have sharp ears though poor eye sight) and stopping night trains” added Patel. Statistics show that 78% elephant deaths on the tracks have occurred between 6pm to 6am.
“The documentary has won many an accolade and has been widely screened. However my  biggest achievement will be if the public are sensitized and the authorities stop the killer train services at night” stated Patel.
“ I want to continue making documentaries on wildlife and nature but the problem is finance”, he adds.
•         Best film on environment at the 10th IDPA (Indian Documentary Producer's Association) Excellence Award,  Mumbai.
•         Official selection (in competition) at the 'Wildlife Conservation Film Festival, New York,  2015.
•         Official selection (in competition) at the 6th Nashik International Film Festival,  2014, Nashik, India.
•         Official selection at the 13th Apala Paryavaran Film Festival, 2014, Mumbai. Organized by Paryavaran Dakshta Manch in association with the Ministry of Environment, Govt. of Maharashtra.
•         Screening hosted by WWF India, at India International Center, on the 26th of July, 2014, New Delhi.
•         It was premiered by NCPA (National Center For Performing Arts) in association with IDPA on 28th of February 2014, under the section 'Reality Check', at NCPA Little Theater, Nariman Point, Mumbai.
•         The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) hosted a screening of the film for their members and the general public on the 10th of April, 2014, in Hornbill House, Kala Ghoda,  Mumbai.
•         A screening was hosted by Bombay Veterinary College, Mumbai, on 29th of April, 2014.
•         A Screening hosted by Wildlife Trust of India, Noida, on 25th July, 2014.
•         Screened in Guwahati, Jalpaiguri, Siliguri, Darjeeling, Kolkata and Bangalore.

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