Elephants Never Forget: The Touching Legacy of Tamil Nadu Conservationist Mark Davidar


Rivaldo and MarquesPhoto: N.A. Naseer
Elephants Rivaldo and Marques at Cheetal Walk

As we approach, the darkness beneath the bamboo clumps takes the shape of an elephant. It is Marques, the cross-tusker bull, standing unperturbed barely 20 feet away from us. By the time we make a quiet retreat to the veranda, a herd of eight elephants with two calves appears at the other end of the thicket.

I am at the Sigur Nature Trust (SNT) in Masinagudi, Tamil Nadu, India, the premises of which are a migratory path for elephants. Still, I find the behavior of the pachyderms intriguing. The herd continues feeding nonchalantly while Marques saunters into a nearby bamboo cluster, totally ignoring our presence.

RivaldoPhoto: N.A. Naseer
Rivaldo visited Davidar after suffering an injury.

I decided to talk to wildlife photographer N. A. Naseer – who’s sitting next to me engrossed in scanning the adjacent nullah (a steep, narrow valley) with his binoculars – about our giant companions. Naseer answers my queries by showing videos depicting the wild elephants with Mark Davidar, his friend and one of the founders of the SNT. I see the tip of a trunk, almost resembling an elongated index figure, gently touching Davidar’s arms: it is the elephant Rivaldo. This creature took refuge on the premises when he suffered a gaping wound on his cheek; during this time, Davidar kept fruits near the water tank for Rivaldo to feed on. The elephant decided to continue the friendship and has been frequently visiting for the past five years.

Then Naseer shows me snapshots of Marques, Ronaldo and Roberto – other tuskers Rivaldo brought along – playing, eating and fighting in the front yard while Davidar watched from his wooden chair on the veranda. Like the cross-tusker (elephant with crossed tusks) Marques, they still turn up even though Davidar is away in hospital owing to diabetes-related complications.

Rivaldo and MarkPhoto: N.A. Naseer
Rivaldo comes to visit Davidar on his veranda.

The SNT all started with Davidar’s conservationist father, E.R.C. Davidar. He and his family built a cottage on land they procured in Sigur in 1964, and they later bought a 7-acre area of the jungle that they named Cheetal Walk. Cheetal Walk gradually became the SNT, a 30-acre wildlife reserve and possibly the only one of its type in the entire country. Mark Davidar has lived in the house since at least the late 1980s, helping to ensure the conservation of the surroundings and building up a rare friendship with the local wildlife.

bearPhoto: N.A. Naseer
Cheetal walk is a wildlife haven.

As we talk, Murugan, one of Davidar’s assistants, comes in wearing a big smile. “Rivaldo is in the neighborhood. Someone saw him last evening.” The tusker stopped his regular visits after Davidar’s illness and hasn’t come to Cheetal Walk for the past three weeks. “If Mark was around, he would be in the veranda, waiting impatiently for Rivaldo,” says Naseer. While in Cheetal Walk, the bull spent a considerable amount of time standing in the front yard listening to Davidar. Naseer even once witnessed a tug of war between man and elephant for a plastic chair. Rivaldo pulled one end of the chair with his mighty trunk, and Davidar the other with both his hands. “No baba… leave it!” pleaded Davidar after a few attempts. Thankfully, Rivaldo let it go and stepped back gracefully.

ElephantPhoto: N.A. Naseer
An elephant plays with Davidar.

Early in 2013 Rivaldo didn’t show up for a couple of weeks. Eventually, Davidar spotted him near the stream, immersing his trunk in the water. He came to the front yard slowly, dragging a bleeding, infected trunk with a chopped-off tip. Nobody knew what exactly had happened, but it was quite a blow to Davidar. “He contacted the forest department immediately and made sure the elephant received proper medical care,” says Jaleel, a friend of Davidar’s. “Mark was the only person who could approach Rivaldo. He even allowed Mark to put fruit on his mouth, as the tusker was unable to use his trunk.” His wounds were healed after a month’s constant care, but the entire episode took a toll on Davidar, a diabetic patient. He suffered a fall and was taken into hospital after suffering a diabetes-induced coma.

LeopardPhoto: N.A. Naseer
Leopards also frequent the reserve.

With a snort and a few grunts, a wild boar appears in the bushes. He comes straight towards us, wagging his tail, to stand at the edge of the steps hardly two feet away. “It’s Captain, Mark’s companion,” Naseer tells me. After a few more grunts and sniffs, Captain makes a quiet exit. Unperturbed, Naseer talks at length about a leopard that liked to rest on Davidar’s chair at night. “Is he still around?” I ask. “No. I haven’t seen him for long,” he replies. I conceal a relieved smile.

CaptainPhoto: N.A. Naseer
Captain the wild boar

For wildlife filmmaker Shekar Dattatri, it was Davidar’s two hand-reared civets that made his stay at Cheetal Walk memorable. “One night, I woke up with a heavy feeling on my chest. On opening my eyes I was startled to see one of the civets sitting there and peering into my face from just a few inches away! Not daring to even breathe, I willed myself to be calm. Thankfully, the civet got distracted by something and left after a few tense moments on my part. [Davidar] thought it was quite endearing on the part of his beloved civets to pay ‘courtesy calls’ on unsuspecting guests.”

Mark and RivaldoPhoto: N.A. Naseer
Davidar hailing Rivaldo

Maybe this attitude towards wildlife helped Davidar in his previous job as the manager of Madras Snake Park, which was founded by herpetologist and conservationist Romulus Whitaker. “One of Mark’s jobs as manager of Madras Snake Park was to look after our captive pair of king cobras,” Whitaker says. “Together with Shekar Dattatri, we managed to breed them in captivity for the first time in India, and Mark had to play devoted daddy to the first clutch of 18 baby kings.” Mark quit the park in the mid ‘80s to settle in Cheetal Walk. Whitaker feels that Davidar couldn’t be content in an urban setting, as he was “totally involved in wildlife and wild places.”

Leaf birdPhoto: N.A. Naseer
A leaf bird visits a tree in the reserve.

There is a water basin fitted to the branches of a gulmohar tree, and there’s currently a battle underway. A leafbird quickly flaps its iridescent green wings to keep away a spotted dove, which is twice its size but rather timid looking. Two minutes later and the dove has gone.

With its abundant bird population, Cheetal Walk in the past attracted famed ornithologist Sálim Ali, and Davidar’s decision to convert the family home into a hub for wildlife enthusiasts provided extra benefits to the local avian population. “During summers, water becomes scarce in the places around Cheetal Walk. Observing this, Mark fitted water basins to the tree branches, providing a much-needed supply for the birds,” says Dr. Sugathan, an ornithologist and former colleague of Davidar’s at Bombay Natural History Society.

Rivaldo waitingPhoto: N.A. Naseer
Rivaldo waits for Davidar.

I say goodbye to Cheetal Walk the next morning, without getting a chance to meet Davidar or Rivaldo. Sadly, Davidar passed away within just a week (on October 19, 2013). A few days later I talk to Naseer, who was at Cheetal Walk for some work related to SNT. “Rivaldo is here, standing in front of the veranda, waiting for hours at a stretch,” he tells me. I contact wildlife biologist Dr. Johnsingh for an explanation. “Wild elephants often mourn their dead,” Johnsingh says. “Mark was living in the same place and had a strong bond with this bull. Elephants are animals with keen senses. It might be possible that the tusker knew about his demise.”

Mark DavidarPhoto: N.A. Naseer
Mark Davidar had a strong bond with the wildlife around him.

“Mark stayed his ground and prevented encroachments and destruction of the forest and had ideas of improving the habitat,” says Davidar’s sister, Priya Davidar, a professor of ecology at Pondicherry University. She considers Cheetal Walk a “precious legacy” and an example that “can promote a healthy love and respect for wildlife.” I’m very much inclined to agree.