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Wild at heart

The year 2005 marks the centenary of the country's best-loved game sanctuary, Kaziranga, in the Northeast. Which makes Parbati Barua kind of woman of the year as well. Because it was this noted elephant catcher and trainer who was selected as one of the most visible guests to kick off the celebrations that began in February. By way of following up her contribution to the care of the still vastly misunderstood creatures of the wild, she will set up a mahout village in the vicinity of the park where visitors can catch mock drills ' the mela shikar method by which domestic elephants help mahouts their untamed (and sometimes destructive) cousins in the jungles.

Parbati Barua is, at least in the looks department, an unlikely animal tamer. An almost tiny woman, it's hard to believe she lassoed her first pachyderm at the age of 14. But then, as she says, with just the barest perceptible flicker of a smile crossing her usually immobile face, 'Catching elephants is not about strength. It takes the ability to read the elephant's mind. The rest is luck.' In Parbati Barua's sitting room, there are elephant memorabilia everywhere and you know you are in the right place. There are elephants everywhere.

A celebrity at home and abroad, the protagonist of a bestselling novel and a BBC documentary by the British conservationist and travel writer Mark Shand, honorary Chief Wildlife Warden of Assam and the face behind anything that is even remotely related to pachyderms in India, you could say 53-year-old Parbati Barua lives life jumbo-size. Long before professional fame came to her in the form of awards such as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) 'Global 500 ' Roll of Honour' in 1989, she was already well-known as a member of the Baruas, a royal family of the erstwhile princely state of Gauripur, now in Goalpara district. Parbati Barua's eldest sister, late Pratima Barua Pandey is the undisputed queen of Goalporiya Lokageet, a stream of folk songs, which originated in the district. Her uncle is Pramathesh Borua of Devdas fame. Parbati Barua's father Prakitish Barua was a master elephant catcher and trainer.

And her guru. It was he who introduced Parbati to the walk on the wild side of things when he took her on a visit to an elephant camp in the Garo Hills now in Meghalaya. Although she was barely an infant then, this was the beginning of her association with the gentle giants of the forests.

Especially their association with their mahouts. 'I was mesmerised by the bonding between the mahouts and their elephants, a lovely relationship based on trust and understanding,' she recalls. When she went on to become an expert rider herself herself, and caught her first elephant in the Kachugaon forests in Kokrajhar district, her father simply said, 'Sabaash, beti!' ' two words that were for the young Parbati to realise that she could stand on her on in what was till then a man's world.

It was this quality that drew the attention of Mark Shand, who arrived at one of her camps in North Bengal in 1995. 'Mark said that he wanted to learn about elephants and their conservation from me. He also had plans to write a book about me. I was embarrassed but thrilled too,' Barua recalls. Shand also had another assignment: to shoot a documentary on the elephant-catcher for the National Geographic channel. For four months, he shadowed Parbati Barua, writing and shooting at the same time. The result was Queen of Elephants. The book, for the 1996 Thomas Cook/Daily Telegraph Travel Book Award and winner of the French literary award, Prix Litteraire d'Amis, and the documentary introduced Parbati to the world.

And then, with bouquets, came her share of brickbats. In early 2003, Green Oscar-winner filmmaker Mike Pandey captured on reel scenes the torture of a young elephant caught by Barua in Chattisgarh. The three-hour-long footage shot by Pandey ' later screened for journalists and wildlife activists ' showed the sufferings of the calf in captivity. The elephant died 18 days later, sparking off one of the biggest controversies in the country involving wildlife.

'It is all nonsense' Barua says with a wave of her hand. 'The elephant was declared rogue before the Chattisgarh government called me to capture it. A rogue elephant has to be kept bound with ropes, otherwise it will kill people. Those who were accusing me of torturing the elephant did not show the other part, the care we took to nurture the elephant after it was captured. Why did they go only for selective filming' she questions.

But controversy, it seems, follows Barua. Earlier this month, Barua was again in the news when animal rights groups People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Maneka Gandhi's People for Animals raised a hue and cry over alleged torture of elephants during preparations for the just-concluded centenary celebrations of the Kaziranga National Park. The organisers hastily cancelled an exhibition football match involving elephants, which were being trained by Barua.

Barua's anger boils over, 'I hate people who try to make an issue out of nothing just for publicity. Can they claim to love elephants more than me who has spent her entire life with these animals' Have these people seen elephants carrying tourists in 45 degree Celsius heat in Delhi and Jaipur' They don't see what's happening near them, how these elephants' feet are burnt beyond treatment by making them walk over hot asphalt during the summers of north India.'

A moral victory against her detractors, she claims, came in January this year when Mike Pandey arrived at her residence in Guwahati to 'apologise for his mistake'.Pandey begs to differ on that though. Asked about the incident, he says, 'This is not a war between Parbati Barua and Mike Pandey ' it was never that. I am sure she didn't like what happened to the elephant either. 'Traditional methods have their positive points but they need to be improved. They do not use any tranquillisers. I am sure Parbati loves elephants as much as I do; she's grown up with them. It was a capture gone wrong. There was no post-capture management or care. The elephant died of septicaemia, which could have been prevented.'

The scenes from Pandey's film reportedly included shots of a recently captured elephant wincing as his tusks are sawn off. He is then pulled down with ropes, spread-eagled, and beaten with rods. Repeatedly he tries to get up. And then it shows the funeral, followed by a clip of Barua saying simply that 'This one couldn't forget his freedom.' 'Some of the methods she is using are extremely archaic,' said Vivek Menon, executive director for the Wildlife Trust of India in an interview with Reuters. 'The moment the elephant is in your hands, you should take every step to comfort the animal,' said Menon.

Barua says she sees a pattern in the tirade against her. 'There's more to it than concern for wildlife. These people have business interests in some tourist places. They are trying to woo tourists to their places.'

'I am a hard nut to crack,' she continues. 'But that is because of the nature of my job. Every time I go out on a mission, I go out for the last time. That is the way with mahouts and phandis (elephant-catchers). Unlike films, there are no retakes here'.

However, life's camera rolls on with Parbati Barua in the spotlight and the phandi continues to do what comes to her naturally: care and share her world with elephants. There is place for none. Ask her about her family and she politely tells you, 'Ask only about me and my elephant family'.

Her first marriage in 1978 to a banker ended in divorce in 1988. Then she married S.S. Bist, the director of Project Elephant. Today, however, Barua is unlikely to meet with an entanglement. 'The very sight of a man makes me sick,' she once famously said during a press conference in Guwahati though she now claims she was misquoted.

'I don't have a permanent home,' she says without regret. 'I live with my elephant family (at her sister's home in Guwahati). They are very sensitive and cultured animals.' The growing loss of elephant habitat is what worries her. 'We must let the elephants have their way of life. Otherwise, these beautiful animals will be gone for ever.'

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