“Alice in Chains”: Ground Staff Heroes, Conservation Realities, and Reflecting on William Cronon’s Insights

This story focuses on often overlooked conservation heroes who play a significant role in creating and shaping the ‘natural’ world. One such person was Budhram Routia, a mahout by profession who dedicated his life to serving various state Forest Departments in India. Budhram’s journey with these departments started in 1991 when he took on the role of a Forest Surveyor, assigned with the crucial task of assessing agricultural losses caused by elephants. His duties involved providing detailed information, including crop loss, crop types, and private property or farmland compartment numbers, and identifying the specific elephant responsible for the crop and property damage. Subsequently, he would share this information with the Forest Department, which, in turn, communicated with revenue officials in the state capital. Compensation for affected villagers was authorised and distributed only after obtaining their approval.

During his tenure as a surveyor, Budhram gained valuable insights into animal behaviour. Leveraging this knowledge, he got an opportunity to work with a mahout experienced in taming wild elephants in the southern states of India. Under the guidance of this mahout, Budhram honed the skill of elephant taming. A pivotal moment arose when a tiger monitoring team from Bangalore approached the elephant tamer, seeking elephants for patrolling duties in the forest. This encounter opened doors for Budhram, allowing him to engage with forest officials and, opportunely, to secure a new position with them. In the initial phase, his responsibilities included the daily care of elephants, encompassing tasks such as feeding and bathing. Over time, his bond with the elephants deepened, leading Budhram to remark that he began to feel as if he was “thinking like an elephant”. This profound connection marked the juncture when he started taming wild elephants independently.

In 1993, Budhram successfully captured an elephant named Rambahadur from the jungles of Chhattisgarh. This particular elephant was notorious, earning the title of a “problematic” animal and, more grimly, an “adam-khor” or a man-killer, responsible for the tragic loss of 46 people. Following capture, Budhram started the formidable task of training him. At that time, Rambahadur was a 33-year-old adult male elephant. From the outset, Rambahadur proved to be an exceptionally challenging and unruly elephant. He defied authority, refusing to heed anyone’s commands except Budhram’s. Despite the initial notoriety, Budhram managed to forge a strong and unique connection with Rambahadur, to the extent that he likened the elephant to his own children. Over the years, Budhram spent an extensive amount of time with Rambahadur.

Budhram recounted an incident when he found himself targeted by a group of people, for reasons he couldn’t comprehend. In a remarkable display of human-animal relationships, Rambahadur protected Buddhram from harm from those people. Not only did Rambahadur demonstrate his formidable strength, but he also showed reciprocity towards Budhram’s love and care. Moreover, Budhram faced several dangerous encounters with tigers while on duty, provoking a heightened sense of protectiveness from Rambahadur. These tense and challenging situations, as vividly described by Budhram, underscore the complex dynamics of working in close contact with such powerful and unpredictable creatures. During these intense moments, Buddhram engaged in a unique form of communication with Rambahadur. He would speak to the elephant, advising him to remain calm and composed. In their conversations, Budhram would convey messages such as “ye tum gussa kar rahe ho… ye, fir hum mana kiye hai tumhe… ki nahi, wo sab kaam nahi karna hai” . These interactions stand as a testament to the deep bond between the mahout and his colossal companion, transcending the traditional barriers of human-elephant communication.

At the time of our conversation, Buddhram actively served in the Forest Department in Central India. Rambahadur, the venerable elephant, had reached the age of 55, while Budhram himself was 54. Unfortunately, tragedy struck in the months following our discussion. Rambahadur, the same elephant who had shared an extraordinary bond with Budhram, took the life of a forest range officer with his tusks. Adding to this sorrow, a few months later, Rambahadur became involved in another tragic incident, where he fatally injured Budhram using his tusks, leading to the loss of Budhram’s life. 

In both these unfortunate incidents, Rambahadur had used his tusks to strike their chests.  While talking to another mahout in 2022, I learned that Rambahadur had a dislike towards the range officer on account of being scolded in the past, leaving the elephant with a bad memory of the officer. When asked why Rambahadur killed Budhram, the mahout explained that on that day that Rambahadur attacked Budhram, the latter had had an object with the range officer’s scent. Elephants have a strong sense of smell and memory. This caused Rambahadur to attack Budhram in anger, as he perceived the familiar but unwanted scent without realising it was Budhram. These two events cast a dark shadow over the remarkable narrative of their unique companionship, but also emphasise the inherent risks and complexities within the world of wildlife conservation.

William Cronon’s insightful 1996 paper prompts a reconsideration of terms like “wilderness” and “nature”. His views encourage us to perceive these concepts by recognising the substantial role played by individuals such as Budhram and Rambahadur in conservation efforts. It is essential to acknowledge not only their contributions but also the tragic histories integral to conservation realities. Cronon argues that wilderness can be misleading, concealing its unnatural aspects beneath an appealing facade. As we gaze into the mirror held up by wilderness, we might unwittingly see it as “pure Nature”. In reality, this reflection often mirrors our unexamined desires and longings. 

This perspective gains significance in discussions about the dedicated efforts of ground staff in conservation. The analogy prompts a critical examination of their tireless work in shaping nature or wilderness, often carried out with minimal support and logistics. Cronon’s insights encourage us to reassess the romanticised ideals linked with wilderness landscapes and stress the importance of recognising the nuanced role of ground staff in creating and maintaining conservation landscapes. By acknowledging anthropogenic influences even in seemingly pristine environments, there is a need to explore avenues for enhancing the well-being of those on the conservation frontline. Cronon’s words serve as a compelling call to action, urging a redefinition of our approach to both nature and the individuals tirelessly working to safeguard it.

Note: ‘Alice in Chains’ is an American rock band from Seattle, Washington

Further Reading:

Angelici, F. M. 2016. Problematic wildlife at the beginning of the twenty-first century: Introduction. In: Problematic wildlife: A cross-disciplinary approach (ed. Angelici, F. M.). 1st edition. Pp 3–18. Switzerland: Springer Cham.

Panna Tiger Reserve Newsletter. 2022. Budhram Routia” the courageous mahout of PTR (15/02/1966 – 04/07/2022). https://www.pannatigerreserve.in/remebering%20BUDHRAM%20ROUTIA.pdf. Accessed on January 10, 2024.

Cronon, W. 1996. The trouble with wilderness: or, getting back to the wrong nature. Environmental History 1(1): 7–28. 

Flader, S. L. 1994. Thinking like a mountain: Aldo Leopold and the evolution of an ecological attitude toward deer, wolves, and forests. US: University of Wisconsin Press.