Published: 12th March 2020
Addressing the baby elephant: How this IISc researcher's cartoons are spreading awareness on elephant exploitation
Sanjeeta Sharma Pokharel has been researching elephants and creating cartoons about them to educate more people about the animal and the need to protect them
It was sometime in October six years ago that Sanjeeta Sharma Pokharel came across Bhunte for the first time. The tiny elephant calf would have probably been only a few months old. He played with dried dung while walking with his herd through the Bandipur National Park. Bhunte wasn't his real name but that was what Sanjeeta christened him in her head. She never saw him again after that day and still knows nothing of his whereabouts. But that doesn't mean that this IISc Post Doctoral researcher has forgotten all about little Bhunte. She decided to document her memories of the calf through cartoons. But drawing mere pictures wasn't all that she did. Further to that, she uses these cartoons to spread awareness about protecting the Indian elephant. "I've dedicated my life and research to elephants. However, as a researcher, oftentimes it becomes difficult to communicate complex science to commoners. So, I took to drawing these cartoons in the hope of creating awareness on elephant conservation," says the 32-year-old, who posts her cartoons on the blog, Bhunte: The Baby Elephant. Previously, she had conducted a study on the stress levels of Asian elephants in India, after collecting and observing their dung samples.
Hailing from Kathmandu in Nepal, Sanjeeta tells us that she started exploring forests in 2008. But her interest in the Indian elephant began to grow only in 2013, when she joined IISc for her PhD. "I was obviously attracted to the cuteness of the baby elephants. But more than that, what motivated me was the man-elephant negative interaction in India. Not just that, only 22 per cent of them live in their natural habitat. I wanted to know what was happening and create awareness on this," says Sanjeeta, who quietly confesses that she isn't exactly not scared of elephants. "But I am always delighted to see them. It's just that one must maintain distance and respect their space and temperament. Elephants don’t really attack but they charge in defense. I have always made it a point to respect their space," she says.
Sanjeeta Sharma, IISc Researcher
In a lot of ways, Sanjeeta's version of Bhunte looks quite similar to Disney's version of Dumbo. He is tiny, grey, has pink ears and, not to mention, is extremely adorable. This little pachyderm advises people not to offer money to elephants, not to ride on them, not to take selfies and respect their temperament and space, among many other things. And has Bhunte made some change in the way that people treat elephants? Sanjeeta doesn't really know. However, she tells us that many of her family members have stopped offering money to elephants now. "They now know that the practice was endorsing elephants' exploitation," she explains. She also recalls an incident where an IISc student thanked her out of the blue. "I didn't know her but she told me that Bhunte made her realise the pain that elephants go through. So, when she went on holiday with her family, she requested them and the people around to not ride the elephants," she says and shoots a proud smile, "These little changes make me happy."
Sanjeeta is now gearing up to publish Bhunte's stories in the form of a book. "I have a few offers from publishers. Hopefully, it will turn out well soon," she says.
Here are the cartoons of Bhunte: