April 16, 2021

Stories matter: the elephant whisperer

Stories matter: the elephant whisperer

An armchair safari to a place where humans and elephants are engaged in a deadly conflict over resources — and the one man who can speak to both sides.

As promised, a few photos to bring this episode to life.

The "elephant party" with some of the men from the villages and Bodi Alam Faqir (with beard, center).


A tong — platform in the tree — that is the community's nighttime elephant early warning system.


A family poses for a photo, showing us the hole the elephants made when they knocked down one of the walls a few weeks before. 


Mohaffar Ahmed of Himchuri works to rebuild his kitchen after the elephants destroyed the old one.


To protect themselves from the nighttime elephant raids, Mojaffar's brother Shamsur and his family live on the ground by day and in this treehouse by night.


We wind our way along the paddy fields towards the forested hills where the elephants live. 


Bodi Alam Faqir and some of the men from the "elephant party" looking out at the elephants feeding in the valley below.


Much of the music in this episode is from the Free Music Archive by:

  • Bruce Miller (https://www.freemusicarchive.org/music/Broos) CC BY-NC-ND
  • Vinod Prasanna (https://freemusicarchive.org/music/Vinod_Prasanna__Okey_Szoke__Pompey) CC BY-NC
  • Siddhartha Corsus (https://freemusicarchive.org/music/Siddhartha) CC BY
  • Podington Bear (https://freemusicarchive.org/music/Podington_Bear)CC BY NC

Theme music: Fragilistic by Ketsa; licensed under CC BY NC ND 4.0


Kelley Lynch (00:00:07):

This year, our neighborhood has had a plague of Deer. They're brazen. Running around the neighborhood in gangs, stripping our trees of leaves and eating our bushes to the quick. They are particularly fond of produce in our gardens.

Kelley Lynch (00:00:25):

There's been a war of fencing that has recently claimed our patio furniture, which is now stacked into the chicken wire in a bid to keep them out. There have also been groundhogs. We're not sure how many, but one is twice the size of our cat and so fat that it actually waddles. And one Snowy day, this winter, I saw my first fox standing just meters from the back door on my snow covered patio.

Kelley Lynch (00:00:54):

Cindy is contemplating turning her backyard into a petting zoo. Generations of deer families have decided it's the safest place in the neighborhood to give birth and raise their young. And they come back to visit every so often. So now she calls them her pets. But she's not so partial to all of her animal visitors. She's currently in an ongoing battle with a raccoon who insists on prying off the lid of every trash can she buys no matter how many bricks and bungee cords she uses to secure it. As you're listening to all of this, you might think we live in a rural area, but no we live in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC.

Kelley Lynch (00:01:38):

My daughter, a plant biologist reminds me that as there are more of us, there's less room for them. But she also reminds me that ultimately there is no distinction between "us" and "them". "It's not a matter of man versus nature," she says. "That might work in literature, but in the real world, that story has been incredibly toxic to us and to all of the life that is here with us on this planet. Ultimately there's only one side. We are all on team nature."

Kelley Lynch (00:02:13):

The other night, she and a number of friends went out after dark to save salamanders from the wheels of passing cars, by picking them up and ferrying them across Vermont roads so that they can get to their spawning grounds on the other side. She texted a picture of a little spotted amphibian with bulging eyes and clown lips being ferried across the road in her hand. "But this isn't some one-off thing," she says. "It's happening all around us. We are destroying and fragmenting the habitats of all kinds of species. And they're not rearing up with fangs and claws to stop us. They're not shouting at us or breaking down our doors. It's easy for us to ignore what's happening when they go out without a sound squashed under the wheels of a passing car."

Kelley Lynch (00:03:04):

Her story reminds me of another story. A story about what happens when a species does fight back — in this case, knocking down doors and even houses. This is the story of a journey I took into a forest in Bangladesh with a man who has the unique ability to communicate with those whose voices most humans can't understand.

Kelley Lynch (00:03:41):

Welcome. I'm Kelly Lynch, and this is A New Normal, a podcast that reimagines a future that starts with each one of us. This week on the podcast, we're doing something a little bit different. I invite you to sit back, relax, kick off your shoes and join me on an armchair Safari in Bangladesh.

Chapter 1.

Kelley Lynch (00:04:16):

Leaning in over the single candle in the black room. Joseph whispers, listen to this:15 days ago, a man from a village, just down the road, went to the forest to cut wood, and while he was cutting, he heard—Joseph stops and looks over one shoulder than the other and turns back lowering his voice—Mo coming. Who's Mo? I ask. My translator, Tapon Roy, leans over and whispers directly into my ear. It means elephant, he says. In this part of Bangladesh, we never call them by name. It's like calling your elders by name it's disrespectful and it makes them angry. So we say Mo. It means uncle.

Kelley Lynch (00:05:09):

But I don't understand why we have to whisper, I say. Joseph explains, here we are always careful about what we say because Mo knows everything. Even if we say something about him here, inside the house, he can hear us from deep inside the forest.

Kelley Lynch (00:05:34):

Joseph continues. So this man, his name is Fazar Ali, heard Mo coming. And he ran away leaving a pile of wood behind in the forest. Now he had already made one mistake. He was cutting down the forest and Mo doesn't like it when people do that. And then when he was running away, he made another mistake. He shouted and cursed at Mo and even called him by name. And Fazar Ali knew only too well what happens when you offend Mo's polite ears. You see, a few weeks earlier, there was another woodcutter from the same village who came upon Mo in the forest. He cursed him and then threw a piece of bamboo that hit Mo in the head. The man knew he'd done a bad thing, but his house was more than four kilometers from the forest. So he ran home and forgot all about it. That night, the man was inside the house, eating dinner when there was a knock at the door. He opened it and looked out there was nobody there. Then he felt something slide around his waist. Mo, the same Mo from the forest, grabbed that man and pulled him out of the house and threw him to the ground and stood on his head until it went pop!

Kelley Lynch (00:07:09):

Being from the same village. Fazer Ali knew all of this. So having cursed Mo in the forest that day, he wasn't taking any chances that night. He went and slept at another house in the village in case Mo came knocking. But Mo is clever. That night he did come looking for Fazar Ali. The first thing he did was to smash a hole in the wall of Fazar Ali's house. And when he didn't find him there, he went from one house to another looking for the house where Fazar Ali was sleeping. And when he found him, he butted down the mud wall of that veranda and pulled Fazar Ali and only Fazar Ali out from where he was sleeping amongst six other men. Then he threw him on the ground and squashed him right there in the courtyard.

Kelley Lynch (00:08:13):

I'm amazed and more than a little bit scared because we've come to Malumghat, a little town, 35 kilometers North of Cox's bazar to look for wild elephants.

Kelley Lynch (00:08:29):

The three of us sit in silence for a moment. And then Joseph, who is Tapon's older brother, says exactly what I'm thinking. If it was me, I wouldn't go anywhere near the forest. Turning to look directly at Tapon. He says, don't you remember when we used to cut firewood in the forest when we were kids? Don't you remember how scared we were of Mo? Apparently Tapon did remember. I can feel him squirming in the seat next to me. But strangely doing a story about the elephants here had been his idea. I'd rejected it of course. I mean, anyone who has spent any time at all in Bangladesh, and at this point I'd lived there more than seven years, knows that elephants are the stuff of Kipling's Bengal, not this one. Today, more than 125 years after the publication of The Jungle Book, there is precious little jungle left in modern day Bengal, whether on the Indian side of the border or here on the Bangladeshi side. Every square millimeter is occupied by people. Clearly there was no room for elephants. But Tapon insists and I look into it. I call a friend who works at the world conservation union, IUCN in Dhaka.

Kelley Lynch (00:09:59):

Mohsin Choudhury is a researcher who has spent a lot of time in Bangladesh's Sundarbans, which is the largest mangrove forest in the world. His time there was spent studying tigers, and as it happens, he's also just finished. Bangladesh's first official elephant census. You're right, he tells me. Today, we have only a fraction of the number of elephants that used to be here. IUCN lists them as critically endangered and Bangladesh's elephants are among the most threatened in all of Asia, but they're still here. Officially we put the number at around 180 with about a hundred Indian visitors that come and go. I ask if it's possible to find them. It is, he says, cautiously, if you know where to look, but elephants are dangerous animals. They kill many people every year. If you wanted to find them, you would have to go with an experienced guide. Someone who knows elephants and knows the forest. You're not planning to go looking for elephants, are you? No, of course not. I say, but Tapon keeps pushing. I promise you this will be the greatest story you ever write, he tells me over and over again. And so here we are. Sitting here in the dark, I can feel it. Now that we're here and now that this is real, he's reconsidering.

Kelley Lynch (00:11:43):

Joseph leans back in his chair and is swallowed by the darkness. But if you decide, you still want to go looking for Mo, he says, there's only one person I can think of who could help you. A man called Bodi Alam faqir. A faqir?Doesn't that mean he's some sort of holy man I ask? Yes, Joseph says, people say he has special powers, God-gifted powers that allow him to talk to Mo and Mo listens. Around here, people hire him to sit and guard their rice fields at night. They say he has no fear. He sits in the field, in the dark. And when Mo comes to eat the rice, he commands them to leave. And do they actually leave? I ask. They do, he says. But people also say that these days he doesn't even have to sit in their fields. Mo knows his name. So now whenever Mo comes into their fields, people just call out, Oooo-eeee, Bodi Alam Faqir is coming. And Mo goes away. They say that just his name is enough to protect you. The power returns, bathing the room in the warm glow of the naked 60 watt bulb that dangles from the ceiling, Joseph stands and stretches. Anyway, like I said, if I was thinking about going to the forest to look for Mo, I would find Bodi Alam Faqir and see if he would take me. If nothing else, he should know where to find them. Even if the stories about his powers aren't true.

Chapter 2.

Kelley Lynch (00:13:36):

Early, the next morning, Tapon and I knock on the front door of the faqir's mud house. He's not at home, but his 12-year-old son offers to show us the way to the family's farm, where the faqir spends most of his nights. We follow the boy across the highway and into the patchy forest on the other side. Ten minutes later, we're standing outside the jumble of bamboo mud, plastic, sheeting, and corrugated iron that Is the faqir's farmhouse. The boy disappears inside to tell his father he has visitors and then comes back and stands nearby kicking at the dirt while we wait for his father to emerge.

Kelley Lynch (00:14:25):

I look around, there's a large pond in front of the shack, to the west wide brown terraces bristle with the stubble of recently harvested rice. It's a lot of land compared to most farmers in Bangladesh. The faqir has done well for himself. A few minutes later, we hear snoring coming from the farmhouse. His son goes back inside and reappears—followed by this great bear of a man. Never mind wild elephants, the faqir looks half wild himself—from the grey cotton candy beard of a holy man to the steely ringlets that fall to his shoulders and the bristling fur of his eyebrows. And the size of him—by Bangladeshi standards, where at five foot seven, I'm considered tall, this man is a giant—at least six foot three and solid. And when he speaks, it's in a language, I don't recognize. Fortunately, Tapon does. The two of them prattle on in Chittagonian, a dialect that only rarely seems to resemble Bangla, until a gentle elbow reminds Tapon that he's here because he's supposed to be translating into English for me. What was all of that about? I ask. Tapon explains that the faqir apologized for making us wait so long, but he'd had a long night. Not long after he went to sleep. He was woken by gunfire in the forest. As a forest guard or "villager", the faqir is always on call with the Forest Department, should they happen to need him. So when he heard the shots, he grabbed his gun and ran toward the forest where he found officials from the Forest Department, exchanging fire with six tree thieves. In the end, all but one of the thieves escaped.

Kelley Lynch (00:16:28):

By the time the officials left to take the thief to the police station, it was almost 2:00 AM. Bodi. Alam faqir went back to his farmhouse and had just gone to sleep again when the elephants arrived. What were they doing? I ask. They were just walking around outside the house—look, Tapon says pointing to the massive circular depressions I hadn't noticed in the ground all around us. They stood here just outside the door. He says he got up to see what they wanted. And when he came to the door, they raised their trunks twice to salute him. They told him they were hungry. He said they were so thin that he felt sad to see them. He told them he didn't have anything for them here. He's already harvested his rice. But he invited them to go to his house and eat some of the paddy over there. Then they saluted him again and went away. Did they go to his house? I ask. Turning to the faqir's son Tapon translates my question. His son nods. How much did they eat? Tapon asks. Almost one bigha, he says. Tapon and I look at the faqir. He nods, but his face registers no reaction to the news. So much! Tapon says, as surprised as I am that the faqir doesn't seem to mind. For most farmers in Bangladesh, losing a third of an acre of rice would spell complete ruin.

Kelley Lynch (00:18:02):

Bodi Alam faqir shrugs. How can I eat before them? He says. The animals have first priority. Allah will bless us. And the animals will bless my children so that they too may eat. Here the faqir stops and looks at us expectantly. That's when I realize that Tapon, as so often happens, must've forgotten to explain why we're here. He launches into an explanation, and when he falls silent, the faqir turns to look at me. Unlike most Bengali men, he looks right into my eyes. His gaze is so intense, so penetrating that I begin to wonder what it is that Tapon said. And then it occurs to me that maybe because he's a holy man, he can somehow see right through me. And maybe he doesn't like what he sees.

Kelley Lynch (00:19:00):

But I hold his gaze because I have questions of my own. Does this man really have some sort of special power over the elephants? Like Joseph said. Did elephants really come here last night? And did he really talk with them? I searched his eyes for the answers. And I like what I see. The faqir has innocent eyes, truthful eyes. And then he smiles—not a nervous flicker or one of those tight lipped, English smiles, but a big sincere smile that shows off every single one of his beetle nut stained teeth. And I smile back. I know it sounds ridiculous to say that one long look and a smile can change everything. But what is trust—and faith for that matter—if not a feeling, an instinct. And so in that moment, a seed of faith was planted. I trusted this man. With him at my side, I would feel safe even in a forest full of wild elephants. The faqir suggests that we go to Himchari, a forest village in the Chittagong Hill Tracts where, several months before, elephants flattened an entire village. He says, we're certain to find some there. We make a date for six, the following morning. As we are about to leave, I tell Tapon that I've noticed that the faqir doesn't say Mo like everybody else we've met. He calls the elephants by name—hati. When Tapon asks him about it, Bodi Alam faqir laughs, Why would I call them Mo? He says. That's just a lot of superstitious nonsense. As we set off, back down the foot path toward the highway, I turn back to look at the faqir. As he disappears from view, I wave. He smiles, and everything is right with the world.

Working on the rest...