In 1997, the ivory and sandalwood smuggler Veerappan kidnapped wildlife photographers and filmmakers Krupakar and Senani along with a Bengali professor, Dr Maithi. The bandit mistakenly thought that his victims were important government officials, and after holding them captive for two weeks, he released them. The filmmakers published an account of their abduction in the Kannada weekly magazine Sudha in 1998, and it was translated by journalist SR Ramakrishna as Birds, Beasts Bandits 14 Days With Veerappan in 2011. The following edited excerpt is from the chapter titled ‘Veerappan gapes at the Sacred Elephant’.

We got served two meals a day in Veerappan’s camp. It was rice and saaru at ten in the morning. And at seven in the evening, it was saaru and rice! That was Rangaswamy’s menu.

We were chatting with Dr Maithi when Appuswamy arrived with the tea. We sat apart from the others whenever we discussed science, lest it bore them. I went to return the tumblers to Appuswamy. Lying down with a bag for a pillow, and legs crossed, Veerappan was staring at a book. Curious, I looked to find out what he might be reading. What I saw was truly astonishing.

I shuffled quickly to Senani and said, ‘Look there!’ Dr Maithi abruptly stopped speaking.

‘Krupa, what a sight! If only we had a camera... this would have made a great visual,’ Senani exclaimed.

Veerappan was ‘reading’ a copy of the National Geographic. The secret of how it got into his hands was out soon. The magazine had been lying on our table when the gang raided our house. Our senior friend G Perumal had signed it and gifted it to us during a visit to our house. Veerappan was spellbound by a spectacular cover picture of two African leopards. We hadn’t realised his boys had picked up such things in the middle of all the confusion that night.

Veerappan walked up to us after fifteen or twenty minutes. He opened a specific page, and like a student with a doubt, asked, ‘Seni, what have they written here? Can you read it and tell me?’

Perhaps because his father had been a professor, Senani has a flair for teaching. He explained details of each picture that Veerappan pointed to. The gang sat around Senani listening to his lecture. They looked like obedient students, absorbing every word.

Veerappan interrupted, pointing to some pictures, and asked in a doubting, anxious voice, ‘How can they have so many animals when you say they don’t have trees like we do but just grasslands?’

He was probably afraid his existence would be in jeopardy if the forests of the Western Ghats had been like the African grasslands.

Senani patiently finished his National Geographic lessons, and the gang dispersed. Veerappan returned to his spot with the magazine. He started flipping its pages again. Veerappan and Sethukuli were chatting. From their gestures, it looked like they were discussing something important. Stray words drifted our way.

‘Must be 40 kg.’

‘No, maybe about 35 kg.’

‘Yes, yes, less than 40.’

Resting his head on the bag, Veerappan held up a book and asked from the distance, ‘How much could this be, Seni?’

Senani said indifferently, ‘Nine, or nine and a half.’

‘What are you saying?’ Veerappan asked, incredulous.

‘What Seni says isn’t right. Looks like he hasn’t understood our question,’ said Sethukuli.

‘How can you say that, Seni? This is so huge, and you say it’s just nine or nine and a half?’ Veerappan objected.

Senani turned again and said, ‘Could be about 5,000 kg.’

Veerappan sprang up. He rushed to Senani and held the picture in front of his face. It was a big African elephant. Sethukuli and Anburaj followed Veerappan.

Senani realised they were asking about the weight of the tusks.

Senani slapped his forehead in exasperation, and said, ‘When our friends see an elephant, they ask us to guess its height, age, and weight. No one asks us the weight of the tusks, like you do. That’s not the custom. I have no idea about the weight of the tusks. How can I tell you?’

The allure of ‘The Sacred Elephant’

That was when we realised they had brought along another book from our library. It was The Sacred Elephant, an illustrated, passionately written volume about the elephants of Africa and India. Sethukuli and Veerappan decided it was no use talking to us, and continued turning the pages of the book, discussing ivory weight.

Veerappan came to us sipping tea and said, ‘Seni, how many tuskers would Bandipur have?’

‘As far as we know, only six or seven big male elephants remain. Things are so bad because poaching for ivory is rampant. It is difficult even to sight young males these days,’ Senani said.

Senani was startled by Veerappan’s investigation. ‘As I said, very few male elephants have survived. It is a difficult situation. You shouldn’t kill any elephant for ivory. This is my request,’ he said.

Veerappan responded in a soft voice: ‘It has been many years since I killed elephants. But no one believes me if I say so. I know. I have just two pairs of tusks with me now. They are old. I have vowed to have ivory elephants made for two temples if I get clemency.’

He continued: ‘Remember I told you on the second day that we’d had a skirmish the day we came to get you? That was because a tusker had been killed. Five days before we came to you, two men came with guns. In an instant I knew why they had come to the forest. I warned them, “We’ve come here on some work. If you kill an elephant now, my plans will go awry. Don’t be seen around for a month.” They said they would respect my word, and went away after falling at my feet. But the bastards shot an elephant near your house, and took away its tusks.’

He was determined to teach them a lesson the next time he saw them. They’ve not kept their promise, he said angrily. We didn’t utter a word.

He resumed after five minutes. ‘Whatever happens in the forest, they hold me responsible. The moment they know I’m in some place, poachers there take advantage and start killing elephants and smuggling out the ivory. If they know I’m around, forest officials don’t even bother to question the others. The poachers keep the tusks, I get the blame. What justice is this? As far as I know, twenty-five gangs are engaged in the ivory business, killing elephants. No one knows about it. Everyone says Veerappan did the killing. Within three days of my coming to Bandipur, I saw four Malayalis chasing a shrieking, injured tusker. I don’t know what happened after that. But it is true.’ He fell silent again.

Senani gently poked him, ‘The papers say you’ve killed about 2,000 elephants?’

‘No, no, it’s all a lie. I always get the blame for someone’s crimes. You believe all that?’ he asked.

We started thinking. Even if he had been killing elephants for thirty years, he would have had to kill one every five days for the numbers to add up. Must be an exaggerated figure made up by someone who doesn’t know his arithmetic. Yet, we surmised, Veerappan must have definitely killed more elephants than he would admit.

After dinner, Veerappan resumed the topic. He must have been overwhelmed by The Sacred Elephant, which had hundreds of pictures depicting the beauty of elephants, their joys and agonies in the forests, and the tribulations they face at the hands of humans. It must have touched him. He gave vent to his emotions in his next lecture.

‘Seni, see, humans are so cruel. There’s no animal on earth this cruel. Only humans cheat, take revenge, do unjust things, suspect ... They capture elephants and sell them to circuses. They torture them and make money. They make garlands of ivory and trade them. They tear out the hair from the elephants’ tails and sell it. They chop off their legs and use them as stools. Humans are low creatures, aren’t they?’

It was astonishing to find Veerappan talking like this. We were confused. He suddenly remembered something, and said, ‘Seni, listen to this story.’

It went thus: The gods once lived on earth like earthlings. All creatures lived in harmony and enjoyed nature’s bounty. Until ... humans appeared on earth to disturb the tranquillity.

The gods were worried. They gathered to discuss their future on earth. They concluded unanimously that the earth was no longer safe for them, and decided to set off to another world with bag and baggage. Humans, they decided, were a dangerous species.

Even as they were arriving at the resolution, a herd of elephants came by. When the animals wanted to know what the commotion was all about, the gods let them in on their fears.

Why don’t you come with us? We will go to another world and live happily,’ the gods suggested to the elephants.

The elephants refused outright. ‘Why should we be scared of a tiny creature like the human? Besides, who would want to leave this beautiful earth, with its skies, forests, flowers, rivers?’ they argued.

The gods were angry. ‘You are destined to remain here and ruin yourselves,’ they said, and went away to heaven.

Veerappan ended his story with a click of his tongue: ‘Look what has become of the elephants now. Poor things, they labour in circuses, with nothing to eat, and no forests to roam in.’

What a contradiction! Such words from Veerappan ...

We weren’t completely taken in by his uncharacteristic discourse, but we were perplexed.

We were intrigued at the course our discussions and arguments had taken through the day. Had Veerappan schemed to win us over, knowing well our likes and dislikes? It seemed unlikely that this bandit, who had spent all his time in the forest, would play such a complex psychological game.

It is impossible to grasp another human’s inner world. But we can find the gleam of a firefly even in the darkness of the densest forest.

Excerpted with permission from Birds, Beasts and Bandits 14 Days with Veerappan by Krupakar and Senani, translated by SR Ramakrishna, Penguin Books.