Walking is a Way of Knowing

I review two new books, Walking is a Way of Knowing and Speaking to an Elephant, which tell stories of tribal legend.

In India, forest-dwellers are seen in binaries, sidelining a more quotidian understanding of their lives. ‘Walking is a Way of Knowing’ and ‘Speaking to an Elephant’ present the beautiful stories we’re missing out on as a result.

 

Green is not just a colour but a spectrum, suggests Walking is a Way of Knowing. Because “it is always dark inside the forest, and the sky is green”. When the sun filters through leaves, they become “parakeet green, fern green, viper green and dark spinach green”. Colour, then, becomes a simple way to understand the biological complexity of the forest.

In literature, the forest is a space that has been unpacked through the non-native. Tales of the ‘jungle’ were first told through white explorers, who exoticised the forest and were positioned as outsiders. This was a space to be forged and interpreted by the ‘civilised’ scholar, scientist or adventurer. National Geographic magazine, with its expansive, fine-grained coverage on peoples and places readers had “never even imagined”, recently admitted that its coverage of tribals or “natives” has been racist.

In India, the forest is understood largely as a management unit, and forest-dwellers are seen in binaries. They are either painted as enemies of wildlife conservation – just this month, two Baiga tribal women were arrested in Kanha tiger reserve for gathering mushrooms – or are represented as living in perfect harmony with the forest. What is missing is a quotidian understanding of the forest-dweller’s life.

Walking is a Way of Knowing Madhuri Ramesh, Manish Chandi and Matthew Frame Tara Books, 2018

How, for example, do people find their way in the forest? What do they do when they encounter wildlife in the everyday – in instances when there is no obvious conflict or ‘event’? More broadly, what is their biography of forest life and the forest as a whole? Madhuri Ramesh and Manish Chandi’s book Walking is a Way of Knowing works to fill this gap. It is a mild subversion of tropes, with the Kadar tribal who becomes the centre of the stories. The Kadars are a tribe of the biodiverse Annamalai hills of the Western Ghats. The tribal, not the scientist, is the expert, with experiential and traditional knowledge. In Speaking to An Elephant, Ramesh and Chandi are retellers of Kadar mythologies.

What you get in both books is straightforward writing rather than interpretations.

“Woods have always been a place of in-betweenness…,” Robert Macfarlane writes in The Wild Places (2007). “Different aspects of the forest link unexpectedly with each other, and so it is that within the stories of forests, different times and worlds can be joined.”

The sense of wonder in the everyday life of walking in the forest – and the forest itself as a story – suffuses Kadar tales. Crucially, however, this not the hobbyist wonder of the nature enthusiast or ornithologist but a more felt spectacle, existing quietly along with the menace of ticks, wildlife encounters and the difficulties of weather. The divide between the reader – the one who reads about forests in books – and the Kadar, the insider, is intimate. This adds greatly to the stories.

On the question of the Kadar finding her way through the forest, Padma, a tribal woman, explains, “If you build a map of the area in your heart this way, by constantly looking and feeling your way through the place, you will find that it reaches your feet and they will guide you back home in any season, even at night.”

And this is not for everyone. The rights of the forest must be earned, she says: “But it takes many years, a clear memory and strong legs!”

The Kadar have strong legs and they learn to walk quietly, like the elephants they meet often in the forest. On interactions with wildlife, the Kadar narrate how they have to exchange gifts with wild animals – in other words, leave food for them. They say they take only precise quantities of forest goods.

Speaking to An Elephant Madhuri Ramesh, Manish Chandi and Matthew Frame Tara Books, 2018

The forest is a provider and teacher both, gifting the Kadar with just enough, with this becoming a central idea both in their knowledge and mythologies of kadavul(Tamil for the almighty). This would also be what researchers or the forest department would later call “sustainable harvest”.

The landscape in the books will be new for most readers, particular to the Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot. You have mossy trees, Kurinji shrubs, four kinds of beehives, red and pink elaeocarpus leaves. Speaking to an Elephantwill specially appeal to children, in its very Indian characters spoken of in a voice not heard before. There are stories on why tortoises have stitch-like marks on their shells, why white kumin mushrooms appear only on one day of the year and why grasshoppers hop.

What greatly helps both books are sumptuous, florid illustrations by Matthew Frame. His artwork may remind you of Chris Riddell’s work for Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle (2013).

Walking is a Way of Knowing, however, needed more careful copy-editing and a much more extensive index for local names and words. The book would have also benefitted greatly from short, contextual explanations of genus and biological names and functions.

But these are stories that become important not only because they have not been heard but because they provide alternative explanations of the machinations of the forest – at a time when it is being seen as a commodity to be raised and sold. One hopes the Kadar’s traditional knowledge of the rhythm of the forest, along with that of hundreds of other forest-dwelling tribes and peoples, will find its way into mandatory People’s Biodiversity Registers and, ultimately, in conservation and species recovery plans.

As the Kadar forge and walk their paths, they have to use all their senses to feel their way through the forest because it demands this submission, and also deserves it. The difficulty of the task is buoyed by its beauty. As Madiyappan, an elderly Kadar, sums up succinctly, “We return to the forest again and again: as much to fill our stomachs as our hearts.”

 

This first appeared in The Wire, here.

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Running Away From Elephants: on Rauf Ali’s delightful memoirs

Rauf Ali, wildlife biologist, was a dear friend. We lost him too soon to Cancer. I knew he was many things- ribald, jovial, talented and honest, but I didn’t know he was such a good writer! Rauf, I miss you!
I was honoured to review his memoirs for The Hindu. Don’t miss this book!

(Link to buy below).

Running Away From Elephants review: Telling it like it is

 Running Away From Elephants review: Telling it like it is

A humorous, keenly observed take on wildlife and conservation

Early on in his book, ecologist Rauf Ali writes on a langur monkey’s food-gathering techniques, which had “deep psychological insights” on people. At a temple in Agra, the langur would sweetly beg Indian tourists for food, which would result in a few peanuts. But when he saw a foreign tourist, the langur’s technique would change, and he would “charge at them screaming. Whereupon they would also scream, drop their peanuts and run!” This was, Rauf writes, straight-faced, his first encounter with racism.

For the rest of Running Away From Elephants, Rauf says it as it is — and how. He is ribald, keenly observant, and writes with deep affection for “boring” Slow Loris, “nasty” Bonnet Macaques, butting Blackbucks, lazy Gir lions and occasionally, drunk spies and excise officers. Unlike many wildlife conservationists, he has no cloying sentiment or moralising. And on his own life, spent between Andaman and Nicobar islands, Western Ghat rainforests, and Auroville, Pondicherry, he writes: “Forget the Gerald Durrell stories. Nobody dies in these stories, and nobody falls ill either. Field work in reality is, to paraphrase Claude Levi-Strauss, being cold, wet, hungry, tired, or more usually, all four at the same time, most of the time.”

Faced with several challenges (he studied wildlife through the 1970s and 80s, when this was unheard of, and he was often accused of being a CIA agent), university politics, recurring bouts of malaria, and a final, short tryst with cancer, Rauf went through life with Dionysian frenzy. The book is light-hearted, but that’s not to say the author takes his work lightly. He is hard on himself and his own knowledge. Indeed, this is that rare humorous book written not for humour’s sake, but with a thorough understanding of the subjects he takes on —rainforest ecology, how dams negatively impact forests, migratory birds, and monkeys.

Rauf was related to India’s Bird Man Salim Ali, and true to style, he writes a thoroughly funny character study. Salim was deaf in one ear, and when he had to avoid someone, he would turn his deaf ear towards the other, and keep nodding. He would go into paroxysms of rage if birds were not properly identified, but gave Rauf a lot of books. For many others, including this writer, Rauf was an untiring knowledge sharer. Rauf helped set up ecology studies at Pondicherry University, and broke fresh ground in the study of and advocacy against invasive species. Through this book, I also learn he is a fine writer. This book adds to India’s natural history writing in a way none has. Don’t miss it.

Running Away From Elephants; Rauf Ali,

Speaking Tiger Books,

₹499.

Buy it here.

Photo of Rauf Ali: internet.

Trains are killing elephants- and so is our Apathy!

What we do now to mitigate the impact of linear projects will determine how elephants – India’s National Heritage animal – will interact with the new India.

On Monday, four elephants died in Odisha after being hit by a train.

There is perhaps no large wild animal that dies unnaturally in such large numbers in single events as do elephants due to collisions with trains. Most of the deaths are in Central and Eastern India. Thirty elephants were killed after being hit by trains between 2013 and 2017 in West Bengal. One of the worst incidents was in Jalpaiguri in 2013, when six elephants were killed in a rail collision. In December 2017, five elephants died in Assam while crossing a railway track. An elephant and a fortnight-old calf also died in a similar way near Ranchi in 2016. On the last day of 2012, five elephants (including one that was pregnant) were killed in Ganjam in Odisha after being hit by a train.

One reason why elephants die en masse is that the herd tries to save other members from the train.

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Young elephants die very often on collision with trains and vehicles on highways. Here: forest department elephant in Central India

The National Board of Wildlife recently announced that all projects in sanctuaries, national parks and eco-sensitive zones around these sanctuaries should have a funded mitigation plan to prevent mortality due to linear projects such as roads and railways. However, a more immediate need is to identify mitigation measures in all conflict hotspots, not just near protected areas.

letter drafted in February 2018 by the Sanctuary Nature Foundation (to which the author is a signatory) to Piyush Goyal, the Union railway minister, states, “Elephants are impacted in the East-Central India belt of Odisha, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh because of devastation of elephant habitat and corridors by iron ore and coal mining and industrial development.”

As a mitigation measure, the letter suggests levelling steep mounds along railway lines, which can otherwise hinder escape attempts, and clearing vegetation around bends so train drivers and guards can see elephants moving.

There is evidence that this kind of mitigation can work. It takes two forms: built mitigation, such as underpasses or tunnels, and preventive mitigation, such as patrolling and clearing escape routes. A railway line through Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand had killed several elephants until some basic measures were installed. A patrolling team looked out for elephants, warning signs were erected, embankments were made less steep and vegetation was cleared.

Mortality hotspots can also be identified; this is important because the presence of a hotspot indicates that trains might be moving faster through that area. A study published in 2017 noted that “broad gauge allows trains to reach higher velocities, making it harder for elephants to avoid a moving train,” and that, “after gauge conversion, the maximum speed of trains increased from about 60 kph to over 100 kph.” Apart from hotspots, the study found that most accidents happened at night, suggesting that limiting train operations after sunset and making underpasses or tunnels for crossing could reduce casualties in the area.

In practice, however, the only institutions paying attention seem to be the courts. The National Green Tribunal had directed the Assam government to curb highway roadkills, and the state recently said it had dedicated Rs 11 crore for mitigation in Kaziranga. Among other measures, a sensor system installed in the park now throws down a barrier in the path of a train when a large animal like an elephant is crossing.

However, the real danger lies in elephant passageways outside protected areas. This month, the Supreme Court asked the Centre to find a solution to reduce elephant deaths in corridors. “We cannot tell the elephants where they should go… they must have a corridor,” an apex court bench observed.

The other immediate challenge is posed by the fact that the number of railway lines and other linear infrastructure is set to increase in the country. On the question of built mitigation to help animals cross railway tracks, we need to build build overpasses and/or tunnels as well as install monitoring systems to see if such mitigative measures actually work.

The upcoming Sevoke Rangpo line in Sikkim will go through Mahananda sanctuary and elephant corridors in the area. So this line should not be built without accompanying mitigation efforts, and hotspots for elephant activity will need to be identified beyond protected areas.

Linear projects also take a toll on other wildlife. ‘Roadkill’, a new crowd-sourced citizen’s science project, documents wildlife deaths due to linear projects. In the last 100 days, apart from elephants, as many as 25 leopards and one tiger have been reported killed after being hit on roads and railway tracks.

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Roadkills India@RoadkillsIndia

20 elephants, 25 leopards, 1 tiger due to linear infrastructure in a span of 3 months. @SanctuaryAsia @BittuSahgal @ParveenKaswan @prernabindra @bahardutt @dipika_bajpai @nehaa_sinha @prernabindra @anishandheria @WCT_India @GargiRawat @NGhanekar @aathiperinchery

What we do now to mitigate the impact of linear projects will determine how elephants – India’s National Heritage animal – will interact with the new India.

This first appeared in The Wire, here.

Why are elephants at the centre of conflict in India?

Chased by people when trapped in fields, run over by trains, or hemmed in by walls – elephants are at the centre of a growing human footprint. Some elephant calves are like children born in conflict zones — insecure, aggressive, and unpredictable.

How elephants became refugees on the outskirts of Bhubhaneswar city

What is happening in Athgarh is happening in many parts of India — creating a situation which is dangerous for both man and animal.

In India, there are elephants we worship. There are elephants we beat for work. There are elephants we ignore. In India, we now also have elephants that are refugees. The calves of these elephants are growing up like children in conflict — confused, unpredictable and scared.

On the outskirts of Bhubhaneswar city, a herd of elephants has become refugees. They left the intensely disturbed Chandaka sanctuary, and tried to move towards other forest patches. However, human activity has now surrounded the elephants. Videos show how people chase the hapless animals, who seem to be only wanting to cross roads and fields.

In a first for Odisha, a campaign, Giant Refugees, has been started to protect the elephants and grant them safe passage. Video documentation shows that in Khuntuni range of Athgarh forest division, people are harassing the herd of elephants for no good reason other than “evening entertainment”, say activists.

Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s office has said that the CM cares for elephants, but it remains to be seen what action will be taken.

elebd_030117024532.jpgSurrounded by an ever-expanding human footprint, large animals like elephants are becoming refugees in a land that they once freely occupied.

Meanwhile, two trends are emerging.

Surrounded by an ever-expanding human footprint, large animals like elephants are becoming refugees in a land that they once freely occupied. Estimated to have 2,000 wild elephants, Odisha has a robust pachyderm population. But all of that is under threat.

Apart from poaching and disturbance in sanctuaries, elephants are also getting killed by trains. For instance in 2012, six elephants — almost an entire herd — were mowed down by the Coromandel Express.

While a large population of the national heritage animal still remains in this biodiverse state, one of the biggest ironies is this: elephants are accorded the highest protection for wild animals under the law. While they have some measure of protection in sanctuaries, the same animals are barely protected as they step foot outside these parks. With time, parks are changing — and so are the landscapes around them.

Many herds have already left Chandaka sanctuary, as it has become surrounded on three sides by people and habitation. In the 1960s, tigers went extinct here, followed by the extinction of leopards.

Second, in this setting, non-traditional patterns are emerging. Across India, not only are elephants and other animals becoming refugees, they are also coming together in confusion. Usually, elephants stick to their natal herds. Now, new herds are forming with straggler elephants coming together, with the glue of confusion and bewilderment. In Alur in Karnataka, a major human-elephant conflict hotspot, a similar trend is seen — non-related males and females have come together to form “herds”.

Elephants have complex sociologies and are deeply affected by the fate of their herd members. Usually, herds only have females and young ones. In Jalpaiguri, West Bengal, where several elephants have been repeatedly killed by trains, they have also died in trying to protect their calves from the incoming train carriages, earning the area the dubious distinction of being a “rail graveyard” for elephants. In Africa, studies show that elephants from herds which have witnessed trophy shooting become distraught and unpredictable.

elebd1_030117024655.jpgSeveral elephants have been repeatedly killed by trains.

“I have been observing elephants wandering in Odisha, having left the disturbed Chandaka sanctuary since the early 2000s. Entire herds of elephants have died in the press against people, mining, railways and habitat fragmentation. People say these are “nuisance animals” and “marauding jumbos” but the fact is that most of these elephants just want to have safe passage,” says wildlife conservationist Aditya Panda.

It’s not just elephants. If a refugee is someone who is evicted from its land, and thrown into conflict, it would not be an exaggeration to say that many species are being made refugees: captured and thrown out of habitat owing to poor decision-making and confused ecological initiatives.

Two “conflict” leopards were recently caught and castrated (though castration has no impact on aggression) in Sariska recently. Another leopard, which had no negative encounters with people, was picked up from Yamuna Biodiversity Park in Delhi and sent to an undisclosed location. This leads many to believe that an animal, which is protected by law, and even if passive, is being treated like a thief, a criminal or a terrorist, and also subject to encounter killings.

The solutions are relatively simple, but need political will. And in areas outside protected sanctuaries, the solutions need more than the forest department’s involvement, as animals are being harassed, with objects or torches flung at them, opening the gates to potential fatalities on both sides.

“The state needs to send in policemen to stop crowds from harassing the elephants. As a long-term measure, better connectivity has to be provided between Chandaka and Kapilas sanctuaries and the Satkosia landscape. Prompt compensation needs to be given for crop damage,” says Panda.

The fact is, what is happening in Athgarh is happening in many parts of India — creating a situation which is dangerous for both man and animal. This conflict needs to be addressed on a war footing before more lives are lost. It is estimated that more than 200 people have been injured all over Odisha in conflict with elephants in recent times.

The problem cannot be solved only by chasing elephants away, or provoking them from the apparent safety of a group of people. To give the animals passage, forest corridors, that CM Patnaik said he has identified, need to be notified and conserved.

What Patnaik and the state decides to do now, as the problem escalates sharply each day, will determine the fate of the wild and human citizens of Odisha.

This piece first appeared here

Why is a golf course killing elephants in Assam? Here’s Why

A golf course in Assam is the unlikely threat to elephants.

Next to Kaziranga National Park, which is one of India’s most celebrated Protected Areas, a golf course set up for Numaligarh refinery employees has led to the suspected death of four elephants (and counting) and one leopard.

Situated right in the middle of elephant habitat, a wall put up around the golf course has bewildered the pachyderms. Video and photo documentation show the animals trying to break down the wall; and in this process, four elephants, including one calf has died.

I have been getting many responses to a piece I wrote on this issue (below), and would like to list out some of the options that can be explored to mitigate the damage.

  1. The first question is: do we need to have a golf course in the middle of the forest? And if we do, then can we make it without allowing elephants to pass? It is indeed stupid to make a course in Kaziranga’s No Development Zone (this is really no National  priority) but even if this is done, it is even more counter-productive to deny the existence of the elephant. Thus one option is to break down the wall completely as 5,000 people are endorsing. See the petition in the hyperlink.
  2. Give passage to the elephants within the golf course, fencing off areas which should be no-go. Such practices are followed in Valparai, in Tamil Nadu, where tea gardens have come up in elephant areas.
  3. Break down the wall in smaller portions and give a part of the golf course for elephant habitat and free elephant movement.

What should we do? Leave your comments below.

An elephant herd trying to break down the golf course wall.
An elephant herd trying to break down the golf course wall.

The elephant is our National Heritage animal. Many people in Assam follow combinations of 1,2,3 to give them passage. People with much less resources than an endowed oil company have respected our National heritage. It would be criminal and damning if Indian Oil did not follow suit.

My column on this issue, which first appeared in DailyO, is here. Do watch the video of an elephant trying to cross the golf course wall.

How a golf course in Assam’s forests is the elephant in the room

The embodiment of Lord Ganesha, the elephant god and patron of holy beginnings, has had many obstructions. In the psychological realm, good beginnings have been obstructed by the lack of will or money, a wavering nerve, a pet peeve, or the predicament of superstition. In the physical world, the only embodiment of Ganesha – the Indian elephant – has more obstructions than can be counted.

The list is long, but it is also growing. Physical barriers to the elephant are many – and this is an animal that needs to move to survive. It needs to forage for food (each animal will eat more than a tonne a day), and water to drink and bathe in (nobody has made bathrooms and showers for elephants yet!). Traditionally, barriers have included railway lines, which have caused the death of not just elephants, but elephant families; solar or other fences that have bisected the habitat the animals move in; trenches and roads that have been built either to obstruct elephants or out of sheer ignorance; mines with pits that act as death traps. Now, you can add a golf course to the list.

The Numaligarh refinery in Assam has set up a golf course in Golaghat, within the Kaziranga National Park’s “no development zone”. This golf course falls right in the midst of a habitat that has been the elephant’s for years. And the wall of the golf course is taking a bloody toll on the animals. In the past few months, it is suspected that four elephants have died trying to cross this wall. So has a leopard, which reportedly got impaled on the wires on the wall. The wall has been in existence since 2010, and may well have silently killed many more animals. Yet, those behind the wall pretend there are no elephant pathways around, and certainly no elephants.

Earlier this year, a divisional forest officer documented a herd approaching the wall. Bewildered, the elephants almost seemed to be shaking their heads at its existence. After gingerly and incredulously extending their trunks, sniffing and gauging, the herd then attempted to break down the obstruction, using their heads as clubs. For several minutes it was a veritable duel between the pachyderms and the perimeter. In a tragic consequence for the clan, not the cement, a young calf died after trying to break the wall.

It almost seemed like a perverse advertisement for a brand of cement or human engineering, in the form of bloody animal sacrifice.

Last week, another video documentation was done. This revealed an elephant painfully picking its way through a broken portion of the wall. For this animal too, the risk of losing its life, like that of the leopard, was real.

How could the state of Assam, which boasts of the renowned Kaziranga, allow this? Do we need a golf course in the middle of elephant land? And if we do, should we make it, lazily, with no provisions for the animals to pass?

For centuries, people have existed in this state with elephants. I am friends with tea estate owners who leave gates open at night to allow elephants to pass through. I know of villagers who cheerfully put up with crop-raiding by elephants, but never think of killing the animals. My family recounts how once, while travelling in Assam, an elephant herd was found to be standing on the road, after the car turned a bend. The driver got off and prostrated to the elephants from a distance, begging for passage. The animals seemed to understand and all of them moved towards the side of the mountain, making way for the jeep.

All of this stems from a deep sense of historicity, and a sense of shared cultural landscape between the human and the haathi. Those who dismiss elephant-human interactions – or tolerance – as romantic, irrational and slightly laughable, fail to understand that this heritage is also practical. Through simple measures, many have evolved physical means to avoid conflict with elephants, and developed psychological strength to tide over conflicts, if they do arise.

Erecting a wall on an elephant path – even if done so out of ignorance – is stupid, but keeping it there and pretending the elephants don’t exist is far more foolish. While the forest appears to stretch on forever to the untrained urban eye, and some may think of themselves as exciting pioneers teeing off in the “middle of nowhere”; the “nowhere” is actually somewhere for the elephants. Studies have shown that elephant families and herds have specific paths and sociologies, leading to the nomenclature of elephant corridors. Elephants don’t do random walks; instead elephant families – both in Asia and Africa – map corridors out, including food sources, waterbodies and places for refuge. Calves travel with their mothers and are taught routes, some of which also include “elephant graveyards”, or places where elephants have died. It’s a bit like your mom teaching you the way to school, with a lesson on which turns to take and which roads to avoid.

While the forest, paddy fields, grasslands et al may look green and vast, and some may think elephants will take the next highway, on several occasions, the option doesn’t exist for the animals. And just like elephants don’t have bathrooms for water supply, they also don’t have signs with shortcuts to their corridors.

Pretending the wall is not a problem in a state with a nuanced understanding of elephants is denying the history and sentient wisdom of the state. Also, in doing so, we run the risk of making it an elephant versus a golf course issue, which it is not. It is, squarely and clearly, an issue of bad planning in an area which is a small remnant of a living, wild habitat. Elephants have nothing to do with golf, but we have everything to do with the future of elephants.

Instead, as humans have erected the wall, humans now need to find a way to let the elephants pass.

elephant-embed_101615020829.jpg

There are ways to do this. Many areas allow animals to pass. But this is done by being tuned to the forest, not by bringing the city to the forest. In Assam itself, the Indian Railways has made bridges over railway lines for gibbons to cross (in Tinsukhia), and many farms and tea estates have trenched out paths for elephants. Others – nearly 5,000 citizens – suggest removing the wall. A case is now on in the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which has put a stay on the wall’s construction. It is a tragedy though that it is acceptable to bring the city to the backyard of one of India’s best known national parks, with a hubris that excludes wild animals who have no other options.

Saying there are no elephants, as those associated with the wall have been claiming, is an insult to the intelligence of the elephants. More so, it is an insult to the intelligence of sentient human beings.

If we were to speak the language of those who ignore the elephants in elephant land, I must ask: would you let in the haathis if they played golf?

http://www.dailyo.in/politics/elephant-corridor-wildlife-kaziranga-national-park-man-animal-conflict-environment/story/1/6821.html

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