My days with the elephants

My days with the elephants

The beginning
The tusker was drinking water standing on the right bank of Sigur stream downstream of Vazhaithottam near Cheetal Walk in Nilgiri North Forest Division. It was midday during an early month of 1975. The wind was still in the valley and I noticed the bull as I walked wearing flip-flops along the left bank of the stream. At the time, there was a dense growth of tall Bambusa arundinacea all along the stream bank and this provided enough cover for me to move along the bank unseen by the tusker. As part of my salary to work on the dhole project (which I was doing with Dr. Michael Fox of USA) I was given a camera and I had started taking pictures of interesting things in the jungle.
That day my camera had been loaded with a 400 ASA BW film and I was wearing a field outfit, which merged well with the surroundings. The streambed was about 15 meters wide and was full of large and small rocks. Hoping that the rocks would slow down the bull’s rapid charge (if he so deigned), I moved out of the bamboo to get a clear picture. Elephants, particularly adults, are noted for their inability to see clearly at a distance. But this bull noticed me, stopped drinking and with an astonishing speed ran over the rocks towards me. I dropped the flip-flops in the place where I was standing and ran like a deer pursued by dholes to the safety of Cheetal Walk, which was about 200 m away. While running, I looked behind and saw the bull standing near the place where I had left my footwear. Possibly these items distracted it and hours later I quietly went back to collect my flip-flops which were lying in the same place where I had left them. This was surprising as elephants sometimes play with or carry away objects left by humans.
During 1973 and 1975, I stayed in Cheetal Walk for a period of five months. Cheetal Walk was the week-end jungle home of late ERC Davidar, a lawyer by profession but a keen naturalist and conservationist. Being close to the Sigur river, this place was frequented by elephants. As my search for dholes in the surrounding forests was on foot, I often encountered elephants too. This was my first experience with elephant jungle, and I approached this endeavour with immense fear and respect for elephants. In the course of time, I learnt even to walk alone and developed the capability to locate and avoid elephants. Since then, my career in wildlife conservation fortunately has given me ample opportunities to observe elephants in many places across the country, and these experiences over the years have added to my knowledge of the elephants.
Bandipur days
One of the remarkable periods in my life was my two-year stay in Bandipur Tiger Reserve (1976-78) when I pursued the dhole study for my Ph.D. The Reserve is a stronghold of Asiatic elephants. Here also, my study in the tourism zone of the Reserve (c. 40 was carried out on foot and I had plentiful opportunities to observe elephants. I continued to use flip flops as footwear as frequent encounters with elephants required me to climb trees for safety. This type of loose footwear enabled me to be rid of them quickly and make an equally quick barefoot ascent. During the period of my study Keechanna, my kuruba tribal assistant, was an immense source of knowledge and strength to me. The shooting hide near Thavarakatte under a Terminalia belerica tree, another T. belerica tree (which is now dead) just south of Nanjanapura kere (pond), and the large Butea frondosa tree east of Karigowdana katte (pond) were some of my favorite places to sit, wait for and observe animals. The hide, a mud structure with a tin roof, was built by the Mysore maharaja to shoot tigers. Sadly, it too has disappeared.
Once while I was sitting in the Terminalia tree near Nanjanapura kere, a large tusker came to drink water. It walked under my tree and went to the edge of the water where there was a dense growth of sedges and started drinking. While it was drinking, a pond heron flew and landed amidst the sedges hardly five meters from the elephant. The tusker saw the flashing white of the heron in flight and the bird disappeared as soon as it landed amidst the sedges. This alarmed and frightened the tusker who cocked his ear lobes, raised its tail, made a kheee…. kheee sound and ran away. It was fun to watch that behavior of the elephant. In the course of time I understood that a normal elephant, one not involved in serious human-elephant conflict, can easily be frightened by a human hidden downwind of the elephant. Several times, I have made use of this behavior of elephants, particularly solitary bulls, to move them away from my path, while returning from the forest to my room in Bandipur. I was wary of using this method with groups as it was not possible to fully know the whereabouts the elephants when they remained dispersed amidst the vegetation.
Often, I have heard persons working in elephant habitats boasting that they have escaped from elephants several times. This can be only far from truth. A person may escape once or twice but not several times. During my many years of wanderings in elephant habitat, I have been chased only once, by a cow in Bandipur Tiger Reserve. I escaped most likely because I knew the terrain well. This happened one evening as I walked from Mangala dam to Aralikatte, a pond about two kilometers from Bandipur near the highway to Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary. A forest department vehicle coming along the road, taking tourists gave me a lift and dropped me near Aralikatte where I wanted to get down. As I walked towards the pond, a cow elephant separated from a large group feeding near the pond silently came running towards the vehicle. I was in its path. Since I was in a nallah habitat amidst the bushes, I could not see the elephant but the driver saw the cow and shouted to me to come back to the vehicle as rapidly as possible. I ran towards the vehicle and while running noticed that the elephant was speeding towards the vehicle. When I reached the road, to my horror, I saw the vehicle picking up speed and moving away faster than I could run. I also saw that the elephant had now decided not to chase the vehicle and was instead advancing towards me! So I left the road, dropped my rucksack and cap on the road and ran towards the nearby deep nallah, which drained Aralikatte. On reaching the nallah bank I sat amidst lantana bushes wondering whether I should jump inside the nallah or not as it was full of dead bamboo and other bushes. But the elephant came as close as five meters and tilting its head it tried to locate me. As one flip of its trunk could fatally injure me, I jumped into the nallah, ran along upstream and came back to the road. Meanwhile, the driver summoning up his courage came back with the vehicle in reverse. I got into the vehicle unscathed but terribly shaken and totally drained by this nerve wrecking experience. The driver blamed the three young women in the vehicle, who on seeing the advancing elephant screamed and urged the driver to get away from the place.
In my opinion, if it is decided by God that one should be killed by an elephant, it will definitely happen. The tragic end of Shri. Rajasekaran Nair of the Indian Forest Service, then working as the director of the Wildlife Research and Education Division of the Ministry, which later evolved as the Wildlife Institute of India where I later worked for 20 years, is a good example for this. It happened on the misty morning of 6th December 1977. He had come to Bandipur with seven forest officer trainees including the late PK Surendranathan Asari who later retired as the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Kerala. Mr. Nair wanted me to take him and his trainees on foot inside the forest. I refused saying that I am not permitted to do so but he insisted saying that as officers of the Indian Forest Service, they have the privilege to walk in any jungle in India and no harm will come to me if I take them on foot. On the morning of the 5th, the trainees were taken on foot; in the evening Mr. Nair came with me. He once again wanted to go with me on the morning of the 6th before proceeding to Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary. While we were on the Chammanahalla road, we saw a young tusker at a distance of more than 100m coming out of dense lantana, a little north of the road. The terrain was flat and so I told Mr. Nair that it would be better to retreat, allow the elephant to go across the road and then proceed further. Sadly he didn’t listen to me but started stalking the elephant using trees as cover. He was wearing camouflage dress and his camera which had a long lens had been loaded with 64 ASA Kodochrome film. I stood on the road and watched helplessly. The tusker for reasons known only to him charged from a distance of nearly 70 m and came towards him like an arrow. When he saw the elephant charge him, he tried to climb a tree, but found it difficult and ran into the dense lantana thickets to the south of the road. I threw away my flip-flops and ran into the same patch along a wildlife trail. The full story is written in one of my popular books Field Days.
BNHS and Dehra Dun days
After my dhole study and a brief stint at the Conservation Research Center of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, I returned to India to work on BNHS elephant project. This project was initiated with Ajay A Desai and N. Sivaganesan in Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary. Ajay continues to stand out as a stalwart in elephant conservation and research in the country.
May be the most remarkable period in my life is my 20-year tenure in Wildlife Institute of India, Dehra Dun from 1985 to 2005. During this period, in addition to teaching and training students and forest officer trainees, I also conducted research on elephants in Rajaji National Park (now a Tiger Reserve). In this endeavour, two extremely dedicated individuals, Justus Joshua and Christy Williams, ably assisted me. This research gave me an opportunity to radio-collar twelve elephants. There were many exciting episodes during collaring and lessons learnt while tracking them. These experiences have given us some vital lessons for elephant conservation.
The collaring of a big bull called as Big Boss in 1991 was very interesting. He weighed over 5 tons and stood over ten feet. He was nearly 50 years old and was never aggressive towards Justus who often watched him from close quarters. According to late Dr. V. Krishnamurthy, the famous elephant doctor from Tamil Nadu, who was assisting us with the collaring program, he was the second largest bull elephant he had seen in his life. In those days we didn’t know much about the dosage of immobilon to be given to the elephants. Even for big bulls we gave only 3 ml of immobilon, which often made the bulls run for kilometers before going down. NVK Ashraf, one of the finest veterinarians in the country discovered that we needed to revise the quantity when he did a literature survey on immobilon dosages given to African and Asian elephants.
On the day of his collaring, we located Big Boss in the Shyampur Range (east of Ganges, adjacent to Rajaji National Park). It was morning, and he was feeding peacefully near a bamboo clump. Dr. Krisnamurthy loaded the dart gun with 3 ml of immobilon and gave it to me to dart the elephant. I selected an armed guard of the Park to accompany me. He had a double-barrel breach-loading gun. I checked the gun and found it was properly loaded, and on foot we approached Big Boss upwind. When we were about 15 meters away, I fired the dart gun. For some unknown reason the dart flew like a rocket making an shooo sound and landed between the hind legs of Big Boss ! This made him to turn around and look in our direction and the two of us ran away from the scene. The gun was again loaded with another 3 ml dart and this time the dart hit him on the right rump. The bull turned around, saw us and then ran into the forest in the direction of the adjacent Chilla Range. We waited for some time and then followed the clear trail, which he had left in the under-storey. We found him on the ground 5 km away in lateral recumbency. Had he fallen on his sternum he could have died of suffocation had we not located him on time. The bull was wide awake and when we approached him he swished his trunk towards us as if trying to hit us. It took some time for Dr. Krishnamurthy, who had just recovered from a fracture in his left thigh, to reach the scene. The bull was completely tranquilized with an additional dose of one ml of immobilon and collaring followed smoothly.
Interestingly, next day when we continued to look for more elephants, one tusker came towards us aggressively. The guard who accompanied me the previous day attempted to fire both his barrels skywards to scare the bull away, but both cartridges (made in India) misfired ! We were in a group that also included a captive elephant (which was used in the dartingoperations). By collectively shouting and screaming, we managed to make the tusker turn away.
When Justus followed Big Boss, he found that the bull spent a considerable amount of time in Shyampur Range, which had plenty of bamboo. But this location was outside Rajaji National Park. At this point, we realized that while planning a protected area it would be ideal to include the ecological boundary of the home range of the flagship species within the protected area so as to give maximum protection to the species. Big Boss himself never raided crop fields, as he had not lost any portion of his home range to agriculture. In November 1995, the nearly 55-year-old Big boss came into musth. He fought for mating rights over a female with a much younger bull with dagger-like tusks. He was killed after four hours of battle. The forest staff even fired in the air to stop the fight. But it did not help.
Another legendary bull of Rajaji NP was Tippu who was radio-collared in 1996 and followed by Christy Williams. He was a chronic crop raider as a portion of his habitat between the two halves of Rajaji NP had been lost to agriculture. But he never killed a human although humans once electrocuted and almost killed him. Immediately after this incident, he was immobile for seven hours. Then, like the biblical Samson, breaking the ropes tied by Delilah, he got up, shook off his languor and walked away into the forest. By frequently ranging across the fragile Chilla-Motichur corridor, which connected the two halves of Rajaji National Park (in which there was heavy traffic of vehicles and trains), he was proving that elephant bulls, because of their capability to move across disturbed areas, are the ones which keep their fragmented habitats ‘together’. He was careful in crossing the road and the railway tracks and managed to save himself from the fate that had befallen many other elephants.
During the period that Christy tracked him, his home range was around 400 and he would come into musth every year, which lasted for four months or so. After a few years, he dropped the collar, but the forest staff could get information on his whereabouts in different places of the Park because of his conspicuous identification marks (bump on the head particularly). This helped us eventually to estimate his lifetime home range to about 800 His period of musth, an indication of his health, went up to six months as he often used the disturbance free 150 Chilla Range from which the pastoral gujjars had been resettled. His death came when he was about 65 years of age. Although he died falling down from Motichur Railway Bridge, the fall could be attributed to serious injuries caused by a younger bull few days ago over a fight for a young female.
The killing of six to eight tuskers in December 2000 and January- February 2001 in the core area of Corbett Tiger Reserve by poachers clearly indicated that just declaration of an area as core would not help in conservation. Postmortem reports of the dead elephants showed that at least three bulls were killed by arrows with chisel-type iron arrowheads. Such arrows can penetrate the thick skin of an elephant only when they are shot with a powerful tool like a cross-bow. Other evidence such as the wrapping of cotton thread on the bamboo shaft at the base of the arrow-head and broken balloons (presumably the balloons were used to carry the poison) indicate the possible role of Lisu tribals from Arunachal Pradesh. The Lisu reportedly have such traditions of making poisoned arrows. The poison is probably extracted from the tuber of Aconitum balfourii, a high altitude plant. Despite extensive efforts by the police and forest personnel, the culprits escaped with their loot.
NCF, WWF-India and The Corbett Foundation days
I retired from Wildlife Institute of India in October 2005, settled in Bangalore in February 2006. Since then, I have been lucky enough to visit elephant habitats in different parts of the country supported by WWF-India, NCF, Mysore and the Corbett Foundation. It saddens me to know that in spite of discussions over the decades and excellent information available we have not yet established vital elephant corridors such as Chilla-Motichur, Aryankavu between Periyar and Agasthyamalai landscape, Kallar in Coimbatore Forest Division, and Kutta between Nagarahole Tiger Reserve and Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary. Have understood that for captive elephant management excellent care of tribals such as Kurubas and Malamalasars who are happy to grow and live with elephants are exceedingly important. Realized that Madhya Pradesh Forest Department is good in captive elephant management, they have some magnificent tuskers and the relationship between the mahouts and the elephants is so good the bulls even when they are in musth are used for tracking tigers. Anyone who has an eye for assessing the habitats would say that the level of habitat degradation in our elephant habitats is enormous as the habitats are swamped by unpalatable species and there is negligible amount of regeneration of palatable species. As a result, human elephant conflict too is on the rise: nearly 500 people get killed by elephants every year (almost all of them are poor) , nearly 10, 000 of agriculture lands have the problem of crop depredation and more than 100 elephants die as a result of poaching for ivory and conflict related issues. According to Shri. SS Bist of the Indian Forest Service (Retd), who with great understanding and dedication, has served as Director, Project Elephant, elephants are spilling over into newer areas and the problems caused by them are likely to increase in future. Tigers can be poisoned and the carcass can be easily destroyed but the same can not be done with elephants and so the problem with the elephants will continue to be there.
Yet, based on methods (block counts and dung decay method) which are difficult to successfully implement at the national level with the help of forest staff, we happily declare that we have a population 30,000 elephants which is growing. In fact knowing the existing degraded condition of the habitats in most places of the elephant range and the number of people getting killed, we should be really worried about this large growing population. Time has come to control the number of elephants through immuno-contraception in places where habitat conditions are poor and conflict levels are high. Rather than assessing the entire population of elephants in the country better we should also try and estimate the population of tuskers in the country whose numbers may be less than 1000. Perhaps, as part of a national effort, all tuskers can be counted by photographing and identifying all the individuals. Tuskers get poached, die as a result of conflict and range into suboptimal habitats. A dedicated program to take care of the need of the tuskers will go a long way in ensuring the future of elephants in the country.
Acknowledgement: Thanks are recorded to Meera Oomen and Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan for reading through the article.

Dr. A.J.T.Johnsingh, Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, WWF-India

Scientific Advisor to The Corbett Foundation


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of The Corbett Foundation.

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