Elephants and tourists conflict

Manas National Park straddles the border of Bhutan and India, and is meant to provide refuge for elephants (Elephas maximus indicus). When you plan a trip to this place, you never think about safety. Normally you keep a watch on your surroundings, and give enough space to elephants. They are also careful around humans, and you can see them trying to gauge your movements, making a move only when you halt sufficiently far away. But accidents happen. Fortunately our accident did not result in anything but adrenaline on either side.

Our only excuse for creating this mess was that everyone on the jeep was very keen to get to a rest stop. I assume that the other two jeeps involved in this accident were also in a similar frame of mind. So we did not notice a bunch of elephants coming into the clearing where a forest guard post and the toilets were. It was a big herd. There were five or six adults, perhaps four or five babies, and a few sub-adults. After the initial panicky response of the elephants, as the herd began to settle into a defensive arrangement, one of the jeeps started its engine too early. The elephants were spooked but retreated as the forest guards advanced making a lot of noise to create a route out for us. The video ends as we started to move. But then the elephants made a mock charge to establish a boundary. I could guess what was happening, but whether it is mock charge or not, you are still tense when two elephants come rushing towards you. Fortunately, with much shouting and bellowing, the two groups established a frontier and we could drive off safely, and the forest guards could retreat into their post. Unfortunately, I could not take a video of this part of the encounter with all the bouncing of a jeep across the clearing in the forest.

The long experience of the guards and the local drivers was crucial in getting out of this jam. When you are in a tight spot they are very good, but its not an experience I would like to repeat. I’m sure that goes for the herd and the guards too. The solution is to always be on the lookout. Vigilia aeterna pretium salutis, as Cato the Elder may have said, instead of the much simpler phrase eternal vigilance is the price of safety.

By I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.

21 comments

  1. Yeesh! Gosh. Terrifying stuff. On the few occasions we have passed a herd of elephants, they have been fairly calm and watchful but even then along with the excitement of being so close, I am always just a tiny bit worried about exactly what you experienced. Also whenever we have been to Bandipur, a forest ranger tells us some terrible tale of a tourist with a selfie stick and an annoyed elephant who does not want to he on instagram.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, that’s quite an experience! I was fascinated to see how well the adults protected the babies even when walking backwards. I’m glad you were able to shoot at least this part of the encounter on video. However careful people are, there’s always the potential for a misunderstanding between humans and elephants and you’re so right, experienced guides are crucial to de-escalating any issues. We found the same with our encounter with a solitary bull in Tanzania!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love the details and video you provide to document this experience! Not many of us get to see this in the wild. It’s really cool seeing the herd act together to protect the babies. Even the ones throwing up dirt were playing a role. Thank you for sharing! 😎

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. Riling up these gentle creatures was unintentional. As you rightly point out, everything was a show, and meant only to establish borders and safe spaces. The forest guards seemed to know that, so they made equal threat displays, but from a distance. Inter-species communication has to be absolutely clear to avoid tragedies.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That’s a great point about interspecies communication. Glad everyone was ok. We want to be able to continue to observe these awesome mammals. It’s not as impactful to see a video as it is to go to their habitat. 😎

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. Yes, it was our mis/fortune to run into such a large herd. You can never rule out accidental escalation, but I never thought that the forest guards and the drivers would have let it come to any injuries on either side.

      Like

  4. Very wonderful animals with a wise and admirable strategy. Their behavior reminded me of a herd of semi-feral cattle with their calves I (nearly) ran into in the mountains hiking one late spring afternoon. All I could do was back slowly away while they fanned out against the fence with their calves and pawed the ground with their feet. This video is amazing. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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