I read in a document from the Zoological Survey of India that the Ain i Akbari mentions wild elephants in the area that the Pench National Park now occupies. These annals of the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar were written in the 16th century CE. I looked at my copy. Pench gets no mention, of course, but a larger geographical area around it is said to have these beasts. The ZSI document goes on to say that books from the 18th century about this area no longer mention these animals. The document concludes that elephants must have gone locally extinct in these centuries. It is interesting that the temperature minimum of the Little Ice Age occurred roughly at this time. This caused changes in rainfall patterns, and resulted in a sequence of droughts during the 18th century. Could it have been climate change of this kind that caused the extinction of the local population of elephants in this region?
So it is a little surprising to see elephants in the jungles of Pench, until you realize that there are only five elephants, and they are domesticated. The forest department uses them to patrol the jungle, especially areas which are otherwise hard to reach. We were in the usual open jeep when this patrol passed by. Our driver asked about tigers, and one of mahouts said that he’d seen one nearby and it might come down to drink water shortly. It didn’t. As they talked, I saw the elephant break one large branch off a small tree and munch on its leaves.
Intrigued, I searched for elephants in Pench and found the following paragraph in a book for a former forest ranger, R. C. Sharma, in a book called "The Wildlife Memoirs, a Forester Recollects".
This is a possible clue how climate change could eventually lead to disastrous denudation of flora, which cause large herbivores to die out. I’m sure an event like this has cascading effects through the whole ecosystem. The landscape that we see in Pench today must have been shaped by the climate of three centuries ago.
A wildlife sanctuary should be full of fearsome beasts, and Nameri is no exception. The most fearsome are the leeches. The evening we reached our camp, we met a group of six French tourists with blood-drenched socks who were still removing leeches from their legs. Leeches are abundant when the forest is wet; our previous trip to Nameri had been in the dry months of February and March, when we had not come across these blood-thirsty creatures at all.
Our five kilometer walk through the forest began with a sighting of the stunning Tokay gecko which posed for photos high up on the trunk of an immense tree. After that we saw a variety of insects. Large red bugs scampered through the dry leaves underfoot: their bright colours a warning to predators that they are poisonous if eaten. Large red ants foraged in military lines along the trunks of trees. I startled a huge grasshopper, which sprang away and then was still. It took a lot of searching to find and photograph it. It was interesting to see all this with the Victors, for whom it was their first visit to a jungle. In their company I noticed things which I’d got used to over the years. This also made me understand what Sushil Ngate, our guide, and the armed forest guard with us might feel walking through the forest with us.
The ground was often swampy. Some tree-tunks had been thrown across these patches on the route, and you had to climb over them to cross the slushy ground. We managed this with some help from the guards. I was happy that my body-core exercises paid off in a better sense of balance. I guess we get better and better at physical activities with age until the body fails. The path came to a little rocky stream which would eventually empty into the Jia Bhoroloi, and followed it for a while. As we approached the stream, we could hear alarm calls of a barking deer from inside the jungle on the other side of the flow. I wondered whether it was a leopard; they are shy creatures and hard to spot. Sushil said it could be.
We walked on. Now the terrain turned grassy with damp patches: ripe with leeches. I’d tucked my trousers into my long socks, emulating the forest guard. He told us to walk quickly through this stretch and not stand in one place too long: that’s when the leeches begin to climb up you. As we crossed the next swampy ground, the guard pointed out a pug-mark in the mud: a tiger’s. It was fresh. The marks continued next to the path for a few paces and then disappeared in to the grass towards the stream. The alarm calls were explained.
We walked single-file through the forest with the guard and Sushil leading, and The Victor bringing up the rear just behind me. Suddenly The Family pointed into the foliage and said “Elephant”. I peered at the shadowed bulk. Sushil and the guard noticed a baby and told us to be quiet and keep walking. I saw the mother quickly move to stand between us and the baby, and turn her head to watch us. If she decided to charge, the guard’s gun would have been useless. More than that, I would not have wanted an elephant to be hurt in its natural habitat only because we intruded on it. We walked quickly past, but I managed to click a photo in passing. The mother kept turning to stay between the baby and us; so the small elephant is visible in the photo only as a shadow.
By the end of the walk I had collected two angry and unfed leeches on my shoes. The Victors and The Family were not so lucky. In the last stretch of the walk they picked up a leech each. We sat in the visitor’s refuge and inspected our wounds, and got rid of the blood-suckers.
Somewhere between the Yuhua garden and the Shenwumen (northern) gate of the Forbidden City we saw several elephants kowtowing. This posture is impossible for elephants, since their forelegs bend the other way at the knees. So this statue (and its partners) show that the sculptors had not actually seen elephants. They had seen people kowtowing, and just transformed the human posture to an elephant’s. So you can learn how to kowtow from these statues.