Elephant moods

Watching elephants is a pleasure. There are the tuskers, large and lonely, sometimes aggressive, but generally walking about the jungle doing his own thing. Then there are the matriarchal herds, incredibly social, but completely focused on bringing up the young. It’s a completely different social grouping than that of the apes and monkeys, but it works well enough.

The baby that you see in the featured photo caught my eye because of the grassy mud on its back. I’d not seen grass on an elephant’s back before. I looked at the others in the group. They all seemed to have it. I’m sure it helps to keep them cool, but will this innovation stick? It’ll take several visits to Dhikala range in Corbett to see the fate of this invention.

Early in the morning, a couple of days before, I’d seen a group of elephants suddenly tense. They immediately assume a protective stance around the youngest. It turned out that there was a tiger in the grass nearby. When it passed, they went back to grazing. Notice the opportunistic myna hunting the insects displaced by the elephants.

When I first came to this family group I was surprised to see a bull tusker with them. It turned out to be a chance meeting. As you can see, the group had dropped into a protective formation around the cub. In formation, they crossed the road in front of us. The bull moved away from them. Only when the bull was far enough did some signal pass between them, and the cub was allowed to move away from protection.

The bull was headed for water. We saw it move in a straight line. These lords of the jungle do not change their line of travel for any lesser creature. I watched it as it crossed the vast landscape towards a tiny pond which was invisible for us. It knew its territory very well, probably carried a map inside its head.

Once it reached the small pond in the middle of the wide open expanse, it got all the fun that it could. It drank water, squirted jets all around it, rested its trunk on its tusks, and then just lay down on the wet grass. For more than an hour I kept turning around to watch what it was doing. Eventually, as the morning got warmer it moved away.

The previous evening we’d been bullied by another tusker. We’d driven on to a path when we saw a tusker coming down it. It moved at a steady pace. There were no warning calls, no displays of threat. But the pace was relentless. The message was clear. We had to back up until a crossing, and then move to the side. In these grasslands tigers and elephants are co-equal. They give each other a a wary respect, and do not meddle.

The beginning of a story of hope

The first of the national parks of India was established in 1936 in the valley of the Rudraganga river, in what is today Uttarakhand state. Renamed Corbett National Park soon after Independence, after the famous shikari and conservationist Jim Corbett, it became the first site for Project Tiger in 1973. With a current population of more than 450 tigers, it is considered to be the most successful wildlife conservation project in the world. The project’s balancing act between reserving a core area for wildlife completely free of human activity and recognizing the rights of people who have traditionally lived there has become the de facto core of global conservation efforts. In this region, the great success of Project Tiger has led to more ambitious plans.

Core areas of this and other national parks are completely free of human activity, and eco-tourism in buffer zones between human-inhabited and core wildlife areas provide a new source of income for people who live in the vicinity of these reserves. Now a network of parks in the Terai region of the Himalayas is an interconnected biosphere reserve with wildlife corridors connecting parks in three countries (Bhutan, India, and Nepal). This is one way to hedge conservation bets against the coming climate catastrophe, as species move up in altitude. Three bellwether species have sprung back in this huge biosphere: the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris), the Indian elephant (Elephas maximus indicus), and the Indian one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis). Corbett only has the first two, but we had enormous number of sightings of both in the few days that we spent there this week.

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.

Grass

When you think of Kaziranga, the picture that comes to mind is of rhinos grazing peacefully in open grasslands. This is true. But many other things are also true. There is a lot of water, which hides rare otters and turtles. There are trees and forests. In fact, the silk cotton tree is a pest which is threatening to take over the grassland. There are elephants, swamp deer, tigers, wild pigs, and hog deer.

The gallery which you see here is a little kaleidoscope of images from Kaziranga, each featuring grass. Click on one and scroll through for a larger format, if you wish.

Entering the whirlpool

My introduction to nature came first through the stories by Jim Corbett. These would often feature him sitting in a hide with a goat tied nearby as a lure for tigers. Seeing a goat at an entrance to Kaziranga, I was reminded of this.

The gate was an elaborate affair. We counted off what we’d seen already: rhinos, elephants and wild water buffalo were three of the “big five” here. The gate also showed the elusive swamp deer, barasingha. We had only a little glimpse of one on this trip. Pelicans, shown in flight around the gate posts and holding the sign, are not usually counted among the main attractions. But where was the real big one: the tiger?

It made a brief and almost unnoticed entrance at the bottom of a signboard full of the rules which bind you and protect the forest. If you don’t stand there and read the whole thing you may miss the fact that Kaziranga is also a tiger reserve. In fact it has the highest density of tigers in the world, but they are seldom spotted because of the tall grass that they can hide in. The goat was only a decoy, after all.

The central zone had a less impressive gate: just a boom which could be raised or lowered. But I liked the owls which showed the opening and closing times for visitors. We never did get to see the tiger, but we saw so much here that I didn’t regret the trip at all.

Herds of Elephants

Indian elephants (Elephas maximus indicus)are the most common wild animals in captivity: instantly recognizable, loved for their generally benign behaviour. There are perhaps less than 30,000 animals in the wild in India, with the largest population being in the Eastern Himalayas and the Brahmaputra basin. They are slowly disappearing as their habitat is encroached upon, and there are direct conflicts between humans and elephants. Just as I was writing this post I read news about four elephants being killed by a speeding train. So it was lovely to see large herds of these animals in the wild in Kaziranga National Forest.

Our first close view was of the trio in the featured photo, at a stream. Elephants love water, and the young splash in mud and throw it around just like a human child. As soon as the mother saw us, she kept turning to face us. The young one kept playing for a while, but was pushed into hiding in the tall grass behind the mother. Then the two adult females also disappeared into the grass. We caught up with the rest of the herd soon. There must have been about forty elephants spread out through the tall grass, browsing and grazing in the forest. Elephants are voracious eaters, and can chmomp their way to ecological catastrophe when forests are diminishing irrespective of them. Fortunately, in managed forests like Kaziranga this is not very likely. It is wonderful to stand at a distance and watch these gentle giants, as long as one remembers that close approach is very dangerous.

The next day we had a much closer approach to a lone tusker which had just emerged from a stream. It walked determinedly up to the road we were on and crossed it near our jeep. Three or four jeeps had come to a halt to allow the male to cross undisturbed. The Family was very envious of the first jeep. “It had such a clear view,” she said. I thought we had a clear view too. The elephant loomed over the jeep as it crossed, and I must admit that it would have been marvelous to see it from close by. That’s the luck of the jungle; you can never predict what you will get to see.

%d bloggers like this: