There are always two sides to a story, the flip side of the coin. Join the author in his journey of perspectives to view the situation of trained elephants working for the forest department.
I was angered, bewildered and irritated a lot when I first came to know about it. The tuskers caught and trained by the Forest department. What enraged me here was, why the forest department, biting the hand which feeds it? How is this even acceptable? The capture, training, and the unexpected demise of the tusker ‘Madikarai Raja’ forced me and inspired me to get on the ground level, and check out these camps and see them for what they were.
Of course in Southern India there are many private temples and landlords who own elephants and the regulatory customs, allow them too. They were not my concern for I knew their treatment of the pachyderms would always be questionable. Yet I shifted my attention towards the forest department-owned elephants of Southern India and reached Mudumalai Wildlife Reserve, in TamilNadu, India. I did read a lot of environmental history and also about the behavioral ecology of the species. Arming my mind with open-mindedness to be challenged, I reached Thepakkadu elephant camp.
But, what I saw, was totally different than what I expected. None of the elephants were traumatized and shifting their weight or shaking their heads in a regular pattern. All the mahouts used just sticks to guide the beats, with no bullhooks. All of the elephants at the camp were given regular baths, once a day, and fed twice a day with the specified weight of food, given to them as prescribed. Each one was given a name and addressed so by their personal mahouts as well. I was overwhelmed by how wrong I was.
So why is the Forest Department having these elephants at camp?
The elephants at the camp are those who were orphaned at a young age, abandoned by their herds or consistent crop raiders who have developed a taste for commercial crops and the rogues who have gone on a rampage of killing farmers or those inhabiting unlawful land within the reserves, either inspired by negative memory or by random rampages instigated by musth cycles.
These elephants are then marked and monitored for consistent behavior patterns which adversely affect humans then, go in the Kumki brigade. The Kumki brigade here consists of previously mischievous tuskers who now help in capturing the elephants and get them on to trucks, transporting them to the elephant camp.
The trouble makers (One cannot actually call them that ‘cause this behavior is caused predominantly by habitat encroachment and population explosion of the local residents.) are then made to stay in a stable like structure enclosed on all sides, composed of wood. There are other places in India where these stables are fully made of metal and can be quite uncomfortable for the animal. Yet such measures are required when such a magnificent beast has to be in close contact with mere fragile mortals. The procedure may last for a few months where the animal is taught the basic commands and is also given a name, in order to be identified as well as to build a bond. Every such elephant is assigned, one mahout. And they will share a life-long bond. Some mahouts are known to have been paired up with one elephant and have even been with the same elephant until they yielded their ghost. Such intimate and intrinsic is such a bond between the mahout and the pachyderm.
This also provides an opportunity for the local tribes to be employed. Since the main revenue is tourism, the mahouts take their turns to give elephant rides in sanctuaries and national parks early in the morning. Beyond that, the mahouts and the tuskers work together to remove the large scale of weeds, unwanted foliage in safari zones to facilitate viewing by the tourists and wildlife enthusiasts.
Special care is taken during the morning and evening baths. Every inch of the wrinkled elephant’s skin is washed with the scruffy husk of the coconut with the use of water and soap so as to prevent infections and other irritants. Care is also taken to wash the nails of the elephants with oils and clean their feet and sole too. It was really a very blissful moment to see the mahouts care for their giants who were likely to be over forty years old, like kids. Washing them behind the ears, under the legs, the armpits, the soles, the tail, and the neck. It was even more evident, the very intimate relationship between the two companions from two different species, share. The elephants too, like little children, turn on one side then get up and lie on the other, lifting their feet and trunk when necessary. My poetic perspective of humanizing animal interactions, went for a home run when one orphaned baby elephant, cared for by a mahout, ran away with the lather of soap still on him, without being washed, with the mahout chasing the little fellow to bring him back near the water!
In the mornings and evenings, the elephants are fed huge lumps of jaggery, rice, sugar, salt, horse gram, and coconut, made into one mushy block, and fed by the keepers. This event is up for the public view and for tourists. The entry is charged and hence the forest department and the mahouts earn a little deal out of this daily duty.
At night each elephant is taken near their own mahout’s house and they stay there. Their drag chains are tied to a nearby tree with food sources within reach. However, there are some camps in Karnataka that set loose the elephants at dusk as they freely roam the reserves or national parks. Care is also taken, to make sure the elephants are not bored or suppressed by the routines. The mahouts take them on different routes to different areas of the park and then, back to the camp, to stimulate their senses.
Witnessing all this first hand, really changed the way I looked at the ‘elephant-mahout’ bond. With increasing hilly areas and landscapes, which the Indian elephants truly prefer, being usurped by tea plantations, adding to the already engrossing habitat encroachment, more elephants will come into contact with man, leading to the unsettled behavior of many individuals who will be labeled rogues. Hence this system of ‘tamed tuskers’ is a compromise that has been made by the Forest department. And though I did initially resent this, I have grown to realize that India has made this move with conservation in mind. In other eastern countries, the troublesome individuals will certainly be shot even if it kills just two people. Yet the Indian forest department takes habitat encroachment into consideration and has a lenient approach towards the culling of troublesome elephants. One other factor to consider in this issue is that other countries have a relatively larger Loxodanta population, ranging from 500,000 to 600,000. Whereas India has just 40,000 -60,000 Asian elephants.
Hence this journey of mine to see the truth of the ‘Mammoth –Mortal’ relationship truly changed my perspective.