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Elephant encounters of the scary kind

We sat still, silently watching a small group of elephants walking away from us into the forest. As two adult elephants and a baby moved away, another adult seemed to hesitate. Suddenly, almost without warning, the peaceful scene was shattered by an angry scream from the lurking elephant. Convinced perhaps that we were a threat to the baby, the elephant wheeled and started for our jeep. As she charged our jeep, I silently urged the driver to hurry and get away as fast as possible. This was not my first encounter with wild elephants. Having travelled extensively in the south Indian jungles for over two decades, such incidents have become common place.

The Bandipur wildlife sanctuary, five hours from Bangalore in South India covers an area of 875 square kilometers, providing sanctuary for varied species of wild animals. Elephants alone are numbered to be around 5000 moving around the Bandipur forest range and the neighbouring forests of Mudumalai and Nagarhole.. With a large number of tourist vehicles, people from surrounding villages and the transit vehicles passing by everyday, the animals cross paths with humans often in their meanderings across the jungles. Not all these encounters are peaceful though. This depends on the behaviour of the animal and the human encountering them, the safety zone of the animal and the time when this encounter takes place. It is however, reasonable to assume as studies and experience of jungle dwelling people have shown that animals, elephants in particular, are not keen to associate with humans. Confident in their size, ability and numbers, elephants have little to fear in the jungle. They are social animals and mostly prefer to roam the forests in their family groups. Such social behaviour also gives rise to other instincts like being protective towards their young. Any perceived threat towards their young can trigger their fearsome demonstrations of attack. Another reason for attack is when elephants are in “musth”. This is a condition that is peculiar to male elephant, a period of heightened sexual awareness. At such times, there need be no reasonable provocation by any man or beast. The elephant may attack on sight! Rarely as it happens, there have been elephants that are naturally bad tempered and aggressive. These animals can attack and kill many humans before they are classified as “rogue” elephants. This means, they can be shot and killed.

Fortunately, in my experience of the jungles, there have been no incidents with rogue elephants. But on the numerous occasions as a tourist when I have been chased by elephants, I admit that there has been no time to stand and ponder about whether the animal is a rogue or is there any other reason for the attack. The first and sensible decision has been to flee from the spot. However, seasoned tourist guides do not immediately drive away when the elephant begins the charge. They are aware that most of them are a “mock charge” where the elephant is merely demonstrating its displeasure, but has no intention of making physical contact with the object of displeasure. In this instance, the elephant may cover a short distance of say, 25 metres or may stop in 2 or 3 seconds. In a real charge however, the elephant will not stop but will keep coming till it makes contact with the object of annoyance. That is the time to step on the accelerator. It may be worthy of mention here that only wildlife specialists can distinguish between a mock charge and a real one – and even they are sometimes fooled.

One summer, when staying at the Bandipur forest lodge with some friends, the group had taken a jeep safari into the forest. In summer the forests are dry and almost bare, lacking the lush growth of post monsoon rains. We could see easily into the jungle and our view was not blocked by the usual thick growth of bushes and trees. Soon we came across four elephants, three adults and a baby. They were around 700 yards from the jeep, so our guide and driver switched off the engine and we sat there looking at them silently. The group was heading away from us and we thought they would soon disappear from sight. However, one of the adult elephants had other ideas. Despite the distance, she was not comfortable with our presence. As the rest of her family passed by quietly, she stood silently behind a sparse bush. We saw this, but as she was not looking directly at us, did not perceive any threat. We continued to sit there watching them. Suddenly she wheeled towards us, trumpeted shrilly and charged. With her ears spread out, trunk lifted and curled and her huge feet kicking up the dust, she was an awesome sight as she thundered towards the jeep. The driver however, expected her to stop halfway and return to the other elephants that were by now nearly out of sight. But she kept coming and he realised a little late that she meant business. This was not a juvenile youngster, who frequently charged jeeps more playfully than not and always stopped much shorter than intended. This was an adult elephant that was convinced we meant to harm the baby in the group.

My heart began thudding in an alarming fashion as I watched the elephant getting nearer and nearer to the jeep. I could not tear my eyes away from the horrific spectacle. I sat rooted to the spot willing the driver to get the jeep away from the enraged animal. It seemed like a childhood nightmare about to be realised. Most of us at some while growing up dreamed of a being pursued by something far stronger, faster and deadly than us. My terror symbol was the tiger and in my dreams, though my mind was ordering me to run, my feet stood firmly glued to terra firma refusing to move. In that terrifying moment, my mind registered that the ignition of the jeep failed to start the engine. The engine was stalling! One part of my mind urged me to jump off the jeep and run into the forest. Fortunately, a little common sense prevailed preventing such a fateful decision for I would have had no hope of out running the elephant on foot. Just as the elephant was about five feet from the jeep and we cowered in fear of being plucked out of the open back area of the vehicle where we sat, the engine fired into life and we drove away as fast as possible from the scene. The picture remains etched on my mind though the taste of fear felt in those moments has faded.

Another such encounter was when I was on a motorbike passing through the Bandipur and Mudumalai forests on my way to a tribal village. Cruising along at 60 kms an hour, we stopped to let two elephants cross the road. Suddenly, we found ourselves surrounded by elephants. Materialising slowly around us, the herd grew bigger and bigger. There must have been more than twenty elephants there, though I could not relax enough to count them. It was safer to switch off the engine to avoid annoying the animals. Exposed the way we were on the bike, I felt very vulnerable. Though the herd largely ignored us, it was the juvenile elephants that we were worried about. Eternally curious and exploring, we felt sure that they would definitely approach the bike. As we sat there, unmoving, nearly frozen in fear, most of the herd crossed the road without incident.

Relief leaving us rather weak, we continued to sit there gazing after the herd while settling our nerves to normal. At that moment, something made me glance over my shoulder and to my left. To my horror, I saw a huge adult male elephant (a tusker) bearing down on us silently. Normally, an adult stays protectively at the back of the herd to ensure its safe passage. And it was evident that this animal did not approve of our continued presence in the vicinity of the herd. The fact that he came silently was testimony to his serious intent. Silent attacks are never mock charges. They are always serious.

I screamed when I saw his trunk stretching out to reach us. Fortunately, my friend who was in the front acted without stopping to check the reason for my scream. He started the bike and raced away down the road. I looked back to find the elephant standing in the middle of the road gazing after us solemnly. We had missed his trunk by a few inches.

Most of my encounters with elephants however, have been of the peaceful kind. At Bush Betta, another wildlife camp in Bandipur, 20 of us colleagues were sitting in the open dining area, sipping pre dinner drinks. We had decided to spend a weekend in Bush Betta away from office. As we sat there chatting, we heard a terrific din coming from the directions of the fields in front of us. The camp manager explained that elephants from the surrounding forests had a habit of raiding the field for crop. The villagers chased them away by shouting, banging tin and plates and by using firecrackers. We could not see clearly as dusk had fallen quite suddenly as it usually does in the tropics, but could make out the dimly outlined bulk of the elephants as they moved swiftly through the fields. We learnt that this tug of war for space and food was contested between the farmers and elephants almost on a daily basis. Later that night, it could have been the same herd that came by the camp to play in the swimming pool. They splashed, rumbled and squealed noisily while I quietly enjoyed listening to them from within my cottage.

I have trekked in the forests several times and having come upon elephants, have had to take a detour away from them. I must have made enough noise to advertise my presence in the jungle, but being sensitive and intelligent animals, they have ignored me most of the time. Though on several occasions I have had the pleasure of watching them feed, play and even fight, there must have been times when I passed by them without any knowledge of their presence. Despite being large animals, they can and do move silently in the forests. They can stand quietly by a tree and merge with the background if they do not wish for you to know that they are there. Being large hearted and gracious, they must have let me go by safely. In return, I respect their space and dignity and hope never to inadvertently impinge on both and give them the same courtesy that they have given me. I hope that in the years to come I will continue to enjoy several more harmless encounters with them.

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