With rampaging elephants often in the news, a wildlife scientist recalls an encounter with a tusker that revealed a peaceful side to the troubled animal.
He was standing behind the building when we first saw him. Dignified and stately, yet aware and watchful, for he had some business of his own. We had come to see him unannounced, but he held no wish to meet us.
We waited on the road, watching the traffic go by. Behind the building, we saw him move. He was a young tusker, with asymmetric tusks — his left tusk slightly curved forward while the right pointed straight down. With dignity and grace, and with all senses alert, he walked down towards the road.
The road was not a very busy one by the standards of a large city but, for the little hill town of Valparai, here in the Anamalai hills in southern India, it was arterial. The tusker was in a little plantation of eucalyptus above the road. Below the road were the Iyerpadi tea estates, the Iyerpadi factory, houses of estate managers and workers, a swamp-stream, and beyond that a patch of rainforest close to the Anamalai Tiger Reserve. In the landscape of plantations and rainforest patches on the Valparai plateau, elephants often come for water and forage, or to pass from one part of their range to another, as they have done for long.
Besides us, some people from the estate were watching the elephant. On the road, vehicles plied back and forth and a few people went walking past, hardly 50 metres from the elephant. The elephant could see, or sense, all of us; with his trunk up, he monitored our scent and presence. Nervous, he let out a short blast of a trumpet. Yet, it did not seem that he trumpeted from anger; it seemed a brief warning to get us off his path, and let him pass.
While others watched, I moved closer to try and get a better look and a photograph. A little skid-trial came down the slope to the road and below the road a path led through the tea estate. The elephant seemed to be moving down that way. I stood right there, at that intersection and, sure enough he emerged, hardly 30 metres away.
He looked grand in the evening light. I was awed and clicked away to try and get a photograph that would record his grandeur. And yet — I stood right in his path. He stopped, alert, and looked straight at me.
My wife Divya and some friends who were with me, watching from some distance away, urged me to move from there. Divya, being a wildlife scientist, was doubly sensitive to my position. And yet, I stood as if transfixed. Perhaps it was that wholly unnecessary photograph that kept me. Or, a falsely superior rationalisation: “This is not the way he should go. There are houses and people down there. Maybe if I block this path, he will go around, taking what I think is a better route.”
He gave me a few moments to reconsider my stupid, irrational decision. As I did not move, he did. Gently, he turned away, to swing down, taking a more inconvenient, steeper, rocky slope.
A group of women, coming to collect firewood, was casually walking towards the elephant, thinking he was one of the domesticated elephants being used in tree-felling operations. We convinced them that he was a wild elephant and urged them not to go in that direction. On the steeper slope, the tusker turned back and swung down — towards the same route he would have more easily taken if I had not stood in his way. He kept moving, now forced to cross the highway a little further ahead of where he had intended.
We tried to halt the traffic on both sides for a few minutes to let him cross. It was scarcely necessary, for he knew how to deal with traffic and crossed the road without a hitch and without disturbing anyone in vehicles or on foot.
He was heading in the general direction of the houses and the factory and anyone watching him, who did not understand the elephant in him, would perhaps have thought this spelt trouble. The tusker wanted no trouble, however, and just wanted to be on his way. And it was wonderful to watch how gracefully he moved, carefully avoiding the proximity of the houses. He needed to go that way, because beyond the houses and factory in Iyerpadi was a rainforest fragment and the Anamalai Tiger Reserve and, perhaps, respite from others like us.
He quickened his step. He walked down. He swung away from the houses. He avoided a car that was coming up on an estate road, although he was close enough to it that the people in it may have got a scare. He turned down the valley, past the temple, into the swamp, and reached a path that would take him, without crossing any further road or colony, towards the forest patch.
An excited bunch of kids appeared from the vicinity of the houses and tried to follow the elephant as he walked away. We dissuaded the children — with a little persuasion, they stood to watch him from a safe distance. We had come to the colony to inform the people to watch out for this tusker on the move, but, again, it was not necessary. The people had seen him and, moreover, the tusker had no interest in the houses. He really knew where he was going.
I will remember him as a gentleman of Iyerpadi and I will remember my foolishness of that evening. This is my apology to this gracious and peaceful elephant. I am sorry I stood in your path. I am sorry for thinking I knew better than you.