Recanting of a thrilling day in the forests of Parambikulam, surrounded by the elephants he was tracking.

Friday, February17, 1984: It was dull and grey over Parambikulam where I was camped in a tiny wildlife observation cabin built on four stone pillars, by the Thunakadavu, some distance before the reservoir itself. My companion and Man Friday was Perumal, a local youth from the Malayan tribe who knew the game trails and also doubled as a cook.

While walking down the main sanctuary road, we soon located a herd in the teak forest not far off. I waited for a while because the sky was overcast and the light too low for photography. Keeping track of the herd from the main road, we heard a sound from behind and looked back to find a lone tusker descending via the forested slope on the other side. He had long but somewhat slender tusks that were curved slightly upwards at the tips. Though the light was dull, I did not want to miss this animal, especially as he was fairly close and coming our way. I got in a couple of shots as best as I could from the shelter of the vegetation nearby. He crossed the road and made off in the direction of the other elephants.

Perumal was of the opinion that the elephant was probably headed for Amakundu, a shaded area bereft of human presence, a haven for elephants. So we headed that way. We presently heard a curious “click....clack” sound. Soon we spied two elephants through the teak trees, locking and unlocking tusks. On closer inspection I surmised that one was very likely the same tusker that had crossed the road earlier in the morning. The other seemed to be a youngster, his tusks not fully developed yet.

If one wants to get anywhere near a wild elephant/s undetected on foot, he must approach facing the wind, for the elephant has a keen sense of smell. Sometimes they can detect human scent from even a mile away if the breeze is favourable to them.

By my feet, on the elephant track, lay a mound of fresh elephant dung, which felt warm to the touch. I remembered an old trick used by some tribes of Africa when hunting elephants. I picked up fistfuls of the dung and applied it to my clothing and arms and proceeded to creep forward. The pachyderms, meanwhile, were engrossed in their sparring and seemed oblivious to everything else. The jungle resounded with the clash of ivory as I edged in closer; my scent masked with what I hoped was their own. After a point I froze. I dared not go any further. What if, on sensing an intruder, they forgot their differences and came thundering down upon me? That could end only one way.

As I trailed them, I saw that they were proceeding in the direction of a herd feeding close by. I waited to see if my tuskers would try to join them, but they didn’t; they veered off to the right. I noticed a huge male with a magnificent pair of tusks in the herd. Unfortunately we could not approach them because of the unfavourable direction of the breeze.

The herd moved away to our left. Just as we were about to follow it, my guide pointed to a massive lone bull with enormous tusks — so bulky that his head seemed to be weighed down with them — coming our way on the same path we were in. We watched as he hesitated; he seemed to be processing our scent at the spot where we had squatted to observe the herd and then came on downhill, groping for scents with his trunk. He was aware of our presence, no doubt! We were downhill now, with the wind blowing harder. So we circled back up the hill to the path again.

The Amakundu area was teeming with elephants and I got the feeling that this time we had bitten off more than we could chew. We were hemmed in by elephants on almost every side; the big tusker in front, the herd scattered to the left and the sparring males somewhere to the right or perhaps behind. No time to lose. So we picked up my gear —and taking a diversion — lit out of there.

That evening back at the camp, the sweet aroma of freshly cooking chapathies mingled with wood smoke gently wafting up from Perumal’s camp fire seemed unusually inviting. After a hot bath which served to return me to the human race, of course.

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