In 2007, I travelled around the country to learn more about deterring elephants from farmlands. Many methods were being tested — such as erecting electric fences, growing patchouli instead of rice, and stringing chilli-paste-smeared ropes around fields. One organisation championed driving elephants across the landscape into forests. It was described as a major operation involving kumki elephants and lots of people, mostly men.

I asked one of the staff, “Who decides what path the drive will take?”

“The Forest Department officials.”

The phone rang. A bull elephant was in the middle of a tea estate and had to be driven.

We arrived at the scene at the same time as the forest officials. The elephant rose like a large boulder above the low tea bushes.

I asked a forest official, “So which way are you going to drive it?”

He jerked his chin toward the wild elephant and said, “The guards will decide.”

I followed his gaze. Two kumki elephants, with mahouts sitting astride them, were walking toward the wild elephant, followed by two forest guards on foot. I didn’t know what to expect. Nobody had maps, there was no discussion of roles, nor contingency plans made.

Suddenly, the large tame kumki charged at the smaller wild bull and their foreheads collided in a cloud of dust. The latter tottered backwards. The large bull rammed him again and bit the wild animal’s trunk and head. I asked the official, “Is this done to intimidate the wild elephant?”

He didn’t answer. Instead, he tersely barked orders into his radio in a language I didn’t understand. Everyone seemed tense.

The mahout astride the large kumki was shouting, and his legs were frantically kicking the elephant behind the ears. Was he goading his elephant to attack or retreat? Everyone was shouting, including the officials standing next to me. I realised they wanted the tame elephant to stop attacking, but the animal wouldn’t obey. Then one of the officials shot his rifle in the air a couple of times. Finally, the tame kumki stopped its assaults, and the wild bull began walking rapidly towards us, pursued by the two tame elephants and guards. The drive had begun.

The forest officials said we should go ahead and warn people. When we arrived at a major road, there was already a crowd of about 300 people watching the drive. There were no megaphones, no public address system of any kind. Forget crowd control, we joined the bystanders. The wild bull came close to the road, saw the people, and stopped. He smashed a nearby wall topped with broken glass, and disappeared inside a vast compound.

It was an army encampment. The forest officials would have to go all the way around, and get permission to enter the camp before resuming the drive. When nothing happened for a couple of hours, I called it a day.

Later, I interviewed the staff of another NGO working in the area. I asked, “During a drive, who makes the decisions?”

“The mahouts. The situation changes so fast, only they can decide what needs to be done and how.”

“Not the guards?” I asked, wanting to be sure.

“No. The mahouts are on top of their elephants; they can see the terrain and action. Guards are on foot.”

As the responsibility of the drive moved down the hierarchy, I couldn’t be sure if it indeed stopped with the mahouts. But there was no one else below them.

A couple of days later, I met a senior official of the first organisation. He said, “You know an amazing thing about these elephant drives: It’s not people who make the decisions; it’s the kumkis.

They hear and understand the infrasound communications between the wild elephants. And the kumkis decide the best course of action.”

I wonder whether the kumkis would have passed the buck to someone else.