A mahout shares his experience on taming elephants

Every love story is interesting. This one is more so as R. Palanisamy begins saying ‘Kalpana Chawla’ will be expecting him back home. He is a mahout and ‘Kalpana Chawla’ is the elephant he has trained. And, they both live in the Tamil Nadu Forest Department’s elephant camp in Topslip.

He was in Coimbatore on Sunday to share his experience as a mahout at the Enviro Meet organised by the environment organisation, Osai.

As in most love stories, it was not easy in the beginning, for Mr. Palanisamy got to meet ‘Kalpana Chawla’ in 1994 when she was at least 25 years. It was part of a herd that entered human habitation near Sethumadai, Pollachi.

After capturing it, Mr. Palanisamy had to try hard to bring it around to obey his commands. “You see, it has been in its natural environment – forest – for long since childhood,” he says and adds that it is difficult to move with an elephant to tame it if it is not a calf. Struggle he did but not for long. “It took me 48 days or so. If ‘Kalpana Chawla’ had been a calf, it would have probably taken half the time.”

Today, Mr. Palanisamy is so fond of ‘Kalpana Chawla’ that he has tattooed its name on his arms – it was this fact that Osai’s S. Kalidas mentioned to introduce him to the gathering.

“It is a god to me as well as a family member,” is how the mahout defined his equation with the pachyderm. But in the initial days – soon after capture – he had to confine it to a kraal to make it obey his commands. He had to use the carrot and stick policy and also coerce the animal to obey. “Sometimes when I look back, it hurts but that is the way the elephant is trained, just as a child is disciplined.”

The training has ensured that ‘Kalpana Chawla’ obeys the 50-odd commands its mahout issues during the course of the day, which they most often spend together. The command begins with asking the elephant to be alert, move forwards its legs for him to apply a concoction of medicines to keep insects at bay, pull up its leg for him to climb, walk and turn left or right, clear the bushes above his head so that he has a safe travel when he sits atop, and ends with asking it to bring firewood or water.

Though ‘Kalpana Chawla’ is a trained elephant, kumki, it is not often taken to chase away wild elephants. It is the job of the male elephants. But the elephant too has its share of wild elephant control operations.

It’s a complex job where the strength of the wild and tamed elephants are first assessed before launching the operation, he says and adds, “It’s like a human fight – the strength is judged.”

Though it has been a very satisfying job, not many children in mahout families are encouraged to take up the job. The mahouts on the job are keen on sending their children to the plains to take up one work or the other. If the trend continues, very soon there will be a shortage of mahouts, he says.

Plus, the way he handles elephants is very different from how is father and grandfather did. “Then the elephants never attacked us. But now, though rare, there are instances of tamed elephants attacking or even killing mahouts.”

Mr. Palanisamy adds: “It also has to do with how the mahouts behave with the animals.”

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