Opinion » Comment

Updated: December 21, 2012 01:09 IST

Twinkle-eyed giants

    Lieutenant General (Retired)
    Baljit Singh
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The elephant has a lovable, loving and mischievous psyche. Photo: K.K. Mustafah
The Hindu The elephant has a lovable, loving and mischievous psyche. Photo: K.K. Mustafah

Barriers were mounted and electric fences crossed — no trick the Army tried could keep the elephants from their rum-laced treat

When I saw the agonising photograph in the newspaper of a hapless elephant trapped in a mud pit with its tusks sawn off and the lower part of its trunk severed, I wondered whether the perpetrators of that mindless cruelty knew that sans the lips of its trunk, the animal was doomed to die from starvation and dehydration. Elephants have been part of Indian mythology, folklore, pageant and warfare, but violence on elephants goes unchecked in our country.

That gruesome image brought to my mind the most magnanimous but little known tribute paid to the Asian elephant by one of 20th century’s greatest war lords:

“In the XIVth Army, our soldiers varied in colour from white, through every shade of yellow and brown, to coal black. The animals we used showed similar variety. Pigeons, dogs, ponies, mules, horses, bullocks, buffaloes and elephants; they served well and faithfully. There were true bonds of affection between men and all these beasts, but the Elephant held a special place in our esteem. It was not, I think, a matter of size and strength. It was the elephant’s dignity and intelligence that gained our real respect. To watch an elephant building a bridge, to see the skill with which the great beast lifted the huge logs and the accuracy with which they were coaxed into position, was to realise that the trained elephant was no mere transport animal, but indeed a skilled Sapper (sic. of the Corps of Army Engineer),” wrote Field Marshal Sir William Slim in the foreword to the book Elephant bill by Lieutenant-Colonel J.H. Williams, published in January, 1950.

The book is not a history of the war in Burma per se but a wondrous insight into the lovable, loving and mischievous psyche of elephants. Of course ivory poachers are not given to reading books on elephant lore but I hope that some readers of The Hindu will be moved to action once they read about the unimaginably shrewd and enterprising ways of elephants in acquiring their favoured food, which I experienced first hand.

It was sometime in the 1980s. Large quantities of certain consumables were found missing from an Army depot in Assam. When the items were brought to my notice, I remembered that during the war in Burma, Colonel Williams had insisted that his elephants must have a daily gruel made of “Rum, brandy, or arrack, mixed with ginger, cloves, pepper, and treacle and made into a paste with wheat flour, that cheers and comforts him [the elephant] when suffering from fatigue or cold.” When I enquired with the Commandant of the depot, he pleaded that he was helpless against groups of elephants that persistently trespass into his depot and plunder the tempting consumables, unmindful of the crackers burst to scare them away. I decided to camp on site and what I saw was indeed elephant lore!

The elephants simply leant collectively against the building wall or the shuttered doors/windows, till they collapsed. The young among them would then walk in and hand out cases of rum, sacks of sugar and wheat flour and the group would commence a picnic. The depot countered by creating a four-feet-high barrier of fuel barrels filled with rocks around the building, knowing that elephants cannot take a vertical step. However, the uncannily intelligent animals picked up their calves, mounted them atop the new barrier, and waited for them to demolish the windows or doors and pass the loot to the elders.

Next, an electric fence was erected around all sensitive buildings. That worked for a while. But following a storm, a few branches fell on the fence neutralising the electrical circuit. The elephants discovered this technical fact by chance when one brushed against a branch resting on the fence without any shocking retribution, and it was party-time all over again!

There was one poignant episode from another Depot (at Narangi, on the outskirts of Guwahati) when a calf fell in a fire-hydrant well. The entire herd gathered to rescue the calf but the water was low and their trunks were simply not long enough. Watching the pitiable situation, the soldiers first summoned courage and then a crane and the herd instinctively pulled back. A few jawans slipped a rope sling around the calf and the crane hoisted it out. The herd, which had stood aside all this while, gathered the calf and walked away with looks of gratitude.

Now who would read this out to the poachers?



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