Camp elephants consist of rescued and captured conflict animals, that are then tamed and trained by a mahout. “They assist us in mitigating man-animal conflict,” says R Chandana Raju, the Forester is in-charge of the camp, which was established in 1917 by the British. “We use them to drive away wild elephants that stray into human habitation, capture problematic elephants during de-weeding drives in the forest and patrolling,” he says, as the animals trundle into the camp after a long day one rainy afternoon.
Gently does it
Now, these elephants are driven by a sense of purpose. “It is a mahout who either makes or breaks an elephant,” 55-year-old M Kirumaaran tells us. He is responsible for Moorthy, once a formidable animal that caused the death of over 22 people in the region. Moorthy was captured in 1998, and Kirumaaran has been with him for 12 years. Today, he is so gentle that Kirumaaran even lets his grandchildren play with him.
“It took plenty of patience and training,” he says, “Moorthy used to be headstrong in his initial days. If taken to the river for a bath, he would not come out no matter how much I tried. I remember standing with him for two full hours as he lolled in the water,” remembers Kirumaaran. Eventually, Moorthy listened.
Today, several mahouts look up to Kirumaaran and his methods. In elephant operations, he replaced metal chains used to capture elephants, with rope that is gentler on the feet. He has three children, and admits to loving Moorthy more. “I call my son every day to check on Moorthy if I’m away,” he says. “If I see him after a few days’ break, I first offer him a sugarcane; Moorthy accepts it, nods, and grunts softly.”
Risk is part of the job description. Eswaran says Wasim, a star kumki at the camp, has hurt him three times. “He was in musth [heat] then,” he points out. “He wouldn’t have done it otherwise.”
Mahouts bathe their animals, feed and let them graze. The key aspect of their role, however, is to be emotionally available for their elephants. “They must understand us,” Kirumaran points out. “And so must we.”
K Shakthi, retired elephant Indhar’s mahout, works with a lot more concentration than the others. For, his elephant is blind.
Indhar is 71 years old; Shakthi is Indhar’s eyes. He watches over every move the animal makes. “Think about this like taking care of a baby,” says the 38-year-old, adding that he pays attention to small details, including ensuring there is variety in the leaves Indhar grabs when he grazes so that he is not bored. “I stick to him wherever he goes since he cannot defend himself if wild elephants attack him,” explains Shakthi. “It must be hard to depend on someone for everything…” says Shakthi looking at his elephant tenderly.
Of Chennai roots
Mahout B Maaran plans to settle in Chennai after his retirement. “My wife is from there,” says the 59-year-old, adding, “Besides, it was in Chennai that I first started out as a mahout.” He was 22 years old then and was deputed to the Arignar Anna Zoological Park in Vandalur when it was inaugurated by the then Chief Minister M G Ramachandran in 1985. He travelled with an elephant from the camp in a truck for almost 16 hours to the zoo at Vandalur. It was quite a journey. “I was anxious about how the elephant would behave,” recalls Maaran, who then spent 15 years with the elephant at the zoo.
Maaran has cared for nine elephants so far: Anna, the tusker; Rana, the noisy one; Baskar, the possessive one…but his favourite is Bhama, the oldest elephant at the camp, he is currently responsible for. “She once accidentally hit my nose with her tail and I had to spend a week at the hospital,” says Maaran. As soon as he came home, he rushed to see her. “I knew she would have looked for me,” he says. Maaran is retiring next year. He gets emotional at the very mention of retirement. He quickly wipes his tears and says, “There is one more year of service left.”