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This is Híristor’s story

Hiristor walking down a forest path. Photo: Nishant Srinivasaiah  

Híristor is not a fantastical being out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, but a real-life giant of flesh and blood.

The elephant’s name means ‘knowledgeable leader’ in the Elvish language, which Nishant Srinivasaiah favours for naming his research subjects. He felt people would be quick to judge or project their own biases on elephants if he gave them names like Raja, Ganesa, and Rowdy. “We name them for a reason, but then even we forget after a while,” says the researcher. “It helps us be unbiased.”

Ten years ago, when Srinivasaiah first caught sight of Híristor, the young bull along with others of similar age were understudies of an older male elephant. These wild giants, every one of them a bull, didn’t live in jungles only but made forays into the agricultural areas of Tumakuru, northwest of Bengaluru, weaving their way through residential alleys, crossing highways, and climbing over fences.

An irrigation project channelled water year-round to grow crops, and the ripening fields attracted elephants. The constant battles with farmers could create hostile living conditions for the animals. However, eating cultivated cereals for dinner and being chased by humans are a normal part of their daily routine, says Srinivasaiah.

Híristor was probably born 100 kilometres away in Bannerghatta National Park on the southern edge of Bengaluru. When he came of age and had to leave his mother’s herd, he probably followed a visiting bull into these lands, a daunting place for new entrants. How to avoid falling into concrete canals and breaking his legs? How to deal with an irate farmer? He could have learned by trial and error, a perilous choice. But he chose the less risky option of sticking close to an older, experienced bull.

Cool and casual

When Híristor grew independent of his mentor, he was the largest tusker in the area and collected his own entourage of younger bulls. They followed him into fields at night and feasted on ears of grain without alerting half-asleep farmers. The flunkies watched Híristor unlatch gates, look to the right when crossing roads, and being unafraid of camera traps that Srinivasaiah had affixed on their path.

Although bulls like Híristor bulk up on crops and reach their prime faster than forest-living elephants, their lives are rife with danger. They could be electrocuted by illegally electrified fences or run over by trucks or trains. When Híristor came into musth, he padded his solitary way south to find mates in the forest where he was born. While he was away, his understudies lived by the skills they had learnt from him, reuniting with him on his return. “They greeted each other with elaborate rituals until now documented among female elephants and their kin only,” says Srinivasaiah.

The role of experienced males such as Híristor in bull elephant society has been underestimated, says the researcher. “These are millennial elephants, explorers pushing the boundaries as far as they can.” Under their wise and calm tutelage, younger animals learn to keep their cool even if they are fearful. Without the older bulls’ stabilising influence, the brash inexperienced ones lash out aggressively at humans protecting their crops.

None like him!

But Híristor’s calm demeanour was also his downfall. Since he had a finely tuned ability to read human body language, he watched people in daylight instead of running away. To farmers who had faced one too many nightly elephantine visits, he symbolised the fearless marauder of their livelihoods.

When complaints about elephant damage to crops compelled forest officials to act, they trapped him. None of the younger bulls in his group took his mantle, and they went their separate ways. Neither did his capture solve farmers’ problems. With high-strung giants dispersed across the countryside, the nightmare of protecting crops from them afflicted many more households. Several months later, the tusker died a captive.

The larger-than-life elephant lived up to his name so well, the researcher cannot forget him or why he named the wise giant, Híristor.

Janaki Lenin is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover.


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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 11:57:35 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/this-is-hristors-story/article32750257.ece

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