Night of elephants - Vinod Kantamneni

Elephants the one creature all Indians associate with intelligence thanks to Ganesha, our perception of elephants either comes from the mythology or from that fountainhead of knowledge we fondly call Bollywood , elephants are loyal pets which will carry you to hospital when sick and also do menial jobs in your home's without requiring much feeding unlike dogs which are always hungry this I learnt from the famous movie Hathi mera saathi featuring half of jumbo circus and twinkles dad.


I still remember my first elephant encounter, i had gone to a friend’s farmhouse on fringes of Nagarahole and like a naive tourist had asked if he could show me a elephant, they were just large ungainly creatures for me but charismatic none the less. You tube and internet were rare and i had not seen any elephant attack videos

The friend being a good host obliged and arranged a tribal guide, as we entered the forest the forest the guide was on high alert for any sounds or signs of elephants, we were highly amused to see the tribal tense, as the tribal Sherlock Holmes read for signs of elephants we were casually talking among ourselves as if on walk in a park.


We didn’t find any elephants and dejectedly returned back, next day i went back with two of my city friends into the forest in search of the Elephant, call it beginners luck but we found tracks, huge enough that we could stand in them, some hours into the walk i heard what i thought was a hundred woodcutters breaking branches and cutting trees, but it turned out to be huge tusker breaking bamboo and feeding on it, the sight and sound created so much fear in our city minds none of us made a sound and watched each others faces in fear, the tusker was busy eating as much bamboo as it could, bamboo had flowered and it would soon wither creating a shortage of food and much conflict in the coming years.


We all silently turned back without making a sound, all afraid that the mountain of flesh would get a sniff of us and obliterate us. We put as much distance between us and the elephant before looking at each others faces, than it dawned on us that we were no forest explorers and had forgotten the way we had come, it took us a lot of time before our minds calmed down and we found our way back and promised myself i would never go in search of one


Elephants, their mere sight creates fear, but than there are domesticated elephants which can be trained to scratch your back or bless pesky tourists, which makes me wonder who was the first genius to see an a elephant and think hey this makes a cool ride instead of running for life like me and my buddies

By year 2017 i had learnt a lot about elephants mostly from research assistant lore but also from personal experience facing them in line transects and working in the forest, they are something you cant avoid in the western Ghats but you can sure learn to live with them if you spend enough time


I was conducting camera trap surveys in Wayanad and would run into elephants every day, they would charge at jeeps, uproot cameras, chase us from line transects, they were for me a just one of the many risks that come with being a wildlife research assistant like ticks and leeches and bad food


At end of the day we were safe in our camps surrounded by a trench to keep the elephants out, after dinner i would generally spend some time near the camp fire, this particular day i wanted to see the porcupine which would come every day to feed on the food leftovers we used to throw in the trench, after waiting for sometime i could hear the quills of the porcupine rattle as he fed on left overs in the trench, when i shone the torch on it would scurry away much like a overgrown rat which it is, only to return a few minutes after the torch was off.

I heard a rustle and sound of tearing cloth outside the camp i could associate the sound with the sound of elephants walking in lantana bushes, the thorns hold on to the moving elephant and create a tearing sound akin to tearing fabric. It was a full moon night the elephants must be out feeding.


I went near the wooden log which we used to cross over the trench and stood silently, A trunk appeared like a submarine telescope searching for ships in the clearing on the other side barely 4 feet away, the elephants sniffed and searched for any smell of danger, maybe the smoke from the camp fire was masking my smell but he couldn’t detect me, than gaining confidence the elephant came forward and lo and behold i was mere feet away from a fully grown elephant, she was so close she felt larger than normal, i froze and watched praying and hoping she would not detect me as i was within easy reach of the powerful trunk which could rip me apart if she wished too.



After sometime which felt like a millennium to me she moved ahead, this was followed by whimpering and whining of a calf which was afraid to cross the clearing, a few seconds later the calf just ran behind the adult no doubt pushed by other herd members behind it, a truck appeared again sniffing and puffing for danger before its owner stepped out in the opened and crossed, this repeated 8 times before the whole herd crossed within touching distance from me.


This was the closest i would ever get to a herd of elephants and left me thrilled and secretly hoped this would be the end of the elephants near the camp, but a few weeks later a herd started hanging out near the camp, our camp was safe as the trench was in good shape but i had to sleep in the forest department Anti poaching camp which was a few meters away due to lack of space in our camp. As i found out from the guard their trench had caved in due to rain and could be possibly crossed by a determined elephant.


I found out in a few days the herds matriarch was a determined lady and one night when we were asleep it crossed over into the camp. The elephant started to feed kicking up Tufts of grass with it legs, sleeping on my bed I could feel the vibrations , a little while later the whole building began to vibrate the rafters began to shake the elephant had come too close to the building and the kicking up of grass was shaking the whole structure

The elephant coming inside the camp become a regular event, it would come in at 10 and feed inside till 7 am, my Maglite became my most precious possession, every night after dinner I would shine the torch and after making sure the elephant was not in yet I would walk the department camp.



Mornings were a different ballgame I had to go back to our camp to use the loo and get ready for the day's work all well and good if the elephant leaves, but no one has taught the elephant the value of time, one day it overstayed till 7 30 and there I was very uncomfortable raring to use the loo but afraid to cross over as the elephant would charge every time I tried to run, a 3 ton pachyderm is a obstacle no one wants in their early morning toilet routine

As the field assistants watched from the other camp with mirth on their faces I bit the bullet and In 20 meter sprint that would put Milkha Singh

to shame I crossed over to safety, I only realised later that I had slipped and sprained my ankle when the pain started, unburdened and refreshed I thought the whole day of a way to make this 20 meter journey safer, make all the L signs on your foreheads you like but i would like to die like any other self respecting south Indian -- of clogged arteries not under a elephants foot than it came to me in a eureka moment, if the elephant can cross the trench and come in than I could also cross the trench and go out and walk towards my camp, just had to make sure there were no elephants outside the trench, so that's how I spent the next few months dodging elephants to attend nature's call

To give credit to the elephant it left mostly before we even woke up and never once did it damage the multiple jeeps and trailers parked in the camp

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