Do elephants die in the wild? If yes, how?
Don’t give me accounts of old age. No body gives it a hoot these days. Here we, tourists, skim around in ecotourist jeeps along the buffer zone of a national forest, hardly scraping the skin of its enormous greenbody, peering into the leafy curtain for a glimpse of action. Let’s see the highlights of life in the wild, the adrenaline part. A sudden whoop from the high branches, a hiss from the bush, a trumpet, a low growl, a chase, a pounce, nerve-racking moments of the struggle, blood and the last rattle. Spectacles which come like helicopter-shots pitch us instantly into dizzying clouds, away from our mundane life on the earth.
In the woods nothing usually happens. Animal sightings, if they happen, happen. Most often we return empty handed from the forest save those fascinating stories our guides have relished us with about how other tourists at other times stood in awe watching a tiger idle in the shade of a tree. We sigh in despair.
A forest is such a dud that the one who waits for drama is disappointed. I could be so desperate with the woods in the Silent Valley that I threw this question at its most celebrated guide-guard – Mari.
“Mari, just imagine. While making your daily round in the area you’re in charge with, suddenly you come across a pack of elephants,” I said, eyes widened, breath held, arms raised up and frozen dramatically, “Tell me. What happens next?”
“I find another way.”
“But you don’t have another way out.” The sun was so slow setting in the horizon. I moved closer to him, throwing yet another spanner in. “What will you do?”
“I wait them out.”
“Wait them out. Ok,” I plodded along his statement taking all the time in the world to think. “But what if they don’t show any signs of moving away. You are asked to get back to the office urgently.” I dug my heels in, tightening the screw.
“I find another way.” I was hurt. He could have given it some thought before replying. Mari didn’t even bat his eyes. He was so sure.
“What if one of them notices you and charges?” I asked.
“I run away.” Mari might have guessed he didn’t make the point clear. “I slip away from its path. But you know, elephants do not have have any vengeance so the one which chased me away won’t be looking around for me the whole evening. It has other things to mind.”
“I find another way.”It is a no-show, I realised. And sighed.
This is what happens in the woods. When a tiger spots an elephant or a hefty gaur or even a snake, or whenan elephant finds a tiger, a bison, or a snake, it gets off a bit from the other’s track. No hurt egos walk in the wild. And please. Forget those youtube vids. There are very rarely those elephant vs tiger, wild buffalo vs hippopotamus, cheetah vs lion encounters in the wild. Animals don’t waste their energy, temper and blood. (Statutory warning: Well, that doesn’t mean a spotted deer tomorrow can pry open a tiger’s mouth with its muzzle reading this. Game is still on between predatory animals and their preys).
(Look at the trees. I always find it amusing to note that though much more violence happens in the plant world only a few among us notice. Why? Because the pace of violence among the trees is set too low for our eyes to pick any action.
I remember that tall tree I saw on the way to Sairandhri. There were two trees in fact – one inside, and the other which had successfully engulfed the host-tree from outside, clasping it to its bosom with its rough tentacled bark. In the air there was ardent love, but such blind and intense crush that the host could be feeling inside its now-papery bark is fatal.
From a distance the whole contraption seems like a captivating picture from a pas de deux, a ballet for two, but the biologist knows that in this wild swing and abandon, only one of the trees could be smiling).
Learning all that I stood in wonder before a large photograph of the carcass of an elephant in the forest office at Mukkali, Silent Valley. Its fine print read: Killed by a tiger. Do tigers eat elephants! I shook my head in disbelief.
What could’ve happened in that ghoulish hour in the woods long ago? In the dark a stray elephant. A few meters away, behind the bushes, a tiger. Then the fateful moment came. How did he react when the elephant found he, the most unlikely victim in a forest, any forest, was being stalked by a cat. Got amused or just got plain scared! Did he get time enough to turn around before the pounce? Did he use his enormous body in the ensuing fight? What was the tiger’s strategy? Plan A, Plan B? What was that Achilles point that finally did the elephant in? Did darkness play a crucial role? And from the forest office just a hundred meters away from the spot who was the guard who first woke up hearing the din? What did he first think of, in that cloudy wakefulness? Did he go out to check the matter alone or with his colleagues? What did he find there? Was the scene bloody? Was the tiger present near its kill?
I later imagined. The crucial event could have happened days before the kill, There was this moment when the tiger could’ve spotted the elephant. As usual it might have turned its head the other way, disinterestedly, and raised its right foreleg to step away, but then suddenly it froze, leg still up. “There is a dramatic decline of ungulates in the Silent Valley,” remarked a forest officer, I talked to. Ungulates mean deer. The tiger could be so famished that it turned its head back again and took a second go at the elephant. This time it was his empty stomach that ravenously looked through its eyes. There could be death on both sides, he saw. Finally. He shed the tradition.
Still this is a one off case, I took my eyes off the framed photograph.
Where do elephants usually go to die? A tribal guide from Parambikkulam had an interesting account to share. “There is a marshy place somewhere in the middle of this forest. They go there to die.” In the darkness I couldn’t see his eyes. But I still remember the rattle I felt in my spine. It could be the night breeze. “Have you ever gone there?” “No, but everybody here knows there is this place inside. It is a marshy ground. When an elephant realizes that its time is up, it slowly retires from its pack and move to that place to lie down.”
That night I could not sleep.
Months ago, one evening, as the thick curtain of mist lifted for a while, I saw in a distant hillock in Eravikulam, three elephants walking along the crest. Just before vanishing once again behind yet another thick curtain of mist quickly pacing in, the elephant at the front raised its trunk to the sky as if to say good bye. The ones walking behind it followed suit.
Then the mist rolled in.
(NB: You must read this story once again, against a poem I will soon present in A Cup of Kavitha)