“Where the hell are the elephants?”
Chittiappa was furious, and Venkatesh the forest guard wilted under his onslaught.
Venkatesh was reputed the best tracker in the region but, for all his skill, he hadn’t managed to locate a single elephant.
“Just last week they were everywhere,” the 58-year-old veterinarian told me, the milder pitch of his voice not masking his frustration. “They were destroying crops here, there, everywhere, we kept getting reports. So here we are now, and not a single one of them to be seen…”
It wasn’t what I wanted to hear. Ten days earlier, I had dropped in on Mr Vinay Luthra, Chief Wildlife Warden for Karnataka, at his office. In course of conversation, Luthra mentioned that the court-mandated capture of the elephants of Hassan would begin in a few days. Luthra asked me to film the operation on behalf of the forest department, and suggested that I get to Hassan as soon as possible.
I dumped my gear in the car and hit the road. Just outside Mysore, I spotted a truck parked by a roadside chai stall. On it, swaying gently to the beat of some internal rhythm only he could hear, was an elephant.
Over chai, I discovered that the elephant was Arjuna, residential address BR Hills. He was being transported to Hassan for the capture operation.
In Hassan the mood was a mixture of the angry and the festive.
A day earlier, a farmer had been trampled to death by a wild elephant. The locals, roused to renewed fury by this latest tragedy, had vented their anger on Forest Officer K Devraj, who had visited the location in response to a report and was beaten up for his pains.
News of the impending capture had gotten out, however, and the scene was now festive, with local media, villagers, forest department staff, trackers, vets and assorted hangers-on gathered around. Some bustled purposefully here and there, others helped Chittiappa make the final alterations to the trucks that would transport the captured elephants, and still others gathered in aimless groups, gossiping.
Arjuna arrived in due course and took his place alongside the other nine tame elephants, the ‘Kumkis’, who had been brought down to Hassan.
Venkatesh, the ace tracker, had put together a photo album of all elephants known to be in the area. Copies were passed around to the trackers. One tusker, known to be the largest and most aggressive, was singled out for special mention as a prime target.
The Kumkis and their mahouts set out on the trail. Jeeps loaded with vets and trackers took off into the forest, only to return empty-handed after a long, hot, exhausting day. They had found some sign – footprints here, some dung there — but not a single sighting of an elephant.
The next day proved equally frustrating. This time, the search teams focused on the coffee estates where elephants had done considerable damage to life and property. Again, they saw sign; again, they ended the day with nothing to show for their trouble.
The search teams had now covered most of Alur taluk. Where the bloody hell were the elephants?
“I think I know what is happening,” Vasanta, the veteran mahout, said. Everyone crowded around to listen.
“Our Kumkis are warning the wild elephants,” he said.
Elephants use infrasonic frequencies, too low for human ears, to communicate over great distances. That is what the Kumkis are doing, Vasantha said — elephants are intelligent, our Kumkis know there is harm intended and they are sending out warnings, telling the wild ones to stay away.
There seemed to be something to Vasanta’s theory. How else explain why over 30 wild elephants that had been around in the area till just the other day had vanished as soon as the Kumkis arrived?
The conversation shifted to practicalities. There is no way to mute an elephant, no way to prevent the tame ones from transmitting their warning signals. It was decided to bring in more trackers, and to widen the radius of the search.
The search parties duly spread out, but the only outcome was increased frustration. A female with a young calf in tow was spotted at one point, but the court orders were explicit: males had to be captured first, and only then could the females and calves be touched.
Six more days passed in fruitless search; six more nights were spent around the communal campfire, retelling stories of past captures.
I couldn’t wait around any more. There was work waiting for me in Bangalore.
Four days later, Chittiappa called. The team had finally captured a Makhna, a male without tusks. I rushed back to Hassan. The Makhna, roped to a tree near the camp, looked confused and angry. A crowd of chattering, laughing onlookers didn’t do the traumatized elephant much good.
Around five that evening, we got a call reporting the sighting of a tusker in a nearby forest. We rushed over and caught up with the trackers. The sharp-shooters loaded up and slipped into the forest, following the trackers till they came upon the elephant. One of them took the shot, hitting the elephant with a dart loaded with Immobilon, a tranquilizer that relaxes the muscles.
The dosage has to be precisely calibrated to the size of the elephant – too large a dose and the elephant will never wake up again; too small a dose and the elephant won’t be sufficiently stunned to effect the capture.
The few minutes immediately following the immobilization are highly critical. In that span of time, the tame elephants are rushed to the spot. Forest officials and mahouts rope the immobilized captive, one rope to each leg and one around its neck. The other ends of the ropes are fastened to the tame Kumkis.
While the forest staff race through this process, the vets take the elephant’s vital signs and cut off the sharp points of the tusks. The downed elephant is then revived with the injection of the antidote drug Diprenorphine (trade name Revivon), which again has to be administered in a precisely calibrated dosage.
Forest officials cleared all non-essential people from the vicinity. The breathing of the captive, almost imperceptible under the influence of the tranquilizer, began to grow more stertorous. The vets monitoring it breathed a collective sigh of relief when it began to move its trunk.
With the mahouts guiding them, the Kumkis readied to take the strain.
Abhimanyu was the lead Kumki on this capture. He was known through the state as much for his strength as for his vile temper; Vasanta, the mahout, was the only one who could control him.
A long, thick rope connected Abhimanyu to the captive. One end was tied to the captive’s neck, the other to Abhimanyu’s torso. The mighty Kumki braced its legs, took the slack, and began to heave. Meter by meter, it dragged the captive through the forest.
Evening extended into night. The headlamps of the official jeeps lit up the forest, freezing the scene in a cloud of dust. The shouted instructions of the mahouts and officials, the excited chatter and press of the crowd, the occasional thrum of a rope stretched suddenly taut, and the angry trumpeting of the captive combined in a scene from hell.
Afterwards, someone told me it had taken an hour. To me at the time, it felt like forever before the captive was finally hauled out of the forest and into an open area adjoining the backwaters of the Hemavati river.
The progress, foot by painful foot, continued for another kilometer, and then the captive stopped dead in his tracks. Earlier, at such times, the Kumkis had worked in concert to get him moving again, but not this time – despite the urging of their mahouts, the Kumkis refused to budge.
The five tame elephants stood stock still. In their midst stood the immobile captive – a surreal tableau lit in the in the golden glow the headlights and torches.
Just when it seemed the impasse would last for the rest of the night, Abhimanyu went over to the captive and took up position beside him, the bodies of the two mighty tuskers almost touching. We waited, tense, unsure of what would happen next, involuntarily frozen into the same tableau as the elephants.
Long minutes later, Abhimanyu lifted his trunk and reached out, caressing the captive in a gentle sweeping motion from the forehead on down. As the Kumki’s trunk reached swept down, the captive opened its mouth. Abhimanyu slid his trunk into the open mouth and thus they stood, frozen in solidarity.
The captive calmed down, a calm so palpable that it radiated outwards from where he stood in Abhimanyu’s sheltering hug and enveloped the rest of us, Kumkis, officers, mahouts, vets, the watching crowd, and me.
It was the night of February 18, 2014. As this scene played out in Hassan, elsewhere in the world a group of researchers published a paper in which they recorded this exact phenomenon, which they characterized as ‘consolation behaviour’.
“The researchers,” said a report in the Daily Mail dated that day, “recorded instances when one of the animals was distressed or frightened… typically, a nearby elephant would walk over and gently touch its upset colleague with its trunk, or put its trunk in the other animal’s mouth.”
The research, published jointly by lead scientist Joshua Plotnik of Mahidol University in Thailand and premier primatologist and Emory University Professor Frans de Waal, comprehensively charts such behaviour.
“The ‘trunk in the mouth’ gesture is the elephant equivalent of a handshake or hug. It’s a very vulnerable position to put yourself in, because you could get bitten,” Dr Plotnik, chief executive of the non-profit conservation organisation Think Elephants International, told the Daily Mail. “It may be sending a signal of ‘I’m here to help you, not hurt you’.”
This is what I witnessed in person that day, with one added nuance: Here was a captive elephant consoling a wild one it was helping to capture, rather like a cop giving a criminal an empathetic hug even as he put the handcuffs on him.
It was a conflict zone, almost a war, out there with one powerful bull elephant pitting its might and its wild will against the combined efforts of five tame elephants to subjugate him – and yet, even in the midst of that titanic struggle there was this moment of empathy, an instant of of fellow feeling, that made my eyes mist.
Just when we thought order had been restored, the captive collapsed, landing on the ground with a dust-raising thud.
It was hot – nearly 40C, with high humidity. The vets who rushed over to check his vital signs put the collapse down to a combination of heat, the lingering effects of the tranquilizer, and the debilitating effects of his own hyper-ventilating efforts to free himself. Forest guards ran over to a nearby stream to fetch water, which they poured over the captive to cool its heated body down.
Whatever the cause, he lay there, immobile.
Surprisingly, even the locals, who till then had greeted the capture with vengeful cheering, seemed to undergo a collective change in mood. The untamed spirit of the wild one had won them over; the crowd seemed to be willing it to get back on its feet.
The mahouts tried to get the Kumkis to boost the captive back on its feet, but the elephants refused their urging. Instead, two of them walked over to the prostrate captive and caressed him with their trunks. They touched his ears and eyes, and tried to open his mouth and push their trunks in.
Suddenly, the captive lifted his head, strong and proud. It was as if the Kumkis had said something to him, something gentle and calming and consoling, and he was responding.
Abhimanyu walked over and gave the captive a little nudge. On cue, he struggled back onto his feet and, with trunk raised in defiance, split the hush with a resounding trumpet blast. The crowd erupted in cheers.
The vets decided on a half hour break for the captive to recover, before resuming operations. While we waited, I thought of the videos I had seen of elephant translocations in Africa. There, they go out in helicopters and dart the elephants. Ground teams move in and secure the captive into a harness; the chopper then air-lifts it and transports it to its new location.
It was, I had thought while watching those videos, so humane, gentle, quick, painless – more so when compared with the violence and chaos of how we do it in India. But who knows, really? Maybe the captive is better off having the comforting company of other elephants?
Throughout the night, Abhimanyu was the one who had to take the maximum strain; it was his strength that had been harnessed to dragging the captive through the forest and to the truck. He was tiring, bleeding near one of his tusks. At the loading zone, while the other four Kumkis kept the captive from breaking free, Abhimanyu, from the front, pushed and head-butted him backward onto the truck. And yet, in the midst of this struggle, his empathy for the captive never flagged.
Each time Vasanta urged him to head-butt the captive, he instead walked up and twirled his trunk around that of the wild one. He would hold the pose for a few.
Those of us watching understood, without words. “Sorry,” Abhimanyu seemed to be telling the captive. “I’m sorry, but I have to do this to you.”
And then he would back off, charge forward again, and butt the captive another foot backwards onto the bed of the truck.
It took six weeks to capture the one dozen males in the area, and each operation was an encore of the ones that had gone before. The last of the males was captured on April 4, 2014. Once he was loaded onto the truck, we followed in his wake to the elephant camp in Mathigodu, where he was coaxed into a kraal (a large enclosure built of strong logs). We then rushed back to Hassan where the tracking team was already on the trail of the next elephant.
Acting on the recommendations of the task force, the Karnataka High Court had decreed that no female should be captured in isolation. Herds had to be identified and captured together, so that mothers and calves were not split up.
On April 5, the ground staff captured a female, contravening both the court order and the instructions of their own officers. No one knew to which herd she belonged, or even whether she had a calf. We had by then reached the spot. A few quick calls to top forest department officials and scientists resulted in instructions being issued that the captured female had to be released with a radio collar, at least till the herd to which she belonged was identified.
Such instructions are easy enough to issue, and sound right on paper. But out there in a forested landscape herds often mix, break up, and reunite. This flux makes identifying the individuals of each herd, and capturing them as a unit nightmarishly difficult for the trackers, who spend endless hours in the field to try and identify the various family groupings.
The captured female had been brought out of the forest, and was roped to a banyan tree near the camp. Forest Department officers requested a biologist from World Wildlife Fund, who at the time was in Ooty, to go to the spot and collar the female before releasing her. The thinking was that the female would find its way back to its own herd and therefore, by tracking her, the officers could identify the whole family group and capture it en masse.
As we waited for the collar to arrive, the camp relaxed. Trackers, vets and officers got a much-needed breather after weeks of intense effort, and the Kumkis with their mahouts went off to forage in the forests.
All, that is, except a Kumki named Srirama, who went up to the captive female and took up station at her side. We watched in wonder as Srirama gently touched the captive female’s genitals with his trunk, and then wrapped it around her face and held her in an embrace.
This was the consoling behaviour we had witnessed earlier, and under the shadow of Srirama’s empathetic presence, the captive female grew visibly calmer and less stressed. Bomma, the mahout, gave me a clue to Srirama’s behaviour, so different from the other Kumkis who were wandering around.
“Srirama was captured right here in Hassan, in 2009,” Bomma said.
That was when the penny dropped. “They might have known each other before?”, I asked.
“Most likely,” Bomma said. “They are both adults, and since he was captured in this same area, they could very well be related, maybe even cousins.”
The WWF biologist had been delayed by a day – and for all the time we waited, Srirama maintained his station at her side, hugging, comforting, being there for her.
By dawn, hundreds of locals from surrounding villages had turned up to see the captive. Among them were students from area schools and colleges who had skipped classes to witness the spectacle.
Srirama remained by the captive’s side, a constantly reassuring presence that helped counteract the stress induced by the noisy crowds. Realizing that the female had not eaten anything since her captivity, Bomma made big balls of paddy mixed with straw. Srirama ate a few mouthfuls and on his own, he picked up a ball of the food with his trunk and fed it directly into the captive’s mouth. She ate a few mouthfuls, much to the general relief.
The WWF biologist finally arrived to a hostile reception. News had spread that the captive would be radio-collared and released back into the wild, and the crowd was having none of it. To their way of thinking, the elephants in the area were dangerous; to release one after capturing it was folly.
They surrounded the biologist, yelling questions and insults. “Why have you come here?” “Who sent you?” “When are you taking the elephant away?”
The official, who spoke only Tamil, couldn’t understand a word of what was being said to him in Kannada. His attempts to pacify the crowd by explaining in his own language only made matters worse. Some of the rowdier elements began to push and shove; one reached out and grabbed him by his shirt collar.
I stepped in to try and help defuse the situation, explaining in Kannada that the idea was to let the captive go so she would lead us to her herd, and we could capture them together.
The angry crowd was in no mood to listen to reason. They turned their rage on me. “You are that animal-loving photographer from Bangalore,” one of them yelled at me, his hand on my chest, pushing. “If you like elephants so much you take this one, but don’t dare release her…”
Another voice in the crowd articulated the general fear. “If you release her now, after keeping her captive all this time, her anger will only increase – you guys will go away; it is us she will take revenge on…”
The situation got uglier by the minute, with the crowd united in its determination that it would not allow the captive to be released. Several were on their phones, summoning their friends to rush to the spot and help resist any attempt to release the captive.
Forest department officials stepped in to rescue us from the mob. The officials on the scene had to make a quick judgment call – court order or no, they realized that any attempt to release the captive would lead to violence.
A truck was brought over. The Kumkis got to work and, with Srirama continuing his empathetic supporting role, they pushed the captive onto the flat-bed and took off for the Ranigate camp.
Note: Capturing the elephants was one part of the story. What happened to them after is the other, equally important, part – and it is the theme of my next narrative in this series