Posted in Environment

Review: Tipu, Sultan of the Siwaliks – Amritaraj Christy Williams

As someone passionate about wildlife and especially about the (indian wild) elephants, I searched for such a book to read in Amazon and was happy to discover that it is a very recent publication. Delighted to note that the author is from Kerala although not surprised. I do share his affinity for the elephants so I can deeply feel his emotions for the gentle giants. However, the wild elephants of India, i have had opportunities to watch from a distance only. I have spotted wild elephants in the shoulder areas adjoining the Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary in Tamil Nadu. Second time was in Munnar. Lastly two years back spotted a group grazing the Vazhachchal forests high in the blue mountains (western ghats) in the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. We were on our way to Valparai where we doublebacked to head to Thrissur wherefrom we had started the road trip. It was one super elephant corridor I must say, popular for elephant spotting. I did feel guilty for having stopped to take a good look at them an hour from Athirappalli, although the jumbos looked nonchalant and hardly took an interest in the human presence. A lot of passing sedans had parked roadside to take a peek into the tropical forests that flanked the highways, where the pachyderm families were partly hidden by overgrown grass and dense foliage. Plenty of fresh green fodder here for the elephants to feast on. My most cherished memories.

So the lucky job of being a wildlife biologist at Rajaji national park – how much ever offbeat that could have been and even if the research wouldn’t have paid well – still is an enviable position to me. I wish I was there.

This book comes close on heel to (reading) ‘the Elephant whisperer’ authored by Lawrence Anthony, the South African game reserve runner who is no more. He developed that unique bond to communicate with the tuskers that were under his custody and care within the park limits. But I feel more connected to Tipu’s real life story because it is based in India. The empirical evidence recorded by the wildlife biologist firsthand lends credibility, authenticity and scientific validation to any research or observation on elephant lifecycles and habitats (wrt the said period) in my opinion, in fast changing climes and environs.

I will have to agree with Christy that the Asian elephant population is massively hit and dwindling at an alarming rate. Their African cousins at least bask in global attention and could be doing better in spite of relentless poaching threats to wildlife in the Dark continent. The Asian elephants’ case is complicated by the dimension of domestication. In Thailand for instance, a vast majority of the jumbos could be domesticated with a very slim percentage of the elephants left to roam in the wild. The tragic saga of Indian temple elephants has not elicited the kind of attention or response that it merited.

The author is stationed in Dholkhand forest office station and carries on research on the Indian wild elephants in the foot of the Siwaliks in the late 1990s. Here he takes to personally radio collaring the elephants for the first time in Indian history for research purposes. Now that’s a stupendous job, hitherto unheard of, generating valuable data for processing and records that could go a long way in preserving the elephant territories and ancient corridors that are routinely taken over for urbanization by our government. The statistics probably later paved the way for resettling the Gujjar tribe from within the limits of the sanctuary to remote areas leaving the forests clear and free for the elephant population. The gujjars with their animal husbandry were competing with the pachyderms for the forest resources that were getting scarcer by the day.

The author’s familiarity with the elephants he collared with his team including Tipu, Shahrukh, Diana, Kiruba, Aishwarya, Topcut, Madhuri, Mallika, Malavika, Div T etc., is heartwarming. The wildlife expert records at least 23 elephants of one to two families in the Gangetic plains up to the foothills of the Siwalik, home range to certain lineages of India’s wild elephants. The immobilization of the mammoth elephants darting them with tranquilizers is one nerve wracking drama. Reviving the jumbos seems to be even more challenging and critical where and when things can seriously go wrong and defeat the purpose. This is so when an elephant goes down on its chest or stomach. The saving of the wild elephant’s life is an enormous responsibility and the researcher with the veterinarian team and assistants and forest officials seems to have executed his part to satisfaction. It is unnerving to learn that sometimes darting is done by teams on foot with the vet leading from forefront. Kudos to forest officers and wildlife biologists who are into this, foregoing material aspirations. Elephant Maximus is a matchless species and India, as per the author, is home to at least 50% of wild Asian elephant population.

Good one on Makhna, the male tuskless elephants although this piece of info is not news to me.

Kudos to wildlife biologist and senior to Christy, (Dr?) AJT Johnsingh who felt the need to move human-tribal settlements away from elephant corridors. This was apparently later implemented to good degree of success. AJT, the author avers, is India’s first mammal biologist. What a brilliant brainchild of AJT is this delinking of humanity from the wild elephant society! The man-elephant conflict can be resolved in a day if this works to perfection.

I virtually camped in Rajaji for a week turning page after page of the book where I was enchanted by a variety of flora and fauna, native to this particular park. Special mention: Sal tree. Others include Rohini trees, Khair (favourite of the elephants), Acacia, Ehretia, Mallotus, sharing space with the pied hornbill, chital deer, langurs, barking deer, rhesus macaques, gorals, leopard, tigers. The shrubs and bushes are the rau, the lantana and the colebrookia (biological term). How rich is my India!

One interesting fact about the Asian elephants viz-a-viz other domesticated species such as the canines (from wolves) is that, despite captivity of a record 4000 years (longest in human memory), (and unlike the African elephants that have miraculously escaped this cruel fate), the Asian elephants have not mutated into any sub species which is remarkable. The domesticated Asian elephants retain the exact DNA of their wild brethren.

Some cheer learning that in the elephant world, the males follow the lead of the females. Not news to me again, having grown up on a staple of Wilbur Smith. The elephant matriarchs always sounded to me like my own patti (grandma) hahaha. The author at the outset avers how it is entirely wrong lumping all elephants into one grey. Every single elephant is a different character, with a distinct personality. Christy seems to have a special something for Tipu, the sultan of the Siwaliks who is very mature and intelligent.

The musth season of the wild elephants is well detailed and covered in phases. Learning that the tuskers came to musth every year from one to two months or even five to six months in the case of mature bulls, I couldn’t help thinking about our temple elephants chained and tortured for life. No wonder they go on rampage through our towns and villages, confined to squatting space in musth season without company.

The man-elephant conflict is also dealt with neatly on first hand experience. Yet the author does not lose sight of the fact that IT IS THE ELEPHANTS THAT ARE FIGHTING THE LOSING BATTLE. The railway accidents and power lines are taking a heavy toll on the wild Indian population. Christy hopes the situation is improving with afforestation afoot, but I don’t share his optimism at all.

The author does a remarkable job of not merely doing math of the headcount of the wild Indian elephants in Rajaji in late ’90s, but also tracks and tags and studies the elephant families acquiring valuable research material and info. Particularly impressive is learning of the way the mother elephants guard the newborns, how the elephants trumpet, rumble, mock-charge for various emotions or communications and how even the erring among them get chastised by the senior matrons. The bull elephants almost always are on their own, parting from the group when they reach puberty from which time they are in the company of wise old bulls who show them the ways of the elephantine life.

I particularly loved reading about how the group of wild elephants fell asleep on their backs on top of the gorge and then woke up on clockwork precision only to turn on their sides and go back to sleep! So cute and so far unobserved fact I guess that even Lawrence Anthony did not get to discover about African elephants! Oh what a sight that must have been! I do guess this Tipu book is full of vital info specific to the wild Indian elephant. I like the geography with native trees and other wild species that find a mention. It is interesting to note how the ecology is maintained with the arrival of monsoons.

Christy who joins the newly established Wildlife Institute of India as a greenhorn biologist is also working on ‘Project elephant’ mooted by govt of India. He goes on to submit his research paper at Arizona state univ., in the US after which he joins WWF that takes him to Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia etc., to study the wild Asian elephants.

Shattered reading about the train accident that killed three female wild elephants. Moved to tears learning how the elephant mother sacrificed her own life throwing herself at the speeding engine to save her baby – so much humanlike.

Christy meets his future wife Kashmira in Rajaji National Park and shows ‘Tipu’ to her when she says she would like to marry Tipu! Well, Christy I would have loved to, as well! The author getting connected to ‘Tipu’ is too very understandable. As I said, I share his emotion.

The book ended with a first person (imagined) account of Tipu who seems to have lost hope for his progenies on Planet Earth. The future seems bleak from his point of view and I feel a sadness realizing the truth in his fears and doubts. I hope the book is read by leading industrialists and especially the self-certified gurus of India as well as our government and bureaucracy and planners and decision makers. Is India only for human Indian citizens? What about our wildlife. Can you imagine India without the elephant. Next time, do when you screech ‘Ganpati bappa moriya.’ The chants sound shrill to my ears when you dislodge the Elephant maxima from their natural environs, take over the elephant corridors for ashrams and factories, destroy forests and build in their places ugly cities. May be what is stated in the ‘Sapiens’ (Yuval Noah Harari) is perfect. The species that go extinct are the most fortunate as they do not profusely regenerate and populate to live a miserable life. Whoever went before us the homesapiens, went with grace having lived life well when it lasted.

Posted in Environment

Do temple elephants connect.

Reading a book on African elephants and learning that the jumbos with their underbelly rumblings communicate on a very low frequency like the whales of the seven seas, that which waves may be inaudible to human ears, and that these aural vibrations transmit via conduits in atmosphere through the herds, and even across neighbouring herds to envelope the entire African continent supposedly, i have this doubt about the temple elephants in India. Do these unfortunate creatures languishing in the abodes of our gods, captured as calves from the jungles get a chance to learn the elephantine telepathy language. Do they voice their sufferings to fellow pachyderms in the same temple premises or those in the area and/or to those across the geographical territory (such as the states of Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu for instance). Can the temple elephants communicate with wild elephants in Munnar or Kabini or Mudumalai or Ranthambore or any other forest reserve in India. If so, what is the expected range. Indian elephant corridors run across the Deccan coasts east and west, cut through central India and up to the Himalayan foothills and Bengal. Do the wild tuskers roaming our sanctuaries hear the feeble cries of our long suffering captive temple elephants. As I wonder, do our temple elephants separated as calves from their herds even pick up some elemental elephantine communication skills. Not only physically mighty and imposing, even endowed with a very keen intelligence and sharp memory power and with a very advanced metaphysical communication sense far superior to human communication evolution history, it is unbelievable that we are chaining these gentle giants breaking their spirit and ‘conditioning’ them. That breaking of the elephant brought in from the wild: it is heartwrenching. So much so that the towering mammoth feels after all, a simple iron chain can control it. How brutally must this wild beast be broken to come to believe in such an illogic. There are media news on temple elephants going on rampage when pushed to ‘work’ in musth conditions. I am yet to finish the book but this I am thinking about the the temple elephants keeping their communication channels open with their wild brethren. Are Indian/Asian elephants as keen and smart as the African wild elephant. We have an issue here. Ours are domesticated, the ones with temples especially. Which means they are in constant contact with homosapiens. Would that dull the senses of our temple elephants rendering them incapable of establishing or staying in touch with their longlost brothers and sisters in the wild? Just a thought.

say a BIGGGG NOOOO to Temple Elephants please…