An Elephant Story

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( Image courtesy © Carol Buckley )

It was a typically balmy evening on the outskirts of Bandipur, Karnataka. Some years ago I was shooting a TV commercial which involved the temple elephants of Guruvayoor, which had trekked up all the way from Kerala. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FGkc6FbDYE&feature=youtu.be  )

The shooting crew was taking a break and I decided to walk away from the hustle and bustle of activity with my cup of coffee, towards the adjacent wilderness. It opened out on to a lush green meadow across which the temple elephants were being temporarily camped. I sat down on the soft grass, thrust my face into the fragrant breeze and soaked in this beautiful, tranquil scene.

Soon I saw a mahout ride one of the elephants towards me. He dismounted and loosely chained the elephant’s foot to a spike that he thrust and hammered into the ground. With the elephant secured, he then walked over to get the elephant some feed from the main stockpile a few yards away. He dumped a hearty portion in front of the elephant, patted him lovingly and proceeded to walk away into the distance, presumably to attend to his own errands.

The elephant munched away peacefully on his allotted feed, occasionally gazing at his mahout walking away. Gradually the mahout’s silhouette got smaller and smaller against the horizon, till he crested a hill and finally disappeared from our sight.

Now it was just me and this elephant, surrounded by a green panoramic landscape. The weather  could not have been more perfect and there was no other human being in sight. Bliss!

At this very instant the elephant carefully tugged at the spike. He worked it and pulled it out of the ground with his trunk. He then put it down noiselessly and sauntered over to the main food stockpile and began gorging himself, in what seemed to me, an unusually hurried manner. After about 10 minutes of frenzied feeding, suddenly, as if struck by guilt or fear, he quickly shuffled back to his original spot. Soon the mahout reappeared on the horizon. The elephant very smoothly re-planted the stake back into the ground; into the same hole the mahout had dug. By the time the mahout finally walked up to the elephant, everything was as exactly he had left it. It became very evident to me that he never caught on to what had just transpired

I watched this entire drama, stunned & transfixed. Finally I snapped out of my stupor and for a minute, thought about walking over and telling the mahout about his elephant’s extraordinary behaviour while he was away. On second thought, I chose not to tattle on the elephant!

Looking back at this encounter, I wondered if what I saw was really extraordinary or was I just witness to an event that went beyond my existing understanding of elephants  or my pre suppositions?

It seems to me that the more we observe animals, the more we notice that they exhibit behavior and emotions that we associate with being uniquely ‘human’. Somehow we are always surprised and delighted to see that. Why should we be surprised by intelligence in an animal? Or its craftiness, greed? Or its affection or sadness? Or even be surprised at this common thread of feelings and behavior across species?

I am not a scientist or an expert, but I really do think that if we can stop thinking of animals as ‘creatures’ or ‘beasts’ that are somehow alien to our own human condition on this planet, we might understand our world and ourselves a little better and perhaps even improve it.