Elephants in the wild

Print edition : August 16, 2019

A lone tusker. Photo: Jean-Philippe Puyravaud

A twosome, with the Sigur nallah in the background. Photo: Jean-Philippe Puyravaud

A herd using the water facility provided at Cheetal Walk. Photo: Jean-Philippe Puyravaud

A sparkling new book on Asian elephants allows readers to see different dimensions of this animal that has been close to humans for millennia.

"The question is, are we happy to suppose that our grandchildren may never be able to see an elephant, except in a picture book?"

--David Attenborough


Priya Davidar and Jean-Philippe Puyravaud are ecologists who after retirement took up residence at the periphery of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, in a place surrounded by a forest named Cheetal Walk. They are now working with the Sigur Nature Trust, set up earlier by E.R.C. Davidar, known for his pioneering study of the Nilgiri tahr. Their work is dedicated to conservation of biodiversity and endangered species. They have edited this sparkling new book on Asian elephants.

Elephants have been on this earth from prehistoric times. Their fossil remains keep surfacing in different parts of India. Although this animal was one of the earliest to be protected by law, in 1879 itself, its number has been plummeting at a startling rate. In 1982, catching elephants in the wild was banned. In 1992, the Government of India set up Project Elephant. It has been estimated that only about 50,000 Asian elephants are left in the wild, and India has the largest population, with about 27,000 in the wild and 3,500 in captivity. Recently, the elephant was given the status of “heritage animal”. Still, the increasing pressure on its habitat makes elephant conservation a daunting task. The Gajah report of 2010, which the Elephant Task Force of the then Ministry of Environment and Forest produced, revealed a dismal picture of the status of elephants and their habitat, which continues to dwindle.

The editors of this book gathered 25 people from different parts of the world concerned with the plight of elephants to record their perceptions of the largest of land animals. The list includes Michael Fox, a veterinarian and a nature writer from the United States; Mohamad Ali, a Tamil writer known for his books on nature; Michelle Henley, a specialist in the ecology of the African elephant; Edward Kohli, a wildlifer from Tanzania; and Daphne Sheldrick, a conservationist from Kenya. Her foreword to the book sets the tone for the different chapters.

The book goes beyond conservation. One gets to see the different dimensions of this animal that has been close to humans for millennia.

John Appleby travelled to Sri Lanka after a traumatic, life-crippling experience. He shares the healing experience he had while photographing elephants there. He talks about being surrounded by elephants when he was in a safe hide.

In his words: “I then began to sense a feeling of extreme calmness, different from anything I had ever previously experienced. I had the distinct feeling that the emotional pain related to these past events within my body was being dissolved. I felt as if I was being emotionally ‘washed’ from the inside. I felt for the first time in years a genuine shift and healing of this past pain. I believe that on some level the elephants ‘felt’ my residual pain and shifted it out of me”. Similarly, Priya Davidar gives an account of the elephants that frequented the neighbourhood of Cheetal Walk and talks about the bonding that can develop between elephants in the wild and humans. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who researched elephants in Tanzania, has talked about such experiences in his book Among the Elephants (1975).

May Bradshaw, active in the new field of trans-species psychology, writes about mourning rituals among elephants. Author of the path-breaking book Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us about Humanity, she points out that elephants may be aware of the transition from life to death. A few stories of elephant grief and burials are narrated. A moving account by Rajeev Srivatsava, a forest officer in Tamil Nadu, of an elephant bidding a tearful farewell to her dead calf in the Palani ranges supports this insight.

The book is elegantly produced, and the photographs, both in colour and in black and white, have been reproduced sharply. One photograph, by Norwyn Cole, of a close-up of an elephant trunk resting over a large tusk stands out. Colour paintings by elephant calves, given by the Elephant Gallery in Thailand, and two poems on elephants add value to the book.

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