Last month, when the environment ministry declared that the elephant in India would now have the status of a National Heritage Animal, I was thrilled. There’s something about these gentle giants that has always fascinated me. Around the same time, the shocking case of the death of seven elephants that collided with a train also came to light. It is said that the adult elephants had died trying to save a calf that was trapped on the railway tracks. I wondered what the government was doing to protect these pachyderms — for, clearly, merely awarding them the status of Heritage Animals isn’t enough. For most local communities railway tracks and highways running through elephant corridors are necessary for their economic and social development – even though they come at the cost of many elephant (and other wild animal) lives. The need of the hour, then, is not to have the elephant as a Heritage Animal just on paper, but also in the minds of the people who share its habitat. In other words, what the elephant needs is better public relations (PR).
This reminds me of the chat I had a couple of months ago with Farukh Khan a mahout or elephant handler, in a Jaipur-based elephant farm. Standing near a huge mound of hay, we were watching an elephant calf take a noisy mud bath. At a distance, two other elephants stood looking on with the air of two aunts admiring an adored nephew. “When one sees and understands the emotions and feelings that elephants are capable of, one can’t really help but feel more kindly towards them,” he said. He told me about Gulabkali (Rosebud) — the elephant under his care.
“She’s the most amazing creature you could ever meet!” said he, “one look in her eyes and you’ll be hooked…” Where was she, I asked. He gestured towards the gate. I turned to see a portly elephant standing by the closed gate, anxiously scanning the horizon just like a yesteryear Bollywood diva waiting for her lover. “Does she want to go somewhere?” I asked, for it looked like the relatively minuscule gate was actually holding her in. Khan smiled secretively: “I shan’t tell you. Just watch...” Soon I heard a pleased squeal. Gulabkali’s eyes were fixated at a dark blot on the horizon. As it came closer I saw it was another elephant. “That’s Bansi,” said Khan, “Gulabkali’s best friend.” When the two elephants met, it was as if they were being reunited after years, instead of the few hours that they’d actually been apart. They squealed and trumpeted with delight, and gently touched each other with their trunks.
“This happens everyday,” said Khan, “Gulabkali will not rest after a day’s work until she sees Bansi. And when sometimes Bansi is late, Gulabkali shows her disappointment to all of us.” Once, he related, when Bansi got very late as working elephants are wont to do, Gulabkali went looking for Bansi’s mahout Mushir, calling out to him beseechingly. “She even cried,” said Farukh, his eyes softening, “fat tears rolled down her face. Gulabkali is as sentimental as one can be…”
At the elephant farm that evening, I saw mothers nurture not only their own calves but also their mahout’s children. The sheer intelligence in their eyes, the quiet dignity of their lumbering walk and the depth of emotion they displayed amazed me. “If only the next few generations were able to interact with these wonderful creatures more closely, they would be more sensitive towards them,” said Khan. I couldn’t help but agree, hoping that the Asian Elephant would survive the lop-sided development, short-sighted policies and its Heritage Animal tag long enough to do so.