The ‘good’ elephant and the ‘bad’ elephant

Picture credit: Vidya Venkat

[First published in The Hindu thREAD on Jan. 22, 2016]

Here’s the tragic part about being born as an elephant. Sure, you may get to eat a whole lot of food and grow into a 3,000-kilo giant, but if your fate is to be ordered about by a puny human, how are you supposed to feel about that? Happy?

Taking a joyride atop an elephant (that costs a hundred rupees per head) at Dubare Elephant Camp in Coorg, I observe the scrawny animal course the walkway as its mahout periodically pokes it with a sharp metal rod. Halfway through the ride, the mahout rewards it with a roll of dried grass for its obedience. After we get off the elephant’s back, my mother buys a dozen bananas and gives it to the mahout in the hope that it would land up in the creature’s belly. Whether it truly does, we never know.

A short drive away from the Dubare elephant camp lives Karnataka’s state-appointed honorary wildlife warden Nirad Muthanna. Muthanna is strictly against the taming of wild elephants in such camps. “Their place is in the jungle, not in these circus grounds,” he says. Situated in the midst of coffee plantations, Muthanna’s house overlooks the Cauvery river, beyond which stretches the Dubare Forest where sightings of wild elephants and tigers are fairly common.

Sitting by the riverside, we discussed the dilemmas foisted on these animals by us humans. He recounts an anecdote from 2014 to make me understand why peaceful animals like elephants have learnt to be suspicious of — or even hate — human beings over the years.

“I was in Bangalore for some work, when my housekeeper called me up one day and said that he saw a baby elephant wailing on our side of the river bank. I told him to put the baby in our raft and send it to the other side of the river so that its herd could find it back.”

“And was the baby reunited with its family?” I ask.

“No. The forest department officials came and took the baby away and ‘dedicated’ it to the Dubare Elephant Camp to be trained for the Mysuru Dussera festival.”

At the traditional annual Dussera ritual that takes place in the palace of the Mysuru Maharaja, herds of elephants are taken from Nagarhole to participate in a royal procession which usually concludes with a loud bursting of firecrackers. The elephants, numbering in their hundreds, are fed well to ensure that they have the strength to walk the long distances, but the festival atmosphere, which we humans enjoy, is not natural for elephants.

“Elephants have very sensitive ears. They get annoyed when exposed to loud noises like crackers going off. It is a completely unfamiliar atmosphere for them,” Muthanna explained. The training at Dubare that young, wild elephants go through is even worse. “They put the animal in a prison-like enclosure and starve it for days together in order to break its spirit. Only when it begins to obey the instructions of humans is it given anything to eat at the camp,” he says. “They also beat the animals with clubs and poke them with sharp rods to discipline them.”

Upon his insistence, Karnataka’s Principal Conservator of Forests Vinay Luthra ensured that the baby was returned to its herd.

“Every now and then, the mother elephant would arrive at the other side of the river near our house and cry out for its calf. When I told the forest department about it, the response I got was that the baby was blessed that it got picked up for participation in the Mysuru Dussera festivities. So I went to the highest wildlife authority in the State to ensure that the baby was sent back to where it truly belonged.”

When the baby elephant was finally sent to the other side of the river from Muthanna’s house, it went running several kilometers into the forest to its mother. “I can never forget that sight in all my life. Elephants communicate through various subsonic sounds that are beyond the hearing range of humans. There probably were a thousand different vibrations that went out from the child to the mother that day, which we never heard.”

The herd of elephants left untouched an offering of freshly-plucked jackfruits which Muthanna had left for them by the river. “I think the elephants around here don’t trust human beings anymore.”


It is only when you see an elephant in the wild that you realise they are anything but mild, happy creatures, waiting for a scrub (that’s how the Dubare camp advertises itself: ‘Come, give our elephants a bath!’). One close encounter I had from the vantage point of a van driving through the Mudumalai National Park was all that was needed to put this in perspective. As we beheld a herd of five elephants in a forest clearing, one of us happened to express their amazement in a loud whistle. The next second, the tusker let out a trumpet so shrill and fierce, our vehicle shook. Before we could recover from the shock, the pachyderm had stomped a giant leg, leaned forward menacingly and begun charging, ears spread out in an intimidating warning, straight towards us. Our driver took the cue and zoomed off, leaving the herd furious in a cloud of exhaust smoke.

Stories of wild elephants raiding crop fields, attacking people and crossing highways are no longer news. These usually portray the animal as an unwelcome and mischievous intruder bent upon causing harm. But the question is: what is provoking them to act this way?

A tusker rubs itself against a tree trunk.

Professor Raman Sukumar, at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, is a renowned biologist who has been studying behavioural aspects of the Asian elephants for over three decades now. Sukumar says it is not just humans who are struggling to cope with elephants entering into their habitations. Elephants too are seeking to figure out how best they can cope better with the reality of greater human presence in and around their living spaces.

In regions like Coorg, where forests and plantations are located cheek by jowl, elephants inevitably enter places with large human presence. Prof. Sukumar takes a slightly different approach when he starts talking on his subject of expertise. “First of all, we must stop saying ‘the elephant is intruding…’ when we talk about human-elephant conflict. The truth is it is we who are intruding into the areas which were originally inhabited by elephants.”

“Hunter-gatherers and pastoralists are able to coexist peacefully with elephants in forested regions. It is we, the ‘civilised lot’, who seem to be having trouble, adjusting to the presence of these wild creatures around us,” he says. “And the reason simply is competition over natural resources: food and land.”

Two key reasons are driving elephants into human territory: the fragmentation and destruction of their habitat. Fragmentation is the fall out of conventional development — roads, crop fields, expanding cities and industries; and destruction, the result of the growth of invasive species like Lantana Camara, among other reasons.

Climate change is another factor. “The 1982 drought had driven a large number of elephants out of forests in Karnataka to Chittoor in Andhra Pradesh. The successive droughts in the last two years have again started driving elephants out of the forests to crop fields in search of better nutrition,” he explains.

“Size matters in elephant society. Body size and the amount of food an elephant gets to eat decides its place on the social ladder. Young male elephants look up to older males that have a huge build and aspire for the same status. An elephant eats about 12-18 hours in a day and consumes about 100 kilos of food each day,” he explained. “A young adult male elephant’s prospects of finding a suitable mate are also determined by how much body size it has built for which it must eat well. In fact, on most occasions, elephants that raid crop fields are not necessarily old bulls, but young bulls that are learning to come into their own.”

Very similar to humans, indeed. Young men migrate out of their hometowns to bigger cities, and even foreign countries, in search of wealth and prosperity, so they have better prospects of finding a suitable mate and “settling down” when they return home.

“If I give you two choices: to spend a large amount of time foraging in the forest in order to meet half of your food requirements, or to spend half of that time you spend foraging in the forest to get more than your required share of food, which one will you choose,” Prof. Sukumar asks.

“The second option, of course!” I reply immediately.

“That is exactly what the elephants are doing as well. Looking for food in the forest means a lot of work, and established bulls mark out their territory in the forest, so although raiding a crop field has its share of risk, young male elephants have figured out that grains are more nutritious, easier to get and tastier to eat.”


The Sanamavu forest patch.

As I look down from the edge of the hill on which the Dakshina Tirupathy temple is perched in Hosur, the Sanamavu Forest — with patches of paddy fields, sugarcane and coconut fields — comes into view. The Thenpannai River meanders through the scenery. Standing along with me is Nishant Srinivasaiah, a doctoral researcher who is studying the behavioural aspects of the Asian elephant herd that migrated out of the Bannerghata forest reserve in Bengaluru and into Hosur. The elephants are now regular visitors to the crop fields.

Pointing below, he says four bulls had been spotted here and the residents of Podur village were living in constant fear. In early December, a middle-aged woman who crossed paths with an elephant in the dark was flung aside and trampled upon here, suffering several fractures in the process. We drive down to the village, to the river bank where this encounter happened. We find a group of men sitting under a tamarind tree, guarding several sacks of paddy grains. They are taking turns to protect the season’s harvest.

M. Rajappa, a paddy farmer, says there are several families in neighbouring villages that are living with extreme caution following the attack. About 500 acres of cultivated fields is under threat because of elephants, he says. He shows me some samples of grains crushed by the animals’ movement and rendered unfit for consumption.

“The elephants are very intelligent. They know that the river crossing is a place where people cannot chase them away easily, as it is difficult to run across it. So they choose this spot for their attacks,” Srinivasaiah says.

The villagers have resorted to bursting firecrackers and throwing fireballs of hay set alight to chase the elephants away. The elephants too have devised their own tricks in response. “[The elephants] respond to the sound of the firecrackers like school-children to the sound of the school bell. They know that after it goes off, they can step out of the forest and attack the fields. Because after bursting the crackers, the villagers go to sleep.”

“Dogs could be useful defences,” Srinivasaiah continues, “As they can bark and alert you to an elephant’s presence. But dogs are afraid of elephants too. So the chances are they could go running back to their owners; in which case the elephant would come chasing after it, right till your doorstep…”


When an elephant carries us on its back, bows to us at a temple, or lugs heavy logs of wood, it is, of course, a ‘good’ animal. But the same elephant, if it were to reach out to a tree in our grove for its fruits or a crop field we sowed, it is deemed ‘a menace’. This classification of elephants as good or bad, based on its behaviour towards us, has an obvious human bias. However, Srinivasaiah confirms that elephants do possess varied ‘personality traits’ that could make them behave more or less aggressively in given circumstances. “Some elephants are more prone to risk-taking and adventurous activities like raiding crop fields … just like how some human beings are more prone to take to drinking and gambling than others,” he explains.

Prof. Sukumar too makes this observation that some young male elephants have the tendency to hero-worship an elderly male elephant in its herd and if this mentor animal has accomplished such feats as successfully raiding a crop field for food, then so would the younger ones. Also, when a male elephant is under ‘musth’, a surge in reproductive hormones takes place. The testosterone high drives the bull to behave aggressively towards other people, especially men. Stories of elephants killing their own mahouts while undergoing ‘musth’ abound.

So, while elephants that attack others may have either consciously acquired aggressive behavioural traits or it may be biologically driven, the discourse on fixing man-animal conflict has largely stuck to the following approaches:

  1. Animals and humans need to stay in clearly-defined territories (if the animals do stray away, it’s the job of the wildlife authorities to put them back where they belong).
  2. Humans should not live near forests where they know conflicts might happen or
  3. We should learn to somehow co-exist with our giant brethren.

The first option is nearly impossible to implement in places like Gudalur in Nilgiris district, which is close to the Mudumalai National Park. Here, the population has more-than-doubled in a decade (from 43,096 in 2001 to 105,196 in 2011, as per Census figures). A wildlife officer says that there are about 600 elephants in this region.

“In the last one year alone, Gudalur has witnessed more than 10 human deaths due to man-elephant encounters. It is obvious that an increasing human population in a critical wildlife habitat is one of the main reasons,” says Tarsh Thekaekara, a Gudalur resident and conservationist at the Shola Trust. “The elephant’s food resources are shrinking. Each animal needs at least 100 sq. km. of forest space and food in it for foraging, but now that space is getting lesser and lesser. Where else can they go?”

So what’s the solution? Discourage people from settling here? But most locals, be it in Coorg or Gudalur, were reluctant to move elsewhere despite the constant threat of elephant attacks.

visitors to tea estate
Elephant visitors inside a tea estate in Valparai.

M. Ananda Kumar, a scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), believes the only feasible option is to prepare people to handle man-animal conflicts better and also deliver correct information to them. Kumar won the Whitley Award in 2015 (jointly) for his work on mitigating human-elephant conflict in Valparai, a plantation town in the Anaimalai mountain range of the Western Ghats. He came up with a crowdsourced information-distribution network that started out as a programme on cable TV and received tremendous response. “After the direct-to-home satellite TV services took over, we switched to SMS and WhatsApp to run our information services. Most of our messaging happen in Tamil, the local language, so more people can easily access the information,” he says.

Later in the evening, Ganesh Raghunathan, who runs the ‘Project Elephant’ for Nature Conservation Foundation, drives us past tea estates in Valparai to give us a sense of how the system works. Around 4 p.m., Silamban, a member of the Muduvar tribe from Nallamudi brings information about elephant presence in a nearby tea estate (he says plantation workers had given him a heads-up). Armed with a GPS tracker, Silamban, who is one of the many local elephant trackers recruited by NCF, can tell the exact location of the animals. We reach the spot and witness the animals roaming about freely as work continues in the estate. The makhna (tuskless male elephant) in the herd throws mud on itself to cool down.

What’s remarkable here, unlike in Hosur, is that the estate workers have been taught not to treat the elephants as threats. Raghunathan, who has learnt to interpret elephant calls, says the labourers have been taught that plantations lie in the animals’ migratory path. So the best thing to do is simply give them way.

“Elephants never attack without a reason. I have seen so many tourists shout, jeer or use camera flashes within touching distance of the animal. That provokes them. Sometimes even strong smells like that of perfumes or bright colours can provoke them as they sense a threat. We understand these things and conduct ourselves in a manner that the animal would be comfortable around us,” Silamban says.

He adds that his people, the Muduvar tribals, worship the elephant as it is, in its animal form, along with other aspects of nature.

“It is different from people worshipping the elephant in a human form as Lord Ganesha [as Hindus customarily do].” Silamban’s words struck at the root of our stubborn reluctance to admit that animals are beings in their own right. We don’t need to humanise them.

That’s probably the lesson we need to take away. Perhaps there are no good or bad elephants. Just intelligent and stupid humans…

Published by Vidya Venkat

Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at SOAS, London. Formerly, journalist at The Hindu, Chennai.

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