Many a times, people wonder and debate on the most feared animal in the forests of India. We have been asked this question on multiple occasions and the answer is difficult because when in the mild in addition to the big predators there are zillions of life threatening living bodies that one should fear. A lot of people believe that a confrontation with a big cat like a tiger or a leopard can be a nerve-chilling experience. That’s definitely true to a certain extent but the king of the Indian forests – the tiger – is not a wanton killer. It attacks in its defense only when it is provoked and in a lot of cases we have seen that a tiger can be the most harmless predator and gives a damn about your presence. When given his space, he can offer you some of the most wonderful moments of your life giving you the opportunity to get upclose with him and witness his glory.
Looks can be deceptive. Moving away from the big cats, there are other animals that look quite harmless but our experience in the wild has led us to believe that they are the unsung rulers of the Indian forests. As you traverse into the heavily wooded forests – especially in belts like Uttrakhand, Kerala, Mysore and Assam – you would invariably bump into huge and massive herds of slow and lethargic mammals who graze from morning to night in the grasslands, bathe in rivers, ponds and lakes and cover themselves with loads of mud to keep the summer heat away. For centuries, elephants have been used by man for multiple purposes making him one of our best friends in the animal kingdom. However, the scenario changes when you come across the wild cousins of these mighty mammals. Elephants have the ability to surprise you in the wild with their extraordinary speed, agility, unpredictability, intelligence and raw power. Their amazing ability to diligently communicate with their fellows within the group can leave you stranded at their mercy in the middle of their forest.
We take this opportunity to narrate one of our most thrilling encounters with the most dreaded mammals of the Indian jungles. In the warm summer month of June 2007, we set off for an early morning safari in Corbett National Park and came across this huge herd of elephants. These wonderful creatures are a wonderful subject for wildlife photography and for the first time in so many years we bumped into a herd of around 80-90 elephants grazing merrily in the open grassland of Dhikala in the early morning light – a very tempting sight for any wildlife photographer.
As Kahini sighted the herd from a distance, we inched closer. It’s fascinating to study the behavioral traits of an elephant family and before shooting a herd as big as this it is always advisable to read the mind of the animal. As per our understanding the herd wanted to cross the road as they wanted to climb uphill and as we were trying to analyze the situation we spotted a tiny 4 months old calf clinging underneath his mother’s massive legs. Elephants are highly over-protective with babies and the herd shields the youngsters by keeping them in the middle of the group. “This was our opportunity to shoot a young elephant calf,” was the common thought in our brains. However we had to take the risk of going near to the group as the calf was being well protected and the only way we could get the shot was to play the waiting game and make use of the first opportunity offered by the herd.
Inch by inch, we moved our 4×4 closer to the group. It was obvious that the group was wary of our presence as low trumpets made by the elders of the group meant that the communication has started. As we moved closer to our target – the little calf – the mother and the elders were keeping a close watch on our movement. Every movement, every noise was being closely observed. The alarm signals were being given – the mother flapped her ears, filled her majestic trunk with mud and puffed it in the air in anger and discomfort. The mother then gave us a mock charge and warned us to maintain distance. We stood our ground and made our best possible attempt to put the herd at comfort.
Within minutes the herd that was on one side of the road had surrounded us blocking all our escape routes. Being surrounded by a massive herd of 80 giant elephants was a magical experience. A slightest error could have agitated the group leaving us in a big soup and we realized that the only escape for us was to hold our ground and stand still and let the group feel that we did not mean to harm them in any way. The next 25 minutes were something we had waited for all our life as the group had to get the youngster to cross the road and that was our chance to get a shot at the kid. Luck favored us and the young elephant calf finally started crossing the road. It could barely walk and tumbled right on the middle of the road. The group realized that the calf was exposed and we got to hear some of the loudest nerve-chilling trumpets. Even the young males were trying to shoo us away! Finally, the road was clear as one by one the elephants disappeared in the thick forest leaving behind some sweet memories that Kahini and I cherished for ever
(Kahini Ghosh Mehta and Shivang Mehta are photographers and naturalists from Corbett National Park and also run a wildlife camp in Corbett. Visit www.naturewanderers.com to know more about them and stay tuned to Kunzum for exciting jungle stories from this husband-wife duo)