Country Notebook: The killer of Shibji

  • M Krishnan | New Delhi

    July 17, 2017 | 01:02 PM
The killer of shibji

(Getty Images)

This story was published on 25 December 1965 in The Sunday Statesman

I never saw Shibji He was killed in July this year by a wild tusker that bore him a grudge, and it was in October that I heard of him and saw his killer. Here are the facts of Shibji’s life and death, as I heard them. He was big and old, 10 feet high and past 70 at his death. Originally he had belonged to the Cooch Behar Palace and had been used for shikar and ceremonials, being staunch and very steady, some eight years ago he was acquired by the West Bengal Government and stabled at the elephant camp at Jaldapara Sanctuary.

About this time a powerful wild tusker came to the camp and made himself unwelcome, threatening the men and chasing the cow elephants. He was driven away and stayed away for quite some time, but reappeared two years ago. Another wild bull also came to the jungle around the camp then, a muckna, and recently this muckna was proscribed, after he had killed a few men.

Late in 1963, Shibji had a brush with the wild tusker in the jungle and with one lunge knocked down his opponent who, however, picked himself up quickly and ran away. Shibji had impressive tusks, but they were convergent and blunt, having been sawn off at the tips.

On 25 July this year, Shibji’s tusks were shortened again to allow free passage to the trunk, and on the night of 28 July the wild tusker came to the elephant camp and tried to invade it, but was repeatedly driven away — the muckna was also in the offing that night.

Two of my informants thought Shibji slightly taller than the wild tusker, and the third said both were of a size. But they all agreed that the wild elephant was much younger. In all the four instances I know of a wild bull elephant actually entering in elephant camp and behaving aggressively, threatening men and causing injuries to tame elephants, the bull was comparatively young, say, under 35. It could be that in some male elephants, too, the period just before the prime of life is marked by restive urges and a certain recklessness.

Well, about 11 o’clock that night the tusker took the men by surprise and rushed into Shibjis stall and gored his old enemy. He was shot at and driven away, but the damage had been done, a deep thrust through the lower jaw reaching to the brain and an hour after midnight, Shibji died.

On a recent visit to the Jaldapara Sanctuary I saw this wild tusker, when out with a party on several riding elephants on two successive days—on the second day, I was able to observe him loosely in the open, from only a hundred feet away. He was in musth, and the secretion was not jet black but brown suggesting that he had still to reach his prime — I thought he was between 30 and 35 years old. He had murderous tusks, about two and half feet long curved and bent in at the tips and sharp-pointed, he was massive, light-coloured, and the tip of his tail was missing, probably bitten off in a fight. He seemed blind in the right eye; he had been driven away with small shot on several occasions, and it could well be that his vision had been impaired by gunshot wounds.

Misled by his mass and the downward angle of view, I underestimated his height sadly. I had the opportunity to make a good guess and made a bad one, I said he was eight and half feet high, and subsequent measurements of the imprint of his forefoot on hard soil, established his height at as near nine and half ft as makes no difference.

Incidentally, this is the only way to measure the height of a wild elephant. Obviously it is imprudent to actually measure the live animal, and when dead and lying on its side, the sag of the shoulder may add considerably to the height — experiments with tame elephants, measured standing and when lying down quite relaxed on their flank, will demonstrate the extent of this sag. The old rule, twice the circumference of the imprint of the forefoot on hard soil, is correct to within an inch or so either way, if the measurement is properly made.

However, it is easy to make mistakes in this measurement. As most people know, when an elephant is walking more or less in a straight line, the hind foot is placed on the print of the forefoot on the same side, giving the superimposed footprint a pear-shaped contour —only the round, under-faced print of the forefoot along, where the animal has turned sharply, should be measured.

In computing the circumference, the use for crossed sticks to get the diameter is much less reliable than actual measurement of the circumference with a thin, unstretchable string tautly and carefully applied to the perimeter. Apart from the fact that the imprint of the forefoot is not a perfect circle, with crossed sticks any error in measurement of the diameter is magnified six times in computing the height, whereas it is only twice if the actual circumference is measured.

Further, the print should be on hard ground, and reasonably fresh. On soft sand the blurred splay is evident, but though the footprint may be both deep and very clear in soft clay, it is still exaggerated because of the plastic give of such soil. Along with an enthusiastic young official of the Forest Department, who felt sure this tusker was at least 10 feet tall, I measured the deep prints of his forefoot in a ploughed field, and even after making an allowance of four inches, the circumference was 63 inches!

Two days later, the fresh prints of the same animal on hard clay and on the firm sand of the river-bed, gave the circumference at 57 inches — the average of six measurements, which differed from one another only by an inch. Here is a clear picture of the killer of Shibji, and I have already provided sufficient details for others to recognise him should they meet him.

Will he grow sober in due course and be tolerated, or will he develop into a rogue and be proscribed? Only time can tell but probably he will outgrow his present ways for he will be given every chance to do so in the sanctuary.