Elephants: Good-natured giants

Elephants, Palamau National Park, Corbett National Park, Ramganga, animals, Rubicon

(Photo: SNS)

IN few animals is size more difficult to assess in different settings than in the elephant, largest of land-living creatures. One would think that since it is so tall and massive, it would be a comparatively easy matter to guess an elephant’s height, but its very bulk is apt to create deceptive impressions at times.

An elephant only 8-foot high may seem enormously big in a narrow clearing in a tree forest (as in the Palamau National Park), and a huge 10-footer quite small in a vast, panoramic setting (as in the Periyar Sanctuary). And in the Corbett National Park, when the elephants are out in the open scrub with the distant footmills of the Himalayas for a backdrop, it would be foolish to go by first impressions of size.

However, I did no such foolish thing. There were two herds in the sal forest, which came out of the cool green cover in the evenings to get to the water, sometimes in a big, composite herd with a few outliers and sometimes in two or three parties the adult bulls usually keeping by themselves, I was careful in assessing the size of the animals, and took pains to measure the circumference of the forefoot prints of the largest of them, the only reliable method of getting to know the height of a wild elephant (twice the circumference of the forefoot gives the shoulder height to within two inches).


There was a big cow about 9- foot high (the big cow in the picture), and a bull an inch or so taller, but though there were some 40 elephants in the two herds, most of them were rather short, though well-fed. In a herd of that number in the South, or in Assam, one there were no consequences, not even demonstration from the much-provoked beasts. In the South, particularly in the Nilgiris men following a herd of elephants so persistently and blatantly would not have lasted very long.

Shortly after 5 o’clock in the evening, at times a little later, the elephants came out of the sal forest and crossed a wide stretch of open scrub to reach the Ramganga. A road runs right along the forest’s margin and there are two other roads parallel to it, running through the wide scrub. There were timber trucks and men on foot on these roads, and the problem the elephants faced was to cross without too close a brush with trucks and men.

In somewhat similar circumstances, when a herd was embarrassed by motor vehicles or men blocking their path, I have known elephants cutting up rusty. I expected at least a demonstration from the herd or a tusker out by himself, at the Corbet Park, but they overcame the obstruction by moving to some point within the tree cover from which they could break out into the open comparatively unhampered by men, and since the men and the trucks were seldom in the same place, the elephants emerged at different points from the forest each day.

The Rubicon

Other animals seeking to cross this Rubicon of parallel roads, such as chital or pig, just bolted across when they felt the coast was clear, but the elephants went about things very deliberately. They would come out of the sal cover and graze around in the open, close to the cover, and only after a while did they take some chosen line to the water. This way the Rubicon, was really no Rubicon, for they took no irrevocable step, but could get back into cover if necessary. Once they had decided on the line they would take to the water, they moved quite fast.

I was all the more impressed by their peaceful attitude towards end because there were three infants in the herd, two of them very young. There is no more unpredictably dangerous wild animal I know than a cow elephant with a very young calf, at times she panics and bolts and at times she goes baldheaded for whatever she fancies constitutes the threat to her little one.

In the Corbett Park a cow with a calf can seldom feel hemmed in because of the wide expanse of flat ground all round, but still I thought those elephants remarkably tolerant and sincerely trust that nothing will ever be done by some foolhardy man to break the truce.

This was published on 23 May 1969.