The Amphitheater of life … and death.

The wounded elephant calf— Photograph: Vikram Nanjappa

Nature has this uncanny ability to catch us off guard, of surprising us when we least expect it. Just when we think that we have seen it all it pulls something out of its hat and makes us rethink everything that we thought we knew. It is this that keeps drawing us back time and time again. Sometimes I feel that one can spend a lifetime studying one small patch of forest and still, at the end of the day, feel that one has not progressed beyond the first few chapters. For a decade or so, Kabini was my patch of forest.

The backwaters of the Kabini needs no introduction as it is well known amongst wildlife enthusiasts both in India and abroad. The Kabini River originates in the Wayanad District of Kerala, where it is formed by the confluence of the Panamaram and Mananthavady Rivers. It flows eastwards into Karnataka and joins the Kaveri River at Tirumakudalu Narasipura.

While it flows through three protected areas, the casual visitor or tourist can only access it from the Nagarhole National Park side. It is this section that is commonly referred to and known in wildlife circles as Kabini. An irrigation dam was built across the Kabini River in 1974, which resulted in the submergence of large tracts of forests and the creation of a huge lake, parts of which fall within the national park.

Every year during the summer months, the gates of the dam are opened to let water out to irrigate the crops downstream and as the waters bring life to the thirsty crops downstream, the levels in the reservoir dip and wide vistas open up. The resultant open plain supports an abundance of fresh grass more reminiscent of African savanna than tropical India. This unique micro-habitat has proved to be a boom for wildlife, providing fresh grass and water when the rest of the park is drying out.

This open plain, bisected by the Kabini now flowing in its original course, resembles a huge bowl with gently sloping sides. Gentle rolling hills provide a backdrop on three sides. During my time this bowl used to be ringed by giant bamboo. The bamboo has since flowered and died out, but it dominated the landscape when the incident I am about to narrate played out. Whenever I see this bowl the great Colosseum in Rome comes to mind. And much like the Colosseum here too the game of life and death is played out in front of a paying audience which is why I like to call it the amphitheater of life and death.

It was sometime in early 2010 when I first saw the family late one evening. It was a small family for an elephant family — two females and a calf. The calf was sleeping or resting among the boulders while the two females grazed quietly besides it. It was a peaceful scene and I spent a good part of the afternoon watching them from my boat. It was one of those beautiful moments that few are privileged to experience along the banks of the Kabini.

A few days later I chanced upon the family again and decided to spend some time with them. I was able to photograph them together as the calf suckled from his mother with his aunt staying close by. It was a typical elephant family moment and all seemed well with their world. However I did notice that the family seemed a bit too protective of the calf. Elephant families are extremely tight knit and are protective of each other especially of the young ones. What bothered me was the fact that elephant families are more at ease along the banks of the Kabini as they feel secure and safe here, this clearly was not the case with this particular family and it played on my mind.

The next day when I encountered them on the river bank they charged my boat. This was rather unusual as they generally do not charge the boat. I was troubled because I do not like being charged by elephants, to me an elephant charge equates to failure. The failure to properly judge an elephant’s private space and for a naturalist that is the ultimate failure. Encroaching onto an animal’s private space can be disastrous and the consequences fatal. Needless to say, I was a bit down in the dumps the rest of the evening.

The family remained on the banks of the Kabini for the next few weeks and I would leave them alone as I knew that they did not wished to be approached as closely as the other elephants. It is always better to respect an animal’s wishes especially if you want to observe them go about their daily lives. A wild animal at ease in your presence is the best endorsement of your skill as a naturalist.

A few days later I noticed the calf all alone. This was unusual as calves are never left alone. The two females had swum across the river to an island and were grazing there, effectively leaving the calf unguarded and exposed to danger. Surprised, taken aback and intrigued I decided to wait and watch, little knowing that I was about to witness something that would change my perception forever.

A jungle crow caught my attention; it was harassing the calf and seemed to be pecking it on its head. I scanned the calf’s forehead with my binoculars and noticed that it had a series of large deep wounds on its head. The crow was attempting to pick the flesh from the wound.

The calf eventually came very close to the boat and started splashing the wound with water. It was obviously in a lot of pain and was using the water to try and get some relief. It even rubbed its wound against a tree stump for relief and finally exhausted, it lay down to rest. All this was happening a few meters away from the boat.

My attention was focused on the two females; I did not want a repeat of the previous incident. However I was in for a shock. All my previous experience with elephants, all the knowledge that I thought I had acquired was about to be turned on its head. The females were unconcerned. Those who have lived with elephants will realize the gravity of that last sentence. An elephant mother and aunt unconcerned about a calf? Impossible, I have seen an elephant mother and aunt spend days near the body of a stillborn calf. Their agony and pain was there for the entire world to see. It was one of the most painful experiences and I have watched a pack of wild dogs devour a deer, while its life ebbed away with each bite, more than once.

I turned the boat in the direction of the two females and this time they allowed me to approach closely without the least hint of aggression. This was a bit much for me and I subjected them to a critical examination. It was while doing so that I noticed a scar on the trunk of one of the females. It was an old wound that had completely healed but it was a nasty one.

I tried to piece together their story with the little evidence that I had …. that the family had been subject to a deadly assault was obvious. It was also fairly obvious that the calf was the target as its wounds were fresh and far worse. But who was or who were the perpetrators? Man? It seemed unlikely, only the foolish would attack an elephant calf with its family. Elephants migrate to the Kabini backwaters during this season and while doing so come into a lot of conflict with humans. Raiding of crop fields etc is, unfortunately, a grim reality. The wound on the adult female elephant’s trunk could have been inflicted with a machete by someone from the safety of a machan but the wounds on the calf’s head? They had to be inflicted from close range.

The only other plausible explanation that came to mind was a tiger attack. Tigers are known to attack and kill elephant calves and this could be one of those rare instances. The fact that this was a small family also led me to favour the tiger theory. The tiger would have been more circumspect if it was a larger herd. However I was not fully satisfied with either explanation. The wounds on the calf were very bad and I was not certain that a tiger could inflict such wounds; I have never seen an elephant calf kill.

The forest department was informed about the calf and they did come and rescue it but were unable to save its life. The official cause of death was recorded as a tiger kill.

The most troubling part about this entire episode was the behavior of the two females. They seemed to have given up on the calf. I was unable to bring myself to accept this and to this day I am disturbed by it. For a long time I was unable to come up with a satisfactory explanation. Or maybe I was just not willing to consider or acknowledge it. It was one of those instances when nature confounds you, when you realize that nature can be extremely cruel. But who are we to judge? The females must have realized that the calf was doomed and that it was not worth investing any more time and effort on it. It’s the only explanation but it turned what I have learnt and believed about elephants on its head.

I am penning this story after a gap of over ten years. During that time I have endeavored to find out if this behavior had been recorded before and was able to find a couple of similar instances. The incident did shake my faith. The audience in the Colosseum enjoyed the spectacle of gore and death put up for them. I did not enjoy this.

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Vikram Nanjappa

Vikram Nanjappa

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Described as an interested and well-informed amateur, Vikram’s field of inquiry is ‘Man and Nature: whatever is performed by the one or produced by the other’.