Sabyasachi Patra

Wild India: Elephant Attacks

Wild India: Elephant Attacks 

One of the most frightening experiences in the wild is due to elephant encounters. In the first part of this Wild India: Elephant Attacks series, I will just recount two experiences and the reasons behind elephants charging at humans. In the second part of the series, I will explain the signs of knowing how to decipher the elephant behaviour and know that a charge is imminent.

An animal which is widely revered due to Lord Ganesha and also for being the vehicle of Godesses Laxmi is unfortunately also the most threatened. Because of its huge size, an adult male weighs more than 4 tons, they evoke fear as well.

These gentle giants are often in news because of conflict with people. Too often elephants are killed by villagers using illegal live electric wires in their fences, poisoning, firing bullets from illegal weapons, pesticide poisoning etc. A few people are killed as well. Some of them are killed as they approach too close to an elephant without realizing how fast these elephants can run.

During my sojourns in wild india, I have walked, crawled and gone closer to elephants without provoking them. However, there has also been many instances when I am in the jungle in a vehicle and elephants have resented my presence and have charged. However, one instance always remains in my memory though it is more than seven years back. I was driving my new Tata Safari 4×4 vehicle from Billigiri Rangan Betta or popularly known as BR Hills before dawn towards K. Gudi. The road is winding. There was a light drizzle coupled with the mist and the fact that dawn was yet to break in, the visibility was very poor. I was slowly driving in the winding roads. I had heard alarm calls in the previous two days in the same spot and was careful hoping against hope that the tiger will again make an appearance. Suddenly an elephant was climbing down from my right towards the ravine in my left. He immediately got disoriented as it was an unexpected encounter in a blind curve.

A sharp trumpet, and the elephant charged.  I immediately started reversing. It was pitch dark and the only light was from my vehicle lamps, which got switched on while reversing. There was hardly six inches of space on both sides of the road with lantana bushes. A small mistake would result in either the vehicle plunging on the ravine below at the left or hitting the hill on the right. I reversed for about 20 meters or so and the elephant turned back. It was not interested in pursuing us. It had got shocked by the unexpected encounter and had charged. It was making us known its annoyance at being disturbed in its own home. We have to remember that we are intruders in their territory. It was a sudden affair for me too as it suddenly came out of pitch darkness like an apparition without any warning. If I would have got frightened, then it would have been a sure sign of death as the vehicle would have plunged several hundred feet down into the ravine. If you are driving or walking of foot in Wild India, these kind of encounters are likely to happen. A quick wit and knowledge of animal behaviour often saves your life in wild india.

Wild Elephant Attack in Bandipur National Park:

I have been charged at by elephant in bandipur many times, many times mock charge and a few cases of determined charge. I am now going to relate on hair raising instance. All the images are full frame to give an idea about how close the elephant was.

Elephant rubbing itself on a tree before charging in Bandipur

Elephant rubbing itself on a tree before charging in Bandipur

We were roaming around in Bandipur National Park, when we sighted an elephant and we stopped our vehicle. I was in the front seat besides the driver. The elephant was trying to rub itself on a tree. I picked up my 300mm f4 L IS USM lens to get a close up of the elephant.

Elephant attack in Bandipur Tiger Reserve

Elephant attack in Bandipur Tiger Reserve

Suddenly, without any warning sign the elephant charged at the vehicle and just stopped a few feet infront of us raising a cloud of dust. The angry scream made by the elephant sent shivers down the spine of a few tourists who were at the back of our vehicle. There was a foreigner and she told me that “if I were alone then I would have had a heart attack.”

An angry elephant charges in Bandipur tiger reserve, India

An angry elephant charges in Bandipur tiger reserve, India

When I clicked this shot, I was slightly out of the seat to get a clear view and was clicking calmly. The tourists had closed their eyes. Rightly so. If they would have seen such closeups, then I am sure one of them would have fainted.

Asiatic Elephant charges

Asiatic Elephant charges

 

Displacement activity:
This asiatic elephant after charging at us several times, moved back and resorted to throwing mud on itself. This behaviour also happens when they are stressed. After a mock charge, the elephant turns back and either breaks a branch, or throws leaves and mud on itself or feeds at a rapid pace.

Elephant breaking a branch after a charge. A typical display of displacement behaviour

Elephant breaking a branch after a charge. A typical display of displacement behaviour

In this case exactly the same thing happened. The elephant turned back and broke a few branches and started throwing mud.

In a characteristic displacement activity, this elephant throws mud after a charge

In a characteristic displacement activity, this elephant throws mud after a charge

In Bandipur, the elephants have generally become aggressive as they are often disturbed by people. The other day I saw the herd of elephants about to cross the bandipur-mudumalai road. However, they were prevented from crossing by honking trucks, busses, cars and jeeps. The elephants changed direction but were again blocked by people. The elephants then turned back and went away. These things keep on happening, so the elephants are becoming aggressive. I am also sure, outside the reserve, they would be scared away by people using firecrackers if not shotgun pellets.

Each elephant is different in its behaviour due to the experiences it has undergone and the learning’s it has imbibed from its mother and immediate family. It is very similar to the our concept of the child ego state in humans where by whatever a child has seen during his/her growing up stage gets imprinted in the child ego state and it acts on the basis of it. A small example of this is the way people clear their throat, other mannerism, they way the cook, make their bed etc. These are clearly imprinted in their child ego state and they take it for granted those actions as the valid and the only way of doing things. An example of this could clearly be seen in Africa where a group of adolescent elephants were seen to kill rhinos. It was later found out that adult elephants in their group were “culled” a so called scientific word for killing to maintain population at a particular level. Clearly these elephants were devastated and took to showing unrestrained anger and killing rhinos.

Similarly an elephant which would have seen during its growing up stage or come to know that another elephant has got hit by a vehicle on the road, it associates all vehicles with danger and shows either fear or animosity towards vehicles. Elephants that have migrated from conflict areas where tea planters or farmers shower them with pellets from illegal weapons, throw various crude country bombs etc show their animosity towards humans. I have seen the elephants in Satyamangalam to be very angry at humans and charge without provocation. In one instance in Satyamangalam, I was driving my Tata Safari 4×4 and members of our group were photographing elephants. One elephant from the group charged however, it couldn’t complete its charge as there was a man made ditch. We were just three feet away from its extended trunk. I had my 400mm f2.8 L IS USM lens attached to my camera and the minimum focusing distance of this lens is 10 feet. There was no way I could focus, even if I had wanted to take a click of probably its skin texture. :)

A few things can be done to improve the state of affairs.

In the first instance in BR Hills where the elephant coming down from the hills was forced to charge at the vehicle as it was close. Most of the times, in the ghat roads, to stop vehicles from falling over a feet or so high walls are created. This completely stops the elephants from climbing up or getting down. As such elephants carefully choose their path to ascent and descent steep slopes to balance their huge bulk and avoid toppling over. These side walls in the winding ghat roads makes their life difficult. So at times when the elephant is coming towards us, it is also trying to find a way out where it can get down from the road. If you come across elephants with calves, then it is better to back off, as the calves find it very difficult to negotiate the height of the side walls. This will lead to the elephant making a charge.

Avoid regular thoroughfare roads plying through the jungle. If alternate alignments can be created, then the wild elephants can cross the roads without getting hit by vehicles. Also the disturbance will be less in the elephant habitats. Apart from elephant, other wildlife will also benefit.

I was told by a jungle lodges driver that there are photographers, who are supposed to have a fan following in some photosharing sites, try to irritate elephants and eliciting a mock charge so that they can get a good photo. Just to give an example of how powerful these elephants are, Ian Douglas Hamilton has written in his book that once an elephant attacked and plunged its tusks through his landrover. The sheet metal gave way like a big needle piercing a paper bag. Fortunately, he had a guard who fired in the air to somehow ward off the elephant. Our female elephants don’t have tusks like male elephants, however, their power is phenomenal. Let us not invite the wrath of Lord Ganesha! If you are not knowledgeable about elephant behaviour and have gone for a vacation in one of the many sanctuaries in wild india, then you ought to be careful and have a knowledgeable guide along with you all the time.

In my next part of the article, Wild India: Elephant Attacks Part II, I will talk about how to detect an imminent charge based on the body language of elephants.

Sabyasachi Patra
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Sabyasachi Patra

Sabyasachi is an award winning Cinematographer and shoots for international broadcasters, feature films and corporates to make a living. He is a passionate wildlife filmmaker and photographer and has won awards and accolades for his documentary 'A Call in the Rainforest'. He has been striving to make his films and photographs full of life and emotion and write articles to educate and evangelise the need for conserving the last tracts of vanishing wilderness and wildlife in our country. He hopes that his wildlife films, photographs and writings force people to pause, look, ponder and ultimately take action.
Sabyasachi Patra
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