The cry stopped the safari vehicle in its tracks. About 20 tourists gawked at the picture of splendour, like a dark raincloud in a starless sky, chomping on shoots in a grassy verge beside the bamboo forest.
On our drive through Nagarahole National Park, we had spotted Elephas maximus earlier in the day, but each time we had cried “Elephant!” at females and young adults.
Before you lynch me for my male chauvinism, consider this: For the last two decades or so, the population of the Asian elephant has been destablised by rampant poaching. Several gangs and politicians were involved in this insidious plunder of the forests and the bloodless killing of thousands of bull elephants for their ivory. But the most notorious was Veerappan, a wiry bandit with a big moustache and a penchant for abducting and murdering over 100 hostages. Add to this encroachment and habitat destruction, particularly in the form of development and non-subsistence agriculture along the critical ‘elephant migration corridors’ between areas of human habitation and designated forest areas.
Apart from wiping out the sandalwood forests in which the elephant has its home, Veerappan is blamed for killing over 2,000 tuskers – big bulls with tusks measuring five to six feet in length and weighing nearly a hundred kilograms each. With many of the alpha males gone, the Asian elephant’s gene pool started to degenerate alarmingly. Herds, led by matriarchs, had fewer and fewer males. Even with Veerappan’s death at the hands of a police task force in October 2004, the poaching of elephants has not ended. His evil empire has fallen into the hands of smaller, more obscure gangs. Today, there are only about 50,000 Asian elephants across the species’ range, with several races already extinct.
Project Elephant, a state-funded conservation campaign, was kicked off by India’s Department of Environment and Forests in 1991-92, but without the stellar patronage that Project Tiger received (championed as it was by none less than Indira Gandhi) in 1972. Human-animal conflict is also a big reason for the pachyderm’s decline. In the sensitive borders between farmland and forests, which only humans recognise, farmers fearing damage to their crop – paddy, sugarcane, banana and wheat – often poison the animals where shooting them is illegal.
And so, heedless to this tale of struggle and survival, here was a tusker powdering himself with red dust after his evening bath, chewing cud and ignoring the chattery tourists popping flashbulbs at him.