ASIAN ELEPHANTS (India & Sri Lanka)

A trumpet shatters the sun-baked stillness of the plain. Moments later, the elephants emerge out of the forest and race onto the grasslands that stretch in front of me. There are about twenty of them in that first rush and then more, and more, emerging in twos and fours and in bigger groups of eights and tens. Big elephants and small, male and female, some brown, some black, a few flecked pink — score upon score of elephants, crossing the plain at full tilt. 

What is the sound of a hundred elephants running?


A silence that magnifies the thudding of my heart and the clicking of my camera. How can a few hundred elephants, collectively weighing thousands of tons, move at top speed across baked earth without a sound? I have no time to ponder the paradox. A female elephant tears out of the forest and races straight towards me. I see her through the viewfinder of my camera: ears back, trunk tucked low between her legs, head raised slightly, wild eyes fixed on me, charging head on at my jeep. With every second, she looms larger on an inevitable collision course.

It is rare for an elephant, unprovoked, to charge – and I had done nothing to provoke her. Aberrant though this behavior is, it is not unknown – a few days earlier, my researcher friend Manori had been hit by a temperamental female, the first such incident in the 17 years she has been in the field. The wind of elephant’s rush is a solid wall that hits me with a physical intensity. A lesser driver, faced with the threat of imminent collision with a three-ton elephant, would by now have triggered the ignition and tried to outrun the charge but Kumara, behind the wheel of my jeep, waits motionless, calm, collected, like he’s calling her bluff. It works. One yard short of crashing into us, she veers abruptly and, ears flared, tail held high, races off in the direction of the herd that, indifferent to this mini-drama, is grazing calmly off in the distance.

It takes a while for me to learn to breathe again. And it is then that the anomaly dawns on me: the herd has settled down, but from the direction of the forest, the trumpeting continues. There is a frantic quality to it, a desperate note that invades my senses, creates a sense of foreboding. He appears from under the arbor, flailing his head this way and that, his trunk waving wildly, his shrill bellows signaling his panic: a plump baby elephant, pushing five feet. 

The baby pauses, dithering, at the edge of the tree line. He can see his mother, he can see the herd, he knows that is where safety lies, but the expanse of plain that lies between terrifies him. He bellows frantically, a child venting a nameless dread. The herd grazes on, unperturbed. And then, his mind made up, he takes off, scampering on baby-elephant feet towards the herd. The mother pauses in her grazing and watches calmly as her child rushes towards her. She raises her trunk and ushers the baby under its shelter. Safe now and secure, the baby settles down. The herd takes no notice.

Elephants are like humans: emotional, demonstrative, temperamental, caring, nurturing, fiercely protective of offspring, and sometimes dangerous. Their behavior intrigues me, and I love them. It is why I have trailed after them for years now, why I have grabbed every opportunity to observe them, singly and in the mass. For me, this is heaven, right here.

Over a hundred elephants are silhouetted against the darkening sky, oblivious of my presence, intent on their goal, which is to gorge on grass. I watch, rapt, as an elephant uses its right front foot to kick loose a clump of grass. It curls its trunk around the clump, waves it in the air and slaps it against the ground to rid it of mud and other unwanted material. And then it raises the trunk to its triangular mouth, scarfing up the choice morsel.

An adult elephant weighs between 3 to 5 tons, and consumes a whopping 150 kilos of vegetable matter – grass, roots, bark – every single day. In summer, grass is in short supply in their native habitat. And so they come in their hundreds from the forests all around the river, these Sri Lankan elephants, taller and heavier than their Indian counterparts, to the plains bordering the Mahaweli river, in the area around the Minneriya National Park near Sigiriya, where the receding waters expose grass that is still green.

From my vantage point I see a yearling try to climb all over his resigned, obliging older sister. Some yards away, two adolescent males with prominent molars tussle, preparing in jest for when, as adult males, they will spar in earnest for supremacy. A still-pink and hairy infant, wide-eyed and wobbly-kneed, suckles while her mother grazes on and her aunt keeps a watchful eye. And two year-old siblings jostle and push each other, playing “who’s boss” with their trunks. Elephants are very physical animals, tactile and demonstrative; their trunks are central to this trait.

The trunk is in reality one hundred thousand muscle groups coming together in an elongated, one-fingered proboscis. With it the elephant scratches its eyes and rubs its ears; it smells and feels objects; reaches out to peers in signals ranging from the reassuring to the intimate; it flops its trunk on its head as a signal that it wants to play and raises it into a stiffly curved trumpet to semaphore its anger. It scoops up chunks of mud and dust to spray over itself – and over you, if you are within range. It uses its trunk like a hose; it wraps it around the tail of another; hangs it over a peer as a sign of domination or of sexual interest; uses it to detect females in estrus and, at rest, moves its trunk in languid arcs with a grace that would put trained dancers to the blush. 

As the sun drains the day and departs, carelessly leaving flecks of pink on the clouds and the herd, having gorged on the grass, meanders to the water, I see something that rarely, if ever, takes place in the open. A visiting bull, which Manori calls Cruiser, has been wandering for a while among the herd, seeking a female in estrus. As I watch, Cruiser identifies his mate and swings into action. He first nudges, then more forcefully chases a smaller male, a resident suitor, away; then he woos, and wins, the designated mate in a matter of minutes. Cruiser hoists himself onto his hind legs; his front legs straddle the back of the female. Her knees buckle slightly under his four-ton weight, but she recovers and stands firm. Seconds later, deed done, Cruiser gets back on all fours and with his new mate, wanders off to join her family. He hangs around with them for a while, and then goes off on his own. The rest of the herd is totally oblivious to this defining moment in the life of one of its own; there are no signs of the “herd pandemonium” during mating rituals that I had read about. 

Standing under the shade of a giant Arjuna tree the next afternoon, I watch as eighty elephants, maybe more, graze, browse, mud-bathe, water-bathe, play. The trees that fringe this playground of the giants are flushed red from the sun; the grass shines a brilliant emerald, and the grey-black pachyderms are counterpoint to scores of white egrets. It was an idyll. And idylls by their nature are fragile.

A gunshot rends the air.

On cue, they run – elephants of varying sizes, three to a row, trunks and tails flailing, some with babies in tow. From my left to my right across the plain they run in a wide arc, all the way into the forest and through it and around, to come up behind me and congregate in a giant huddle. They are spooked, afraid, insecure; they stand with right feet forward or slightly raised in a pose that signals their alertness; their ears flare wide to trap sounds of danger; their trunks rest on the ground, ‘listening’, feeling for threatening movement. A rumble starts up and is amplified as more elephants join in. 

Interspersed with that deep bass are the squeals of baby elephants scared of they know what, and the reassuring keening of mothers comforting their babies. The herd huddles, babies nestling under the bellies of mothers, adolescents with their trunks tucked in the mouths of older elephants, all of them unsure what to make of that one threatening sound.

A matriarch walks up in ponderous majesty, into the middle of the herd. Her presence is reassuring, her calm is contagious; slowly the herd relaxes and resumes grazing. Security is as much a herd imperative as sustenance and procreation. The herd rallies to protect one another, and every member of the herd is vigilant in the protection of the young.

Their movements across the plain have now brought them so close to where I stand under the Arjuna tree that I can see them clearly. And what I see, on so many of them, are the scars of bullet wounds. They stand in bold pockmarked relief on flanks, on trunks, on foreheads, on legs. These are the battle scars of crop raids. And in this area, crop raiding is an irony.

Before the area around Sigiriya was declared a sanctuary, farmers used to engage in shifting cultivation or chena farming. Once the harvest season was done, short scrub would grow back as the forest reclaimed its land – and this growth provided the fodder for elephants. But once the area was declared a sanctuary, chena farming was forbidden; in a demonstration of the law of unintended consequences, the scrub forest grew thick and high, and became useless to the elephants as a source of food. Forced to forage further afield, the elephants took to raiding crops outside the sanctuary – and farmers, in defense of their livelihood, shot at them. 

Sri Lanka is home to over 6000 elephants, all jostling for space with 20 million people over an area of 65,000 sq. km. That is about 300 people and an elephant to every square kilometer. Irrigation brings larger swathes of land under agriculture and industry grows into the spaces that are left; the natural habitats of the elephants are fragmented, and shrinking all the time. This imbalance creates the conditions for conflict, and the potential for violent confrontation increases in drought years as man and beast fight for access to the tanks.

This year, there was a drought. And every single day of the six days I was there this September, shots rang out, firecrackers exploded, elephants trumpeted their rage and fear and battles came to a head, fought night and day in tanks and in scrub, and from machchans in farms. Some farmers live in houses with walls that are just one brick thick. These offer scant defense against the hungry, massive elephants that possess the intelligence to figure out that if they butt down these walls, they can gain access to the grain stored within.

As in Africa, it is usually the bull elephants that raid crops in Sri Lanka, and it is hunger that drives them – the massive bulls need high levels of nutrition to maintain their strength, and that in turn is driven by the primal need to further their bloodlines. The difference in the temperament of pachyderms between a drought year and a normal year is stark. This time last year, the elephants I observed were calmer. Mothers allowed their suckling babies to get within a few feet of me. Babies wandered up and played, and lay down and slept, right in front of my jeep while the matriarchs watched with placid tolerance. This time around, they are noticeably edgy, and it is an edginess born of the drought and the resulting battle for survival. The volume of tourists has increased as well, and it seems that the memo of decorum around elephants has not reached them. Some tourist jeeps rile the elephants on purpose, to incite them to charge. To the tourists, this is good sport; to the elephants, their antics are a further irritant at a time of great stress.

It is crucial in such parks to have a good driver and a knowledgeable guide – people who know elephants and the terrain, who are skilled in reading the mood of the herd, at predicting what they will do. Experienced drivers know when to stand their ground and when to get out of the herd’s way; they know when it is necessary to be still, to be quiet. All of this is of paramount importance when dealing with these excitable, protective creatures.

Kumara, a reassuring presence behind the wheel of my jeep, is the regular driver for my friend Manori Gunawardena, the foremost Asian elephant researcher in Sri Lanka. In past years, Manori has accompanied me on several forays into the park, and taught me much about elephant manners and mores and etiquette. And my guide Sugata knew the parks inside out. Thanks to these two allies, I had for five days immersed myself in the world of elephants. Watching them is only a part of the magic. There are the sounds, and smells, and behaviors, and antics. It is like being in a multi-dimensional Imax show, only, I need no glasses, and no two shows are ever the same. 

The Gathering is a rich sensory assault, but even in this smorgasbord, there is one compelling experience that is like none other. Have you ever smelled an elephant in musth?

We were driving across the grasslands one day last year, taking in the undulating bands of water and the play of puffy white against blue sky and marveling at a landscape that dwarfed elephants when suddenly, we came upon a bull in a ditch. He had found water there and was making the most of it. His flank glistening bronze in the late evening sun, he splashed, hosed himself, sprayed his face, rubbed his forehead on the grass, and then did the whole thing all over again. We drove around him and parked with our backs to the sinking sun, watching.

We were downwind; he smelled us, straightened, and climbed out of the ditch with unruffled majesty. With head held high and eyes lowered, he walked straight towards us. Even by the standard of Sri Lankan bulls, this guy was massive, muscular; he towered over our jeep. Eyes still lowered, he circled us once, twice, while we held our breath – not from fear, but from the overpowering odor of musth. From up close, I could plainly see the secretion from his temporal glands that signaled his readiness to mate.

I had heard of the legendary strength of this odor, but the reality of it was beyond anything I had imagined. It is a smell pungent, acrid, acidic and sharp, all at once. He circled our jeep four times and then calmly walked away. His stance, his smell, his “walk of intimidation” as Manori described it, all hung in the air long after Ben, for that was his name, had melted away into the distance. Ben, as I remembered him, was massive, and tusk-less.

It is not common to see tuskers in Sri Lanka, where only 7% of the males have tusks. The sighting of a tusker, therefore, occasions great excitement even among the local drivers and guides. My guide was eager to show me tuskers; he knew a place, he said. And so on my final day this year, we drove deeper into the parks around the river. Just before entering the area, he pulled up a bunch of margosa (neem) and tied it to the electric fence post. “For luck,” he said, “so you can see good thing.” We drove in, and the margosa proved its worth almost immediately. As we approached a clearing, we saw two tuskers sparring. “Massive tusks”, I marveled.

“This is nothing,” Kumara, my driver, laughed. “Wait till you see Walagamba!” We drove on and neared a clump of huge Arjuna trees. “There he is!” my guide said, excitement lending volume and urgency to his voice. In the shade of a massive tree, I made out a darker shape. As I watched, the white tusks pierced the shadows and, with slow deliberation, Walagamba stepped forth. My jaw dropped. He was bigger, by far, than any Asian elephant I had ever seen; bigger, I thought, than Ben even. I watched in awe as Walagamba walked away in the direction of a herd.

Walked? He sashayed with an easy grace that belied his bulk, like a model on a ramp, his footsteps silent despite his incredible bulk. He was in musth; the signs were visible from where we sat. It was when he reached the herd that I realized just how massive he was. He towered over them all, as he moved among the females with an elephantine elegance. I watched his every move, transfixed. It was twilight. The sun had all but disappeared, its fading light silhouetting the forest.

As we drove out of the park, the sky darkened and revealed a million sparkles. I stretched out on the seat and, as a river of stars flowed above my head, reviewed the week that I had just spent at The Gathering. I had seen so much, experienced so much; my senses were overloaded with experience, my head crowded with thoughts. But in the dark of the night, as the jeep raced along the road, the one mental image that dominated all others was that of a bullet hole on the broad forehead of a bull.

We are all guests on this earth, I thought, just like the elephants and other wild beings, the trees and mosses, the fungi and frogs; then should we not justly respect their rights to their habitats, their lives, their families, their needs and emotions? Imagine a world where desperately hungry elephants would not need to raid crops; where farmers would not need guns; where Ben and Walagamba, that trumpeting baby and his mother and that suckling pink infant would never have to start in fear at the sound of a firecracker or bear the wound of a bullet, a world where elephant orphanages would no longer be needed.

I wished upon a star that night.