A Eulogy For An Acquaintance
How One Elephant Taught Me About The Complexities Of Human-Animal Interactions
The first time I met Sidda could have very well been my last. It was December, and the cold winter air offered a sharp contrast to the strong rays of the early-morning sun. The diffused light in the forest seemed to create shadows of things that were not present, and hid the silhouettes of those that physically were. This was my first day as a wildlife researcher in the forests of Bannerghatta. I was over brimming with excitement – eager to experience all that the jungle and its animals had to offer. Trying to take in every leaf, bird and rock that I encountered, I was fully absorbed in my own world of wonder. We stopped the jeep at a small watering-hole and decided to walk a bit on the forest path that skirted around it. As I rounded a bend on this trail, I suddenly came face to face with him. I was momentarily transfixed; caught off guard by whether I was seeing what I hoped to see; or seeing what was actually there. He appeared to be as startled as I was, a slight jerk of his head betraying his surprise. He quickly composed himself and stood there facing me, not agitated, but curious of my presence. The three female companions behind him seemed irritated at this sudden intrusion, rumbling and voicing their displeasure. Snapping back to the moment and realising that this was no apparition, I quickly retraced my steps to put a healthy distance between myself and this large male elephant. As I finally got back into the jeep, the reality of the situation began to sink in. I was grateful that this sudden encounter did not lead to my early end.
Feeling slightly protected within the confines of the jeep, I waited to see what this bull elephant would do next. After a few minutes, I saw him cautiously turning the same corner from which I had just previously beaten a hasty retreat. He stood there, uncertain of what to make of us. His ears were fanned out, a gesture typical of an elephant being alert. He raised his trunk slowly in our direction, trying to smell us out as friend or foe. After satisfying himself that we were a harmless and trivial distraction, he gave a dismissive nod of his head, and started walking towards the watering hole, his original destination. I spent the next three hours observing Sidda and his interactions with his female companions; these coincidentally were captive female elephants from the nearby biological park, who would often associate with the wild males. On that cold winter morning, I somehow felt special that he had allowed us those few hours to peacefully sit and unobtrusively observe him – sharing that same space
and moment with him. That was my introduction to Sidda. We would come to have many more interactions over the next several years. His steady presence in the forest that I worked in, slowly grew on me, creating a familiarity that was comforting.
A fissured land
Sidda was an iconic bull of Bannerghatta National Park, a small protected area situated in Southern India. It is most likely that Bannerghatta was where he was born, thereby forming a part of his home range. Bannerghatta, is a land that is fraught with escalating levels of negative human-elephant interactions. Approximately 150 villages are found within 5 km from the boundary, and most of the villagers practice agriculture. With an average land- holding of 1 to 3 acres, farmers in these parts need to redouble their efforts to guard their small fields against wild-animals. The shape of the national park is linear which leaves much of its boundary exposed. This allows it to be affected by the man-made elements outside and provides the scope for its wild denizens to be tempted by the agricultural manna beyond.
This is the land that Sidda grew up and roamed in. No one is quite sure where he came from, but the earliest memory the locals have of him were his associations with the female captive elephants at the Bannerghatta Biological Park, a zoo situated within the National Park of the same name. How he earned the moniker Sidda is equally uncertain, although it is not unusual for people to name charismatic wild elephants. The origins of his name were as unassuming as the elephant that he was. Over the years while going into the field, we would frequently come across Sidda associating with the captive elephant groups or be seen alliancing with male elephants. Whenever I saw him it was always his responses that would give me a sense of confidence of being around him. While other elephants could become agitated and the unpredictability of their response left you feeling excessively alert, with Sidda, I felt more at ease because I was sure of his behavior. Whether this assurance came because of my multiple interactions with him or due to a certain consistency in his actions, all I knew was that he wasn’t a danger to me. Whenever he became aware of our presence, he would first ascertain whether we were a threat or not. Then he would either choose to quietly retreat into the scrub forest if he felt we were too intrusive, or go about doing whatever he was doing if the distance was comfortable for him. He didn’t just behave like this with us; he was regarded as a calm animal by all those who came in contact with him. This was something of a nuance among the behavior of wild male elephants in these parts.
Years of conflict between man and elephant had made both sides weary and aggressive towards each other. The local farmers would shout and chase elephants away with fire- crackers. Initially the elephants would run away. However, over time they too became conditioned to these responses and would sometimes charge back. Creating a vicious cycle of an aggressive reaction-response which seems to have just escalated in intensity over the years, often with disastrous consequences for both sides. Therefore, due to these negative interactions, elephants in Bannerghatta didn’t favourably respond to humans when they met them. Although Sidda was innocuous in his interactions with humans, he was a habitual crop- forager and would often be seen in farmlands adjoining the protected area. Even though he was subjected to the same treatment that all crop foraging elephants experience, this didn’t create a negativity in him towards humans. It was this oddity in his behavior that drew me to him. Helping me understand that elephants too could have individual responses towards people and situations.
The many avatars of Sidda
Sidda was not an imposing bull, but he possessed the bulk that comes from living off a high nutritious crop diet. He definitely had visual appeal- with his long and thick symmetrical convergent tusks and his comparatively small ears. He also had the marks and scars often found on elephants whose peregrinations into human farmlands have led to very violent confrontations that are almost warlike in nature. These injuries, which included some bullet wounds, gave him a sort of a roguish appeal and seemed to belie his soft nature.
In 2015, we shifted our field study centre to a village in the north-western margin of the national park. It was the month of December, which is when crops are harvested in this landscape. This is also the period when elephants tend to forage on crops, leading to high tensions between man and elephant. One morning we found a return-gift of sorts…a large pile of dung. On setting up some camera traps across the centre, we found to our surprise that the animal in question was our old acquaintance Sidda. To join in on the fun of foraging on our neighbours Ragi (Eleusine coracana), Sidda had also brought along another young bull. These two bulls of different ages seemed to form an unlikely pair; however, the probability of common grounds and shared company united them for the purpose of risky forays into farmlands.
Our camera traps were able to record certain behavior patterns of these elephants, but every time Sidda became aware of the camera, he would shield the younger bull from the infra-red light. Even in situations when we were observing them in person, he would again position himself so as to block the young bull from our line of vision. Whether he was shielding his young protégé or just being weary in a human-dominated area is uncertain. However, I would like to believe that he was being protective of this young bull. I say this because when Sidda came by himself he would noisily break branches of the Mango (Mangifera indica) and Jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) trees without a care as to who heard him. With the younger bull he was quieter and seemed more cautious, often using retreat as his first reaction, rather than standing and assessing the threat.
In February 2016 we were informed by the BBP veterinarian that Sidda had injured his tail possibly during an altercation with the resident captive bull. Elephants during agnostic interactions often bite the tails of their opponents to hold them in place, while they ram them with their heads or tusks. Unfortunately, these situations lead to the tail being severely lacerated or sometimes being severed. Siddas’ tail was cut to ribbons and there was a chance of it developing gangrene, therefore a medical intervention was required. The question is, how does one treat a 4-5-ton animal when one cannot get close enough to it? Favourite foods such as banana, sugarcane and jaggery were used as baits and medication was inserted into them. We approached Sidda at a safe distance, alerted his attention to the food we brought, left it there and retreated. Hoping that he would take the medicated bait, we sat and watched patiently. He came slowly to the food, smelt it, and promptly put it in his mouth! We were able to provide him with a full course of antibiotics and he proved to be an ideal wild patient. Almost 3 months later, we saw him again and his tail had healed well.
The perils of navigating a non-elephant environment
The months wore on and we didn’t see Sidda on his nightly jaunts to our field study centre or in any of his regular haunts in the forest. Then on the 30th of August, 2016 we received news that an elephant had sustained a leg injury in the district of Ramnagara, approximately 15 km away from Bannerghatta. They suspected that this elephant was Sidda. With grave trepidations we set off to ascertain whether this piece of information was true. Walking into a eucalyptus grove, at a distance I could make out the shape of an elephant motionlessly
standing near some trees. My heart sank, and with one look at the long sweeping tusks, I knew that it was Sidda. Seeing him in this foreign land amongst the eucalyptus trees, the village houses and the chatter of a hundred excited people, I felt a certain disembodiment from my memories of him in Bannerghatta. I felt like I was watching a strange elephant in a strange land, because this was not a setting I was used to seeing him in. He had injured his leg in a fall which happened early that morning; he was being driven away from a farmland, in which he had presumably spent the night foraging on the crops. The fall was documented on a grainy camera-phone video by a by-stander. It showed Sidda trying to get away from the fire-crackers and aggressions of the locals, and then falling off an asphalted embankment into a canal. His right fore-leg impacted violently with the concrete. His injury appeared debilitating, and he was obviously in pain, using his tusks as a crutch to turn and move his body.
The veterinarians decided to give him some antibiotics which were baited in some bananas. He had proved to be an ideal patient before, and once again, despite all the pain he was in, Sidda accepted the medicated food. The problem which posed itself now was how to get him to drink some water? It was late evening and was assumed that Sidda hadn’t had a drop to drink since his fall that morning. The stress of the situation and heat of the day could have caused him serious dehydration. A water tanker was arranged to be brought close to him and water was dispensed through a large pipe. Surprisingly. even with a large crowd gathered, he limped to the tanker, and after a few awkward attempts, placed the pipe in his mouth. I couldn’t help but think this elephant had just grievously injured himself that morning because he was being chased by humans, and now he was trusting those same humans and accepting food and water from them.
How do elephants view their interactions with us? Could elephants see us humans in different contexts? Here was this elephant, who had mostly negative interactions with people being driven away from farmlands, having fire-crackers thrown at him, and even being shot at – but he seemed to understand that this was a different situation, and that he was being protected and cared for by those same people, who under a different context could have hurt him.
Sidda was in a relatively heavy human dominated area and had to be moved for his safety and for the safety of the people. Since it was logistically impossible for him to be physically transported (as this could have resulted in further injury), he was pushed into moving on his own towards Manchinbele dam. This large dam situated within the forests of Savanthdurga, was approximately 5km away from his current location. It was the only space which was relatively devoid of people in this densely populated area. Manchinbele measures almost 3 km2 in area and much of its shoreline is under agricultural cultivation. We followed him as he was forced to move in the dead of the night, again this being the safest time when there was no human interference. He agonizingly made his way through deserted streets and agricultural fields. He was accompanied by a milieu of barking street dogs and shouting people, hurried along to a destination that wasn’t of his choice. The flickering village street lights casted a fading glow on his limping form. He was probably in a lot of pain and agitated by the constant cacophony surrounding him. Seeing him in those moments, I felt a lump lodge in my throat, a painful reminder of the proud elephant that he was in his forest of Bannerghatta, and the muted participant he was reduced to in this non-elephant environment.
Sidda spent the next four months at Manchinbele dam. Many veterinarians, experts and researchers came to see how his condition could be improved. A hundred people from the surrounding villages of Ramnagara, the city of Bangalore, and beyond, came to see a wild elephant in a not so wild surrounding. Bringing with them fruits, vegetables and jaggery; as offerings and supplicants to ease the misery of a poor animal who was hurt. All these people congregated with one goal – to ease the suffering that Sidda was going through. The coverage from local, regional, national, and international news channels brought more people to see him. His fame now extended well beyond the boundaries of Bannerghatta. Everyone one wanted to help this elephant who was suffering and was stuck in a land that was clearly not his home.
Based on expert medical opinion, it was theorised that he had fractured his front left leg. This usually spells a certain death for elephants as they rest the majority of their large body weight on their front legs. However, the soothing waters at the Manchinbele dam created a natural solution. Sidda started standing in the dam, the water creating a buoyance for him to support his body weight. This remedy along with the daily medication and the highly nutritious food he was receiving appeared to improve his condition greatly. However, this was just a palliative treatment and a more permanent solution was required. He was then tranquilized; an x-ray was taken of his foot to see whether it was broken or just a minor fracture. He was again pumped with a high dose of antibiotics to help with the infection he developed due to spending long hours in the water. However, this intervention seems to have had a devastating effect on his already compromised immunity, and two days later, he collapsed in a farmer’s field along the shores of Manchinbele dam. There he lay until sores perforated his body, and
he was too weak to stand up on his own. He was then shifted to a wooded kraal, with support beams placed below his body to hold him up. Throughout this four-month period Sidda was watched over, protected and kept nourished by the forest department and the hundreds of people who flocked the Manchinbele dam to see him.
Elephants and men
Sidda’s suffering seemed to have brought out the compassion in people. Farmers who weeks before were cursing the elephants that came and destroyed their crops, were now coming to feed that same elephant offerings from their own hand. The farmer whose land that Sidda decided to make his final resting place had to forgo his year’s harvest. There was a constant parade of people who wanted to see Sidda and they ended up trampling all over his crops.
Initially, the farmer was quite upset by this fate that was dealt to him. But in the coming days, the narrative changed. The farmer began to think of himself as blessed, for he was able to help this distressed animal in his final days. Show someone the suffering and misfortune of a fellow being and the perspective immediately changes.
In India, it is estimated that 500 people die each year due to negative interactions with elephants. Conversely over 100 elephants are killed due to their excursions into human- dominated areas, or due to human causes. The space between humans and elephants is shrinking. Most of the solutions to this problem deal with keeping elephants in forested areas and out of human-landscapes. However India only has 5.02% of its total land area protected for “wildlife use”; and with 60% of the world’s Asian elephant population, solutions like these seem like a Sisyphean task. We need to seek solutions that will allow humans and elephants to live alongside each other, but respectful of the needs and requirements of one another.
Negative human-elephant interactions will not always stay negative. There are ebbs and flows to this situation and nothing is set in stone. People do understand the “ecocentric” viewpoint. Especially the local Indian farmer who understands that himself, the natural world and wildlife, are all on the same continuum. Local farmers do understand the elephant’s hardship and also their presence as fellow beings. As a conservationist, it is this complexity of human nature that we need to target. Human-wildlife interactions are not always negative, and the narrative of conflict can change based on how we collectively assist it as a society.
The final chapter
Sidda died on the 10th of December, 2017. It was suspected that he died of a heart attack, possibly caused due to the severe and prolonged stress on his body. His body was transported on a truck deep into the forests of Savanthdurga, away from the prying eyes of the media and locals. According to the standard operating procedure, an autopsy was required. His tusks were removed and deemed to be destroyed later to prevent them from getting into the wrong hands. A large pit was excavated into which his dissected body would be buried. Once the procedure was completed, Sidda was pushed in. As the earthmover emptied the last remnants of soil onto Sidda’s grave, I felt a deep pang of sadness. Sidda would never come back home to Bannerghatta. I then remembered what T.S Elliot had written in his poem “To the Indians who Died in Africa”.
“A man’s destination is not his destiny, Every country is home to one man
And exile to another. Where a man dies bravely At one with his destiny, that soil is his”
It may have been Sidda’s destiny to die in a land that was not his home, but that land did become his. Sidda’s life and death influenced the lives of many people, including mine. I remembered Sidda for the elephant he was, not the mangled carcass I saw before me. I remember him as the first wild elephant I saw in Bannerghatta, forever changing the way I saw elephants. The people who came to see him remembered Sidda as the mild-mannered elephant who bore his suffering without complaint. Sidda gave people an opportunity to interact with elephants in a different way from the usual negative interactions associated with conflict. While hundreds of elephants are still dying in India because of having to navigate a non-elephant environment; I would like to believe that by interacting with Sidda, a few people changed their narrative and perspective on how they viewed elephants. All because of Sidda and the elephant that he was.