The Plain Truth
Author: Bittu Sahgal
Photo: Shivaram Subramaniam.
This herd of Kaziranga elephants loves the rain. Their thick skins serve as protection from the cold. In summer, skin-wrinkles retain water to cool them down gradually. Evolution has gifted these pachyderms an entire bag of tricks to stave off heat, including large ears that double up as radiators, a long trunk that serves both as a personal shower, and a straw to swoosh drinking water into their mouths. They also wallow in wet mud, which functions as sunscreen to keep their skin moisturised, preventing sunburn.
Despite all this, elephants have a huge problem dealing with over-heating and have begun suffering the ill-effects of rising temperatures on account of climate change. Given their sheer size, elephants lose a lot of water with every exhaled breath and must therefore consume around 150 litres of water each day. Since they cannot sweat to cool themselves, when temperatures are higher than their body temperatures, even ear-flapping is pointless. Interestingly, elephant hides absorb water more easily than most other animals’ skins. Predictably, some of their happiest summer days are spent in and around favoured pools. This is why matriarchs keep a mental map of available water sources, including those hidden below river beds that must be dug up!
In 1982, the late M. Krishnan wrote in Sanctuary Asia: “Though excellent swimmers, the soft, miry approaches to the water have inhibited them from moving out along their old trek routes, now submerged by the water spread beneath the dam, for elephants being so heavy, have an instinctive dread of getting bogged. Their reaction to this imposed limitation on their free movement is to turn somewhat wasteful in their feeding and aggressive towards humans – the usual reaction of elephants confined to a location full of men.”
I cringe at the thought of confining wild elephants! And no, it’s not just an ‘animal rights’ issue. Consider the fact that India’s Northeast is being obliterated under dam reservoirs, canals, roads, mines and even a massive wall to enable VIP guests of the Numaligarh Refinery near Kaziranga to play golf! Such confinement is a prescription for human-elephant conflict, turning elephant worshippers into elephant haters. But if we leave no space for elephants to live, nature will leave us no way to survive either.
And that’s the plain truth.
Source: First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVII No. 6, June 2017.