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The Indian Elephant

The Indian Elephant

M. Krishnan, a writer, an experienced naturalist and a friend of elephants introduces the magnificent Indian Elephas maximus to the readers.

Photo: Brijendra Singh.

Concerned at the continuing destruction of elephant (Elephas maximus) habitat in India due to ever-increasing human pressure; aware of the concentration and confinement of elephants in isolated pockets; recognizing that the elephant’s survival depends on conservation and management of the whole ecosystem; The General Assembly of IUCN, at its 14th Session, Ashkhabad, USSR, 26 September – 5 October 1978; calls on the Government of India to include a countrywide programme for the conservation of the elephant and its ecosystem as an essential component of the country’s next six year plan.

That sums up rather crisply, the situation we and Elephas maximus are faced with today. Everywhere we look, the competition between animal and man seems to get keener and nowhere is it more acute than in the case of the gentle giants with whom our ancestors’ lives have been entwined through the ages. The point is – have we the foresight to allow our descendents the same opportunity?

M. Krishnan’s years in Indian jungles, qualifies him to introduce these magnificent animals to us. He is a writer, an experienced naturalist and a friend of elephants.

The largest mammals ever known to belong to the elephant family – millions of years ago there were many kinds of them, and most people will know two these prehistoric giants, the mammoth and the mastodon. Only two types of elephants have survived to historic times, the African and the Asiatic. These are not, as many seem to think, just two species of the same genus, like the lion and the tiger, but animals belonging to altogether distinct genera, differentiated from each other ages ago in the course of evolution. African elephants belong to the genus Loxodonta, and the Asiatic to the genus Elephas of which there is only one species, Elephas maximus, the subject of this feature.

Two things about Elephas maximus should be clarified. First, the specific name maximus might suggest that it is the larger of the two existing kinds of elephants: actually, the African elephant is the larger (though a regional race of it is smaller than our elephant). The second point is that though Elephas maximus has been known as the Indian elephant for centuries, it is also found in other countries of South-East Asia: Burma, Thailand, Malaysia and Sri Lanka, for instance and for this reason, in recent times it has been termed the Asiatic (or Asian) elephant.

Although the Asiatic elephant also exists in other countries, it is here, in India, that it has its largest population and here that it has been most anciently and closely associated with human life, art, literature and even religion. The pale elephant of Indra, Airavata, the elephant flanking the goddess Lakshmi, and Gajendra who was delivered from the jaws of a monstrous crocodile by divine intervention all belong to our mythology. Everyone knows Ganesha whose auspices are sought at the commencement of any enterprise or creative effort -- nowhere else, in the pantheon of any religion or period, is there such an elephant-god.

The art of taming wild-caught elephants to serve men in war and peace has been practised all over India from time immemorial: there is conclusive evidence of this in our classical literature and art, and also at our oldest archaeological sites. And it is not as if this is something belonging to an obsolete past -- elephants are still very much in use here for transport and timber logging, and to lend majesty to pageants of many kinds. They are still caught wild and swiftly trained to versatile uses as no other wild animal can be.

The distribution of wild elephants in our country is discontinuous. They are to be found in the sub-Himalayan forests from Uttar Pradesh to Assam, in West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, and then in the forests of the Western Ghats and associate hills in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. They are absent from Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat and Rajasthan, which is understandable since the kind of forests they need are not to be found in these states, but they are also absent from Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh which do not lack such forests.

Now for a brief factual account – not a morphological description, for everyone knows the great beast. G.P. Sanderson, the wild-elephant expert of the last years of the 19th century, whose authority is still respected, measured many tuskers famous for their magnificent stature and concluded, that measured correctly in a straight line, no elephant in India was 10-foot high at the shoulder. He was mistaken. The mounted skeleton of the notorious Arcot Rogue in the Madras Museum stands fully 10 1/2 foot high (as I have personally verified) and Rowland Ward, who set up the skeleton, thought that when alive the animal must have been 11-foot high. I have seen a tusker in Manas, Assam, whose forefoot imprints indicated a height of 11 feet, and another, the grandest I have ever seen, at Periyar, Kerala, measured at least 10 feet, 5 inches by repeated measurement of the forefoot imprint.*

Indigenous elephant lore recognises three main ‘castes’ among our elephants, based on build and temperament: these are not regional or community types, and all three may be found in the same herd. The highest ‘caste’ is the Koomeriah, long and massive in the barrel and stout-limbed, with the back sloping gently from the proudly held head to the tail, stately in gait and very self-possessed. The lowest is the Meerga, lanky, leggy, with the back convex and the head small, quick-gaited and nervy. The third caste is an intermediate and is termed Dwasala. Now a Meerga bull fully 10-foot high is no match for a 9-foot Koomeriah bull, more massive and powerful.

Among Asiatic elephants, only the bulls carry tusks, but not all. There are tuskless bulls, called ‘mucknas’, and these are usually very robust and have thick, muscular trunks, as if to compensate for their lack of tusks. The longest tusks are not always, or even generally, carried by the biggest bulls and thin, over-long, oddly curved tusks are in fact a source of embarrassment and not strength to their owners. Massive and perfectly matched tusks are highly prized in indigenous elephant lore. Cows are tuskless: some may retain small tushes even in adulthood: such tushes are known as ‘scrivelloes’ in the ivory trade, a term not found in dictionaries.

A herd sauntering along the Periyar lake, Elephant habitats are in dire need of protection. Photo: M. Krishnan.

Elephantine Life

The elephant is a long-lived animal and it does have a remarkable memory, but only for things concerned with elephantine life: it does not forget the paths along which it has traversed or its old elephant friends from whom it has been separated, or any experience that was painful or frightening. Some modern experts have said that the Biblical span of three-score-and-ten years also applies to wild elephants, but this opinion is based on the records of the ages of tamed elephants! There is no doubt that on occasion an elephant may well exceed that limit and even live to be a hundred years old, just as some men may. I know of a camp elephant that had calves when it was well past fifty years old. In fact, the infancy, adolescence, prime and old age of elephants are all remarkably like those of men. Only in the period of gestation is there a marked difference, the period being from 18 to 22 months.

Elephants are highly gregarious and live in herds, and the members of each herd or party are deeply attached to it. Though they may break up into scattered groups when foraging, they do not stray too far apart, and periodically reassemble. The herds are distinct and keep apart, but sometimes, when trekking to fresh grounds, two or more herds may keep peaceably together for a few days: such composite herds of almost a hundred elephants are seldom seen now, but were not uncommon four decades ago when the forests were less fragmented and far fewer trek routes were blocked by artefacts. Some old bulls (never a cow or a young bull) turn solitary and stay by themselves: such lone bulls are not to be confused with the master-bulls that occasionally move out of their herds and keep apart for a few days.

The elephants' colourblind world of smells is something that we, with our panchromatic vision and much-blunted olfactory perception, can comprehend only in a limited way. However, it is not smell but sight, hearing and tactile response that are the main channels of communication that elephants use among themselves: their incredible powers of smell serve to inform them of the plants and creatures around them, and also to follow the tracks of their herd when they have strayed some distance from it.

A feature of elephantine life that is seldom adequately appreciated, is their feeding habits. They do sleep for brief periods, by night and even by day, lying down on a flank or dozing while standing relaxed, but the one activity that takes up most of their lifetime is feeding. Even when two bulls engage in a running fight over days, they take time off to feed and to drink. Unlike ruminants which crop their fodder quickly and then chew the cud at leisure, they have to masticate each mouthful first and have most efficient grinders for this purpose: they are choosy feeders, and dust and clean each sheaf of tall grass or broken twig held in their trunks against a knee, before placing it crosswise in their mouths to chew. They do not advance in a line, steadily cropping up all vegetation in front as cattle do, but move as they feed, selecting choice bits here and there and taking their time eating them. Most of their day is spent in feeding, drinking and (where there is adequate water) bathing. It is important to realise that they feed extensively and not intensively and therefore range far with frequent shifts of ground, never stopping long in any location.

Elephants feed on renewable and periodically renewed plant parts, which get replenished by fresh growth. They consume a wide variety of fodder (the aerial shoots of grasses and bamboos, foliage and green twigs, herbaceous stems and bark, aerial roots, fruits and even some flowers) and need extensive, varied terrain to suit their far-ranging habit and seasonal variations of vegetation. This is why, although they are the largest land animals and need about 200 kgs of green fodder each day, no plot of vegetation anywhere in India has so far been destroyed by wild elephants.

Given sufficient lebensraum to suit their habit of ranging far along elephant-walks, and freedom from human disturbance and predation, elephants have no problems and will create none for us, but this desirable state just does not obtain at present and seems unlikely of attainment in the future. When they find their familiar trek routes blocked by men and are confined to an inadequate tract, the disturbed animals become nervy and panic and consequently wander about aimlessly, often turning hostile to men. Further, though they have been long protected by legislation, poaching for ivory has taken a heavy toll on them and has added considerably to their sense of insecurity and their aggressive response to humanity.

Take for example, the finest elephant habitat in India -- the vast hill forests around the lake at Periyar in Kerala. Oddly enough, the setting up of a major irrigation project here, later expanded into a hydel project, far from depriving and disturbing the elephants, only resulted in a more congenial home for them, with the formation of an expansive, many-armed lake in the hill-girt valley. But inadequate protection and systematic poaching during recent decades has devastated the elephants. Only those who have known Periyar as it was in the fifties, when magnificent tuskers were commonly seen around the lake in summer, can know to what an extent poaching has killed them off. There are hardly any big tuskers left now. With the recent upgrading of this preserve as a Tiger Reserve, stricter and more efficient implementation of protection will, no doubt, come to Periyar, but unless this is vigilantly sustained over the next 25 years, one cannot hope to see great tuskers here again, for it will take at least that long for the young bulls to reach their prime.

The Corbett Tiger Reserve provides quite a different instance of a hydel project affecting the lives of elephants. Here, the Ramganga multipurpose project has resulted in a small population of elephants, which were seasonal visitors to the reserve, getting impounded within it. 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. However, since the forests of the reserve are sufficiently large for their elephant population, it seems likely the restive beasts will settle down in due course.

A mock battle between two young bulls at the Bandipur Tiger Reserve Karnataka. Such play activity is an important part of the learning process for elephants. Photo: M. Krishnan.

Yesterday & Today

Only some 40 or 50 years ago there were many expansive hill forests which were still comparatively free from human occupation and exploitation, and elephants lived peaceably in them: I have known some of these forests myself. Today, they have all been deeply penetrated by human enterprise. Settlements have come up around them and even right inside them. Industries and projects have been sited in them and motor roads ramify them. The trek-routes of the elephants have been completely blocked in many places, and their living space severely restricted with human intrusions into their lives becoming increasingly common. With the increase in human traffic through the forests, naturally elephants are much more frequently encountered by men and this has led to the preposterous claim that the populations of wild elephants have increased. Only an educated guess, based on such field surveys as have been carried out (which are only rough assessments), places the total population of wild elephants now left at about 10,000: but even if it is that, the population is definitely much less than in the past.


What can be done to conserve elephants in the country for which they are specially noted and with which they have been most anciently associated? The obvious thing would be to try and provide adequate continuous forests for them by removing intermediate artificial structures. Some time ago, it was suggested that the Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka preserves in the Western Ghats (in and around what used to be called the Wynaad) should all three be merged into one vast preserve, the Jawahar National Park. Such a scheme is certainly practicable, since these preserves are more or less contiguous, and with strict protection the proposed National Park should certainly offer, not merely in name but in fact, adequate sanctuary for elephants in a region long famed for them. Recently, the Prime Minister has emphasised the importance of setting up sufficiently large preserves, by neighbouring states joining hands in a corporate effort to conserve our wildlife -- a most constructive suggestion and one which has already been tried out successfully by Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh conjointly creating a reserve for the rehabilitation of the gharial (the endangered and uniquely Indian fish-eating crocodile) along the Chambal river. A few such carefully planned preserves of adequate forest area would certainly ensure the efficient conservation of our wild elephants.

Author: M. Krishnan, Sanctuary, Vol. II No. 1. Jan/Mar 1982.


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