The Passing Away Of A Gentle Giant
February 2011: Rajaji’s most famous resident Tipu, a wild elephant many of you have had the opportunity to see, photograph or perhaps hear about his escapades, passed away on the night of January 8, 2011.
A much-loved gentle giant who was fortunate to live to a ripe old age (estimated to be over 65 years) in an era fraught with multiple dangers for tuskers, he was an integral part of our lives for the last 16 years after first being photographed in 1992. He was radio collared in 1996 and named after Tipu Sultan, due to his refusal to quietly accept that parts of his home had been taken over by humans.
Tipu, born a few years before India attained Independence, was a living witness to the rapid changes that overtook his native ranges. He must have watched the extensive grasslands and forests along the Ganges being converted into crop fields and human settlements and yet he showed no ill-tempered mannerism associated with elephants that have lost a significant portion of their home ranges. He simply considered sugarcane and paddy grown by the farmers within his home range as just another tasty grassland.
To our knowledge, he had never killed anyone despite being a chronic crop raider and living in forests filled with humans. He seemed to bear no ill will towards humans who almost killed him by electrocuting him in 1998 while he was in a sugarcane field. A younger bull would have died from such an electric shock but not only did Tipu recover after being immobile for over seven hours, but much to our astonishment, he was back to crop raiding in the same fields the following year. At his peak fitness, irrespective of whether he was in musth or not, other big bulls would give him a wide berth whether he was courting a female or just feeding.
What made him stand out among the hundreds of crop raiding elephants across Asia were his majestic bearing, absolute fearlessness and gentle temperament. Many a times he was found, without a rumble of irritation or fear, resting 20 m. from old feeble women collecting firewood or fodder for their cattle. He was not known to charge in fear or in anger and would only, at the most extreme provocation, walk a few threatening steps towards the source of noise. Most elephants in Rajaji avoided crossing the road and the rail track in the Chilla-Motichur corridor area in the face of increasing traffic. Tipu, who saw the slowly puffing steam engines of 50 years ago rapidly giving way to thundering diesel monsters pulling hi-speed trains capable of mowing down elephant groups, treated them with the disdain that only he could exhibit – often sleeping soundly within 15 m. of the railway track and road. Thus he was one of the two or three bulls, who regularly crossed the Chilla-Motichur corridor across the Ganges, keeping elephants on both sides a single population. In a sense, the knowledge gained, while radio-tracking him, helped in finally saving the Chilla-Motichur corridor from being lost forever.
While this is a loss, it is also a time to reflect and celebrate Tipu’s well-lived life. No other wild tusker, known to researchers or park managers, in Asia has had the fortune of living so long – especially a bull who loved to check out people’s houses for food. He lived absolutely on his own terms, roamed and rested where he pleased without fear or favour. He led a full life covering a range of nearly 800 sq. km., mating with several females and probably fathering several young elephants in the Rajaji National Park. Although he crossed the road and the railway track numerous times he was neither maimed by a train or a truck nor felled by a poacher’s bullet. Blind in one eye, he was still a Romeo in full musth courting a female herd until the end as seen in pictures taken five days before his death.
Though he died falling down from the Motichur railway bridge, it was the result of injuries sustained in a musth fuelled fight over females with a much younger and fitter bull. We are thankful for the efforts of the officers and staff of the Uttarakhand Forest Department – starting from the PCCF Wildlife, S.K. Chandola and Director, Rajaji NP, S.S. Rasaily and all his staff, dedicated vets such as Dr. Satya Priya, Dr. Gautam Bhalla and Dr. Negi, Ramsaran of the elephant monitoring project and wildlife lovers like Rajeev Mehta who did their best to ease his suffering and to treat his wounds. We shall be grateful if a fitting memorial is erected for him in Motichur by the Uttarakhand Forest Department so his memory lives on long after we are all gone. We are sure that his genes are well represented among the many elephants he has fathered in his long and distinguished life. But above all, to us, he was simply Tipu, a venerable old acquaintance who allowed us a treasured glimpse into his rich life. Tipu and Rajaji are synonymous and for us, Rajaji simply will never be the same place without our gentle giant’s soft footsteps treading on it. To encounter Tipu in a forest glade or under the shadow of a tree next to the road was a reminder
of the saying;
Life is not measured by
The breaths we take
But by the moments
That take our breath away
By A. Christy Williams and Bivash Pandav