Elephants are exceptionally smart creatures, have the largest brain of any land animal, and three times as many neurons as humans.
The Elephant Whisperers, a documentary about the raising of an orphaned elephant calf by a tribal couple, won the best documentary (short) award at the 95th Academy Awards on March 13. It is the story of a loving relationship between humans and other sentient species, particularly pachyderms. The footage was shot over five years and then edited to make the documentary.
Relationship between man and nature, particularly animals, is palpable and those who have made an attempt to develop it have indeed benefited from it, physically as well as emotionally. However, it could also go sour if humans are not careful and nuanced in their approach to dealing with them and taming or controlling them, particularly elephants. According to the National Geographic Channel documentary Elephant Rage, some 500 people are killed by elephants each year when they are pushed.
The elephants, of course, are a very intelligent species of animals, unlike the general impression we have about them on account of their size and sloth. They are exceptionally smart creatures, have the largest brain of any land animal, and three times as many neurons as humans. While many of these neurons indeed exist to control the elephant’s large and dexterous body, this creature has demonstrated its impressive mental capabilities time and again. It can identify languages, understand human body language, use tools, show empathy and, above all, has extraordinary memory – and hence the phrase ‘elephantine memory’. In the past, elephants were part of the royal heavy artillery and entourage, for pomp and show.
Elephants have also been used for communication purposes, especially in the days gone by when the modes of travel were limited. During the early part of my career in the civil services, I had come across a garage or a ‘hangar’ attached to the office of the Sub-Divisional Magistrate of Bhadrachalam, in the current state of Telangana, constructed to accommodate an elephant, which was perhaps used to cross the river to travel to the outlying and interior areas on official work.
That an elephant is nobody’s fool comes across clearly from the incident that took place many years ago during the pre-Independence period in the state of Samthar, where my maternal grandfather was serving as a Diwan. The maharaja had an elephant as part of his entourage. One of the duties of the mahout, employed to take care of the elephant, was to feed him with jalebis.
The mahout was in the habit of stealing a part of this ration, meant for the elephant, for his own personal consumption. The elephant had observed this over a period of time. Then one day, he picked up the mahout, threw him on the ground and trampled him to death. When the news spread, the mahout’s wife came running, holding an infant in her arms. She placed her baby in front of the elephant and asked him to kill the baby too since there would be no one to take care of it. The elephant picked up the baby and put it on its head.
Then there was a forest officer who was serving as an instructor at the Forest Research Institute, Dehradun in the 1970s. As part of his responsibilities, he was required to take the trainees out for practical training to different parts of the country. One particular year, he took them to the Bandipur National Park in Karnataka, which is home to Bengal tigers, elephants, some deer species and others.
The instructor decided to teach his trainees how to avoid an encounter with an elephant if they came face-to-face with one. He told them that they should go round and round a tree which would confuse the elephant. Since there was an elephant around, he attempted to demonstrate the technique and started running around a tree, with the elephant in hot pursuit. After going round and round a few times, the elephant stopped, turned around and waited.
The instructor who was still going round in the same direction collided with the elephant head-on and was killed instantaneously. The pachyderm had not, perhaps, liked the gumption of the instructor to underestimate his intelligence.