An anthology takes us into the world of the elephant. This essay by Priya Davidar from the book, Giant Hearts: Travels in the World of Elephants, tells the heartwarming story of Bommi and Banta.
We first saw the mother and son at Cheetal Walk, an abode in the Sigur Reserve of the Nilgiris mountains in Tamil Nadu, in March 2010. They were walking around, doing their elephant stuff. It was only in March 2011, during a severe drought, that we really noticed them. They were extremely emaciated and we predicted they would not survive the summer.
We returned to Cheetal Walk a couple of years later in 2013 and built a better water tank. Again mother and calf, now quite a bit bigger, showed up; little did we know that they were going to become memorable to us for their resilience. We named the mother Bommi and the calf Banta, popular tribal names in the region. When they were in the vicinity, they visited the tank often, at all hours of the day, which was a sign of confidence. Sometimes Bommi trumpeted, to let us know she was coming. She would glance towards us in the verandah, and did not seem frightened.
It was 2 April 2014 when a strange incident took place. The water tank was half full when five elephants came to drink: two females with three juvenile female calves. They were obviously enjoying themselves when Bommi turned up and walked straight to the tank in an assertive manner. The females faced her but would not budge. A tusker, apparently associated with this small herd, appeared and moved purposefully towards Bommi, signaling a threat.
Bommi faced him, urinated maybe because of fear and then turned and walked towards the house purposefully with a look that we interpreted as telling us: "They are stealing my water!" In the mean time little Banta emerged from some bamboo thickets and headed straight towards the tusker. Bommi started trumpeting in alarm and gave a low rumble that seemed to be a signal for a resident tusker that we call Benito (from the Latin "good") to emerge from the bamboo thickets to see what the commotion meant. On seeing Benito the other tusker retreated. Benito, Bommi and Banta headed towards the tank. Alas, there was no water. Bommi was frantic. All three looked towards us in desperation. Benito scraped the bottom of the tank and held his trunk up in the air, perhaps for us to see that there was no water.
We were struck by their plight. There was no water in the area except for our tank and this was an immense challenge for a young elephant like Banta. Suddenly my husband Jean-Philippe decided to take charge and go to the well to turn on the motor that operated the pump. The well is just a metre away from the tank and he needed to pass very close to a group of wild elephants in order to perform this operation.
It was the craziest thing anyone could do; one had to be either a lunatic or Francis of Assisi to attempt it. Seeing his determination I stated talking to the elephants: "Go away Bommi, go away, otherwise we cannot give you water." I had heard my brother Mark saying "go away", "go back to the forest" to a herd of elephants that had strayed near the kitchen once. They had silently left. As soon as the elephants heard me, they turned and walked away in unison. Bommi disappeared behind some bushes while Benito left. The other elephants were about twenty metres from the well.
I was sure Jean-Philippe was going to be charged! The odds were stacked against him… unfamiliar elephants, a wild tusker who did not know us and most importantly, young elephants to protect. Anyway Jean-Philippe did it. He walked the distance from the house to the well, bent down to turn on the valve, and opened the door to switch on the motor. The pump was on and water started gushing into the tank. He waited for about ten minutes for the water to fill up. Meanwhile the elephants stood around silently. He turned off the motor, closed everything and walked back. After he left, Bommi and Banta approached the tank and Banta drank his fill while Bommi watched. Later that night, she and Banta came to the house, probably to wish us goodnight.