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Natural instinct

Elephants are the strongest, most powerful animals on our planet and yet the most gentle and intelligent. Men have learnt to harness these powerful creatures, but we tend to forget that while the body may have been harnessed, the primordial wild spirit remains smouldering under the calm demeanour, writes Mike Pandey.

india Updated: Sep 06, 2009 00:00 IST
Mike Pandey

Elephants are the strongest, most powerful animals on our planet and yet the most gentle and intelligent. Men have learnt to harness these powerful creatures, but we tend to forget that while the body may have been harnessed, the primordial wild spirit remains smouldering under the calm demeanour. It erupts only during the breeding season, when an elephant is in musth and becomes unpredictable and dangerous.

Encounters with charging elephants are not just restricted to jungles; in fact, the worst happen in the cities. This is why we need to remember that a wild animal like an elephant can never be at home in a noisy city, crowded with humans.

I was once invited to a sacred thread ceremony of a friend’s son at a temple in Kerala. Over a thousand guests filled the heavily decorated temple courtyard. As traditional drums announced the ceremony, a huge tusker entered majestically, dwarfing the doorway. Looking at the creature admiringly, I saw something that made my body go cold. The streak of glistening fluid oozing out from his temple meant the elephant was in musth. I moved behind the elephant and found that his hind legs were wet with urine, comfirming my suspicion. This was worrying since there were hundreds of women at the temple. It was important to remove the elephant from the crowded area; I informed the host and he agreed to do so after the ceremony.

Suddenly the elephant got restless and lifted his trunk to sniff the air. Making a deep rumbling sound, he moved forward. The trunk thrust towards a woman, and grasped her around the waist. As she screamed, the mahout jumped down and struck the elephant’s trunk with his ankush. The irate elephant dropped the woman, flung the mahout to the ground, and stomped his foot on the limp man. In the melee that followed, screaming guests rushed out of the temple while other mahouts tried to bring the elephant under control.

However, all the elephant’s years of training were overwhelmed by its powerful, natural instinct. Elephants, especially tuskers in musth, should not be brought to public places. It is only fair to the animal and a much needed precaution for others.

During my work with animals in the UK, we were taught not to put women crew members too close to animals (especially males) as the scent of pheromones released during menstruation is picked up by sensitive animals. Pheromones are a breeding trigger and animals tend to go into an aggressive mating behaviour, which is difficult to control. This is what happened at the temple. Crazed by the pheromones, the elephant saw the mahout as a potential rival and attacked him.

We must remember that the rightful place of a wild animal is in its natural habitat. Powerful, wild animals do not belong in crowded public places in the first place. Every time we support the use of a wild animal in a wedding, festival or entertainment event, we’re guilty of a crime against nature.

(Pandey is a wildlife filmmaker and conservationist.)