Very warily, the mahout, Aporba Deka, cleans the dung lying between the legs of Rajmangal, the tusker who brandishes his tusks with a menacing air. Very long tusks these, distorted and mangled by a malicious and more than sparing use by this lovable rogue! Confined to a solitary enclosure at Chhatbir zoo, Rajmangal is so dangerous that he will squash and mangle Deka to dung-like pulp were he afforded half a chance. Rajmangal is currently in “musth”, an annual condition of male elephants when an implosion of testosterone turns them into their most unruly, rogue selves. In “musth”, the temporal glands swell and secrete pungent discharges, the brow is furrowed with rage, and the reproductive organ dribbles urine affected by a particular odour.
With a harem of three females — Hema, Parvati and Maya — one would have imagined Rajmangal to be revelling in a life of peace and conjugal bliss. But Rajmangal is a pachyderm patriarch, who has earned notoriety as Chhatbir’s most problematic creature. With a mischievous bent of mind, Rajmangal is prone to attack mahouts and female elephants even when not in “musth”. The zoo’s management problems are complicated by the fact that Rajmangal’s “musth” is an abnormally prolonged one and can last 100 days or more.
Aged between 50 and 60, Rajmangal was rehabilitated at Chhatbir after he was booted out of the Rohtak Forest Range Complex in 1998. Rajmangal had inflicted widespread damage worth lakhs of rupees (including the demolition of a water tank) after he broke his chains. He was then ordered to be shot by the Haryana chief wildlife warden but was saved on Maneka Gandhi’s intervention.
The Delhi zoo refused to entertain such a fearsome tusker but Chhatbir accepted the challenge to rehab him. Rajmangal still bears the scars of a burning tyre thrown on his back by a mob when he ran amok on the Rohtak streets, killing a child and injuring a few people. This was after the tusker slipped out of control of the sadhus who had exploited him to solicit alms for years.
Harem’s Gynae Problems
Chhatbir director Manish Kumar points out that Rajmangal is pretty smart. “This tusker when freed with the females tends to brutalise them. We then place him in an isolation enclosure. However, realising that he is being punished, Rajmanagal changes tactics and behaves very nicely. When we think he has turned a new leaf and free him again with females, he behaves nicely for a few days but soon reverts to bullying violence,” said Kumar.
However, the females do sometimes get a shot at sweet revenge. This is when Rajmangal is tranquilised after he runs amok. Rajmangal is sedated to the point he calms down without laying him unconscious. Under the mahouts’ directions, the females then butt the sedated Rajmangal’s backside hard with their heads and push the tusker back into solitary confinement!
Contrary to popular expectation, all female elephants of a herd are not successful breeders in either the wilderness or captivity. Only a few deliver calves after a gestation period of 24 months. Take Rajmangal’s harem. Parvati has conceived twice after mating with Rajmangal, but due to a uterus problem has not successfully delivered. Maya has suffered miscarriages. It is only Hema that brought two of Rajmangal’s progeny into the world: Seema (born, 2002) and Rajvir (born, 2007). “Both calves died after a few years. Seema was afflicted with chronic enteritis while Rajvir suffered a stroke of bad luck when a Common krait hiding in a bale of grass bit Rajvir in the mouth. The krait also died, either crushed in Rajvir’s mouth or trampled upon by the elephant,” said block officer Harpal Singh.
The male ego
Compared to Rajmangal, the females are gentle, affectionate and amenable to mahout handling. Deka kisses them on their trunks and they respond with characteristic body language and nuzzling trunks. They want to be petted on their trunks just as dogs slide up for an affectionate pat. Maya is deceptively nimble with her trunk. “She can open a water tap with her trunk as also the nuts of chains used to tie her front legs,” revealed Deka.
Deka, a tribal from Assam, is a repository of traditional knowledge on handling elephants and keeps himself abreast of the latest elephant research. “Rajmangal is full of male ego, unlike the gentle females. Animal rights NGOs have forced us not to use traditional, coercive instruments like an ‘ankus’ to subdue elephants. This makes the task of handling Rajmangal tricky as such mighty elephants are not intimidated by human presence or handled with ropes or nets or without infusing in them the fear of punishment. Rajmangal nearly killed a zookeeper, Nippon Basumatary, who escaped by slipping into a wall cavity. Rajmangal daily eats 2.5 quintals of grasses, ‘barseen’, sugarcane and occasionally jaggery. We treat his wounds with turmeric, garlic and tulsi leaves besides standard veterinary treatment,’’ said Deka.