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Cynthia Moss: Elephant queen

Cynthia Moss has ensured Amboseli remains one of the few havens for elephants and she their guardian angel

india Updated: Feb 19, 2006 02:57 IST
Zia Haq
Zia Haq

Amboseli National Park. Kenya. On a typical sundown, you can see hulking masses of elephants heading home, trumpeting and intertwining their gray trunks in a playful lock. They are wild, free and fearless. If only they could, they would thank 59-year-old former Newsweek theatre reporter Cynthia Moss for their restored freedom.

In 1968, Moss quit the magazine for the vast African wilderness. But she is still a hardworking reporter. Only her beat has changed. From Broadway to elephant life. Today, she is a front-ranking expert on tuskers, pursuing what has become the longest-running African elephant field research project in the world.

Moss has ensured Amboseli remains one of the few havens for elephants and she their guardian angel.

What is so fascinating about elephants and Africa? "Elephants are extremely intelligent animals with a rich, complex family life. They are so much like human beings in many ways," she says. Moss is in town for a lecture at the Venu Menon National Animal Awards, India's premier wildlife awards.

Back then, Moss made the life-changing move to Africa to study elephants in northern Tanzania with guru Iain Douglas-Hamilton. (It was Hamilton who discovered that like humans, elephants too live in families.)

A two-week jaunt turned into a lasting affair. "Watching elephants after you've identified their families is like watching a soap opera. You get to know what's happening in the family." The family dynamics offer Moss with what she calls a "multi-dimensional" view of elephants. "Watching people you don't know, for instance, in the airport while awaiting a flight, gives you just a two-dimensional view. Now, compare that with observing a family you know - the father, the errant son and the mother. That's when what you see gets really exciting."

The reason why Moss feels so strongly about elephants is perhaps the striking resemblances they bear to human habit patterns. Moss sums them up without being asked to. Like human, tuskers live in families. They don't exactly have homes like we do, but definitely have what Moss calls "home ranges". So, all elephants of a particular family invariably come back to their home turf after a day out. Tuskers are very emotional and like humans, viscous tears stream down temporal glands when they are emotionally charged. So, do elephants weep? "Not the way we do. But the tears basically have one central function: they emit a strong smell and send out a message to other elephants about joy and sorrow," Moss says.

Now for what you never thought elephants were capable of. Elephant couples split, though they don't formalise it with a divorce. But it is when they patch up that you get the most poignant of elephant moments. They trumpet, dance and rub their sides in pure elephantine joy, says Moss.

Twenty something years ago, Moss was invited by Assam's Parbati Prasad Barua — popularly called Hastir Kanya (elephant girl) — to view her elephant estate. The late Barua, a reputed Bengali folk singer, belonged to an erstwhile royal family along the Assam-West Bengal border with a huge elephant asset.

Now, Assam stands out as a man-pachyderm conflict zone, where more than 150 people and 200 elephants have died in two years. Moss says the solution lies in setting out strict land-use patterns. "You need a national policy and some really good surveys done to stop this." We perhaps need a Cynthia Moss as well.

First Published: Feb 19, 2006 02:57 IST