Most men who have dealt with wild elephants will often talk of the ‘elephant shivers, a feeling which is half way between excitement and absolute terror. As for me, I certainly get my fair share—my legs feel weak, the hands shake no matter how hard I try to control them, my voice seems to come from far away in a hoarse, guttural whisper and I pray silently to be far away. At the same time, I wouldn’t be anywhere else.
Tanaji had the eyes of a hawk and he spotted the elephant as usual a few seconds before me. This time, however, there were no shivers for the I ittle fellow was barely six feet tall, and though he flapped his ears in anger at us, we grinned back at him, condescending to take a shot or two as he demonstrated behind a tree. The elephant then changed its tactics, freezing in the dappled teak jungle, hoping we wouldn’t see him and go away. We shamelessly decided to stay and his pig-like eyes glinted as he seemed to screw up the courage to charge. “He’s coming,’ I whispered, mentally gearing up to film the onward rush, but instead the little fellow squealed in anger and raced away.
Whatever the little elephant’s version, the enraged mama came crashing through the jungle with the single-minded purpose of knocking us into oblivion. Sahai was trying to coax the jeep into the jungle, and we hurriedly reversed while the elephant covered the gap in amazingly quick time. We barely got onto the road when we were charged from the flank, and we ran for our lives with the seething elephant racing along, picki ng up trees as if they were twigs and smashing her way through them.
To find the elephants, and virtually impossible to get them to peacefully chew cud while we worked out our angles. Once before, in south India, we had filmed a herd that had given us the charge, and we did not fancy shooting with the engines running.
The next morning, local trackers reported to Sahai, drawing maps in the dust with their feet on which they plotted the herd’s movements. The trackers said that the elephants were all moving out of the Tena Valley, and unless we could approach the herd where the leader had given us the treatment the previous evening, we were unlikely to get any shots at all.
There is a certain time in the afternoon when the light seems to mellow, and in winter it is usually around three. The light readings the next day were extremely low and we took the precaution of changing from a 9 to 5 7mm zoom, and though we could now film at apertures as wide as fl, it wasn’t the most exciting lens for shooting wildlife. Looking through the lens, the Palamau jungle seemed to shrink and run away from me, but it was either that or nothing at all.
We ran into a makhna (tuskless bull) almost immediately as he dug up the wet mud from a dry nullah, but the huge elephant was wary and he was gone even before the jeep halted. We were more relieved than disappointed, for had he charged, there was nowhere to go. A tracker appeared from the jungle just then, and A lone tusker rambling up the river bank at Palamau pointing with the handle of his axe, he told us that yesterday’s herd had just crossed the nullah five minutes ago and that the makhna was wooing a female which seemed to be receptive.
We were up against the devil’s alternative. To go forward and to have the herd cut us off would be potentially disastrous, for a kilometre later the road abruptly ended on the banks, of the Koel River. To go back would mean an aimless drive to Kujrum, with a sambar or a pack of wild dogs a remote possibility at that time of day.
Finally, with the trackers axe wedged in between the legs of the tripod, we decided to move up and as the jeep took the slope, we saw the elephants who had doubled back to the nullah perhaps sensing that the makhna had moved away. The light Lazing in the open grasslands of Palamau—the Indian bison
among the trees was terrible, and the dark shapes did not help matters either, so we moved further up and prayed that the elephants would descend into the nullah.
It was almost like a game of chess—we had hardly moved up when the leader of the herd stepped out on the road and we were cut off. I got the camera into position, slapping on a fully loaded magazine and Sahai eased the jeep back, closer to the fully alert elephant. Through the lens, she looked further than she actually was, and the silent whirr of the Aaton and the deep rumbling of the elephant were the only sounds in the dense Palamau jungles. Her ears were pushed forward and the tip of her trunk curled slightly as she tried to pick up our scent. The rest of the herd had also appeared in the frame and they silently glided across the road only to reappear in minutes, doubling back the way they had come, having probably picked up the scent of the makhna. The female, having waited for the elephants to cross, followed them. I heaved a sigh of relief and switched off the camera.
Even as we reached to disengage the camera from the tripod, the female reappeared and I scrambled to pick her up again. Then slowly, almost in slow motion, she swung around to face us and began to walk down the road with measured steps. Overhead parakeets screamed as they whistled past, and somewhere in the distance a barbet beat a monotonous chant to A rare shot—an elephant almost posing for the camera
A chrtal speculating the danger in the shadows of the jungle which the elephant seemed to move. The tension built up, and I had to lift the hem of my Gorkha hat to see just how close the elephant was with my other eye.
The elephant really gave us the treatment that afternoon, twice hitting the tailboard before we got out of the way. She attacked down the road, swung into the jungle and charged us from the flanks, pretended to loose interest and then swung around in savage fury, all the time pushing us further down towards the river and away from the herd. For us, the terror was all forgotten as the excitement took over, and we ran yard after yard of film on the rampaging animal. We were battered and hurting all over as Sahai put the jeep through acrobatic paces, and it looked like it would never end.
In November we flew into Saurashtra from Bombay and I sat with my nose glued to the window as flocks of pink coloured flamingos flew a few thousand feet below us. From Rajkot, we drove the rest of the way to Junagadh and then on to Gir passing on the highway bullocks with the
Emerging through the forests in a rage most amazing spread of horns, the women in delightfully coloured lehngas and the men wearing turbans to match the bullocks head gear. It was well past sunset when we drove into Sasan Gir and after we unloaded our equipment, we worked out the logistics for the next day. The jeep we had hired was nowhere to be seen, so I walked across the tiny 12-shop town looking for transport. After desperately pleading our case, I was assured of a closed jeep for the morning, and though I doubted if it would give us the space to film, I took it in any case, deciding to treat the first morning’s drive as a reconnaissance trip.
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