Waiter, there’s an elephant in my tea!


We jumped in an Indian-made version of a Jeep with a forest ranger whose services we had borrowed for the day from the government of India. Our destination was a tea estate that faces regular raids from elephants living in the adjacent forest reserve. Upon reaching the district forest office, we received a report of elephants nearby. Versions of the story conflicted wildly; some said 20 to 40 marauders had been spotted, while another report suggested only a lone bull was to blame. Several houses had reportedly been damaged but nobody had been killed. Not yet, at least. This in an area in which 135 people had been killed by elephants over the previous ten years, and 80 elephants had been subsequently killed in retaliation by angry relatives of the deceased.


While I took pictures of the kunkie (a domesticated elephant) and its mahout (handler), the forest ranger went off in search of a gun.  The rain was pouring down in full force now. Everybody had warned me not to come to India during the monsoons and now I was beginning to understand why. Sonitpur District lies along the north bank of the mighty Brahmaputra River in Assam state of northeast India. The river had swollen to an enormous width under the relentless monsoon rains. It looked like an inland sea as we crossed at the town of Tezpur on a 3-kilometer wide bridge, one of the few bridges that span the breadth of this enormous river. “Brahmaputra” means “son of Brahma” (the god of creation), and seeing it in flood made me realize why it was given such a lofty name.


As we all piled into the Jeep, my colleague Soumen asked from the back seat “do you feel safer now?” I turned to see what he was talking about and found myself staring down the muzzles of three shotgun barrels, one single-barreled and the other a side-by-side, both in 12-guage. They looked like they had seen better days, the bluing was worn away from the steel and a healthy coating of rust had formed in its place.

“Actually,” I replied, “would you mind pointing them away from my head?” I was very uncomfortable with the thought of three shotgun muzzles pointing directly at the back of my noggin.

“It’s okay,” my colleague said, “they’re not loaded.”

“All the same,” I said, “could you just lay them sideways?”

I have heard of too many people being killed by supposedly unloaded guns to take someone’s word for it that I had met only a day earlier. I’m from Missouri, which is called the “show-me state” because we don’t believe something unless we see it for ourselves. Treating every weapon as if it were loaded has kept me from being shot thus far in life, and it’s a policy I intend to maintain.

The ranger handed me a shotgun shell. I inspected the markings on the side, surprised to learn that it contained merely a light load of birdshot. A shotgun would not be my first choice for self-preservation when facing an angry 4 or 5-ton elephant; even when loaded with a full charge of buckshot, or better yet a lead slug, but birdshot would not even warrant my consideration. I realized the shotguns were being brought along as noisemakers and not for our actual protection. Shooting an elephant with birdshot would probably just piss him off. The effective lethal range would be about 1 foot, about as useful as a sharpened stick. At that range it wouldn’t matter what weapon you held in your hands, you’d be dead regardless. No, I didn’t feel any safer having them along.

We were told that the offending elephants were in tea plot number 22. We drove past the guard manning the gate into the tea estate with the driver and the ranger both shouting “forest! forest!” as we drove by, I guess to inform him that we were on official duty of the Forest Department. After passing a stately English style cottage that served as the tea manager’s quarters, we took a path that led into the various tea plots. After stopping twice to ask workers for directions, we finally found plot number 22 inexplicably located adjacent to plots 3 and 4. As we crested a hill I saw what looked like an out of place gray boulder. An oddly placed island in a sea of tea bushes. It was a bull elephant lying on his side 500 meters away.


We stopped the car a respectful distance away. The ranger grabbed the double barrel and stalked confidently up to the sleeping bull. Soumen whispered that he thought the bull might have been poisoned by the estate workers, as it is quite unusual for an elephant to sleep during the day. While the ranger continued to walk directly toward the lying bull with his shotgun thrown casually over his shoulder as if on a grouse hunt, I kept my distance and snapped a few photos. I was mindful of the location of the Jeep and noted several large trees nearby, trying to formulate an exit strategy should all hell break loose. I wasn’t sure that I could outrun an elephant, although I recalled a college lecture long ago from an anthropology professor who claimed that a human being, given an adequate head start, could outpace any animal on earth, such was our endurance. Fortunately, I have never been forced to run from anything in terror, and I seriously had my doubts about outrunning this big fellow, even with a 500 meter head start. My plan was to try to somehow climb high enough in the nearest big tree to escape his wrath, knowing that the vehicle would offer only about as much protection as a tin can. At that moment I recalled the traditional wisdom that when running from a bear it’s not necessary to be the fastest, you just have to be faster than the next guy. I looked at our overweight forest ranger and knew I could easily outrun him.

Meanwhile, the forest ranger and his rusty shotgun were strolling straight up to the elephant as if it were behind the bars of a zoo exhibit. Suddenly he foolishly turned his back to the still-sleeping giant and yelled and waved for me to come closer. I emphatically motioned to him to forget about me and pay attention to the elephant. While Asian elephants were an unknown entity for me, I’d been around enough other dangerous critters to know that you never turn your back on them, never underestimate them and never let your attention lapse. It is best to treat them like dynamite with a lit fuse: you know it’s going to go off, you just aren’t sure when. Having this ranger worry about trying to get me close enough for a good photo, or worse yet showing his bravado for his foreign guest, was a dangerous situation and I wasn’t particularly keen on witnessing the results if things got ugly.


Predictably, his yelling and waving had awoken our pachyderm pal, who now sprang to his feet with agility and speed astonishing for a creature so huge. And huge he was, obviously a bull by his sheer size, yet he lacked tusks, a makhna, which probably explained why he had survived for so long, lacking the valuable ivory that poachers seek. He towered over the stubby tea bushes, trunk upturned, ears flared, obviously quite annoyed to be rudely awakened from his nap. In a heartbeat he charged straight at the ranger, who let loose a blast from the shotgun. At the report from the gun the bull turned and ran up the hill away from us. When he got to the top of the ridge, about 600 meters away, he stopped, turned to face us, flared his ears, and gave us a look which implied that he really wasn’t scared of us. We caught up with the ranger, who promptly sent the driver back to the Jeep for more ammunition. Incredibly, he had approached the bull with only the two cartridges in the gun and no extras! Had the bull failed to stop, there is no doubt our ranger friend would have been made past tense.


Having reloaded the gun, we continued slowly up the trail that bisected the tea plots. The bull reached the same road some 300 meters ahead of us up the hill and turned to face us. We all began to suspect that he would now charge, using the smooth trail to his advantage, and I doubted that we would reach the vehicle before he reached us. Even if we did, I doubted that the driver would be able to get it started and turned around and pointed towards safety before this massive pachyderm could squash it like a grape. I put our chances of escape at pretty poor. I eyed the nearby stream, thinking that jumping across it might slow him down long enough to let me climb a tree on the opposite side, but I had my doubts about the veracity of my escape plan.


Fortunately for our wellbeing, the bull turned away and kept shuffling slowly away from us, stopping every 25 or 30 steps to turn back and flare his ears and raise his trunk and display his aggression. Our brave ranger let loose another load of bravado from the left barrel of the shotgun for good measure, and this time I was ready with the camera to capture the bull’s reaction. There wasn’t one. He didn’t flinch, or bat a massive eyelid, or in any way acknowledge that a shot had been fired at him. There was absolutely no effect. At this point the four of us realized we were hopelessly outnumbered. We watched the bull saunter off about 500 meters further before he stopped, turned around and seemed to defy us to move him from that spot. A few tea workers had gathered to see what all the fuss was about and they chatted with the ranger and my colleagues in a language I didn’t understand. I gathered that nobody thought this bull would be going away anytime soon.


We had initially thought the bull was in musth, the condition of heightened sexual aggression and increased hormonal activity that bulls periodically go through, which might have explained his aggresive behavior, but his temporal glands appeared to be dry and not weeping their secretions typical of the musth. We watched him with binoculars for a few minutes trying to determine whether or not he was really in musth but we were unsure. Finally we arrived at a consensus that since his destructive activity had occurred in the previous few days and since his glands now appeared dry, his musth must be coming to an end and he would probably re-enter the forest in a short while on his own terms. This was our way of convincing ourselves not to attempt to move him any further. I don’t think any of us were very willing to test our luck. His game of chicken had worked. We left him to his own devices.

Later, back at the office, my colleagues showed me pictures of a victim of elephant conflict from the previous year’s harvest season. The pictures were gruesome, horrific and truly obscene. The man was obviously dead; of that there could be no question. The flesh of his limbs had been completely torn away, exposing white bones. His death had been brutal and violent; there was nothing peaceful about his repose. My only thought was that I never wanted to see something like that again. I hope I never do.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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