Deep inside the jungles just below the Himalayas live prehistoric-looking beasts: massive Bardia elephants. The homeland of these elusive creatures is shrinking, forcing the elephants into communities, leading to unfortunate confrontations between the elephants and the people who live there. These animals have been known to kill humans by trampling them or by using their tusks. Join biologist Niall McCann as he heads to western Nepal to pursue the largest elephants in all of Asia. Here’s an excerpt from Niall’s field journal from his expedition to find the Biggest & Baddest Rogue Elephants.
Working with elephants really was a dream come true, and not just the wild elephants, but the domestic elephants too. I have considerable ethical concerns around the ongoing use of domestic elephants as beasts of burden, but I was hugely impressed by the relationship between our elephants and their Mahuts (elephant drivers), and was very happy with the working conditions that these elephants experienced. We were in Nepal, and we needed the help of a team of domestic elephants and their Mahuts to carry us into the parts of Bardia National Park where vehicles cannot penetrate in our search for Bhim Gaj, reputedly the largest Asian elephant in the world.
Having the chance to work with the same elephant – called Sarachotti – for a month would, I hoped, enable me to build up something of a relationship with her. I spoke gently to her, I fed her, I bathed with her in the river, and eventually, after three weeks of working with her every single day, she did something very special: she lifted me up onto her back with her trunk. Normally only the Mahuts are allowed to mount their elephants this way, with all other people clambering up a ladder or getting a ‘leg up’ from the elephant and climbing up from the rear; the elephants simply won’t let strangers mount them any other way. For Sarachotti to lift me up with her trunk was a sign of trust, and something I was hugely humbled by.
A day after this happened for the first time I caught a huge python, the largest ever measured in Bardia National Park and perhaps in Nepal. After measuring it, I released it again and approached Sarachotti to climb back up into my Howdah (elephant saddle). As I reached her she lifted her trunk to my chest and stopped me in my tracks, she sniffed me all over, my face, my chest, my arms, my hands, while looking quizzically into my eyes. Elephants are afraid of pythons, I’d witnessed their fear myself on three occasions. They become very nervous and vocal when near a big python and don’t like to approach them at all. Sarachotti had watched me handling this enormous snake, and now, with the smell of the python all over me, she wanted to thoroughly check me out before letting me back up onto her back!
The whole time I was around the elephants, I wondered what they were thinking. Elephants are incredibly intelligent animals with complex social structures capable of making strong bonds and experiencing a wide range of emotions that most people assume only humans can experience. The time I most wanted to know what the elephants were thinking was when, after two weeks of constant searching, we finally found a herd of wild elephants. The wild elephants paid close attention to us and us to them, but what I’d love to know is what do the wild elephants and domestic elephants think about each other? Do the domestic elephants look at their wild conspecifics and view them as uncivilized, unkempt and uncouth, or do they envy them their freedom? Do the wild elephants look at their domestic counterparts and view them as weak, subservient and emasculated, or do they envy them their domesticity? These are questions to which we will probably never know the answers, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to know what those answers actually are?
I learned a lot from my time in Nepal, working with domestic elephants and stalking their wild cousins. I had some of the most exhilarating experiences of my life when tracking them on foot, and I had the only encounter with a wild animal where I wasn’t sure that I’d get out alive. Most of all, I left Nepal with a sense of reverence for a truly wonderful animal: intelligent, empathetic, and sociable; yet highly dangerous, unpredictable and unrelenting at the same time. The future of Nepal’s elephants is uncertain, with rapid human population expansion and urban development the elephants’ remaining habitat is being destroyed which is bringing them into conflict with people at an ever increasing rate, with grave losses suffered by both the elephants and the communities that live in close proximity to them. The future of Nepal’s elephants, both domestic and wild, will be closely intertwined with that of the Nepali people. What is certain is that elephants deserve a bright future just as much as people do, and it is people’s responsibility to make sure that happens.
Don’t miss Biggest & Baddest: Rogue Elephants tonight at 9/8c on Nat Geo WILD.