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Mainstream, VOL LX No 18, New Delhi, April 23, 2022

Elephants face an elephantine problem | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Friday 22 April 2022, by M R Narayan Swamy



by M.R. Narayan Swamy

Trumpet Calls:

Epic Tales of Extraordinary Elephants

Nalini Ramachandran

Hachette India

Pages: 242; Price: Rs 350

ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 939102890X
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9391028909

Elephants have been caught and tamed from as early in history as 6000 BCE. And the practice of training them to fight in wars began in India around 1000 BCE. So many were trained to fight with deadly effect that King Chandragupta Maurya had an elephant corps 4,000-8,000 strong. Today, however, the elephant faces a precarious existence. Experts fear that it might go extinct in the next 20-30 years if they aren’t protected now.

Can one even imagine a world without elephants?

This wonderful book can be called a mini encyclopedia on elephants, an animal with extraordinary qualities. Of all the land mammals, they are said to possess the largest brains. So powerful are they that their head alone can weigh more than 400 kg – in contrast to the 5 kg weight of an average human head. A fully grown elephant weighs anywhere between 4,000 and 6,000 kg! No wonder, a single war elephant was considered as strong as hundreds of armed warriors.

At present, India has the highest population of Asian elephants while Botswana is home to the largest concentration of African elephants.

The elephant’s strength doesn’t come only from its bulky physique. Researchers find that elephants are very intelligent and can sense from miles away when rainfall is about to occur. They have such fascinating memory that they never forget. Their brains are so evolved that they can even think of shortcuts, just like humans.

Although elephants do not fight wars any more, since 1961, the Sri Lanka Light Infantry’s mascot has been a baby elephant. When dignitaries and leaders from other countries visit Colombo, this calf takes part in the guard of honour along with the troops. Believe it or not, he even earns a pension – just like humans in the regiment!

It may seem extraordinary but elephants also exhibit feelings such as envy and jealousy. They have a sense of humour too. They can tease and play pranks on one another, and even other animals as well as humans.

Though they have poor eyesight, their sense of smell is acute. And they have a good sense of hearing too. Their sturdy legs can detect low frequency sounds from miles away through vibrations on the ground.

Of all the mammals in the animal kingdom, wild elephants sleep the least. Why? The reason is that they eat more than 100-150 kg of food in a day, for which they remain busy throughout the day and night. They also drink more than 150 litres of water every day.

Experiments have shown that they learn some actions through mere observation and behave in ways quite similar to humans.

Several elephants played unforgettable roles in World War II. They transported soldiers and equipment, built roads and wooden bridges for armies to march on, loaded and pulled aircraft, and even cleared the rubble left behind by destructive bombs. They also saved human lives and helped refugees escape. Indeed, the elephants are inherently compassionate; saving lives comes naturally to them.

Elephants form a strong part of religion and spirituality. Some societies – India, for instance – view them as good omens. When Stalin ordered that Buddha’s images should not be worshipped in Siberia, the Buryat Mongols there who followed Buddhism began using images and statues of elephants for Buddhist practices. Like them, the animal became a symbol of the enlightened one for many around the world. Elephants also enjoy a pride of place in societies like Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Unfortunately, despite the numerous sacrifices elephants have made for humans over the centuries, human-elephant conflict is unending, with disastrous consequences for both sides. Hundreds of elephants and human beings have died in this conflict in all countries which are home to the majestic animal. Often, tourists who take a ride on the elephants’ back do not realize that the wooden seat and the human weight can together measure up to 450 to 600 kg, putting the animal’s spine and health at grave risk. Poaching of the elephant is also widespread, particularly in Africa, for its ivory, despite a global ban on ivory merchandise.

It took the author nearly three years to put together these tales of extraordinary elephants from mythology, history and the modern times from India and around the world. She says that like humans, elephants are known to grieve for the departed. There have been instances of elephants mourning the death of mahouts.

Human elephant co-existence is an achievable dream, the author says. Who wants to even think of a world that will be devoid of an intelligent and powerful animal known as the elephant?

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