It is the smell that hits you first. The musty, earthy smell that envelopes you and causes the bile to rise up in your throat, that lets you know that there is an elephant in musth awaiting you somewhere nearby. You then spot him, standing in the middle of the road, looking down at you like you are a tiresome housefly that just would not quit annoying him. And then, he starts walking towards you; slowly at first, swinging his trunk and his head in tune to his steps, before he starts walking faster, letting you know that he means business if you don’t buzz off. I have been charged at by elephants more times than I would have liked, but being chased by a tusker in musth always takes the cake.
We spent six days in Dhikala, a grassland in the interior of Corbett National Park, Uttaranchal, this May, as I wanted to spend one last holiday in the wild before leaving this country for my post-graduation. Amidst all the formalities of admission and visa processes, we took a fortnight off and journeyed into the middle of nowhere- no cell phones, no internet and no connection to the outside world whatsoever, to witness one of the largest congregation of elephants in India. It was the peak of summer, and temperatures rose to the mid-forties during the day. Not a single hour at Dhikala passes by without action of some sort- be it the sudden crossing of a tiger across the road out of nowhere; or the little elephant calves running around, their little trunks flailing about in abandon; or another little one complaining to his aunt about some sort of injustice he had faced, accompanied by a lot of squeaking and trumpeting; or a huge tusker moving around in search of a potential mate, checking all the females of various herds to find one in heat; or a fight for dominance amongst the males, which brings us back to the episode I began with.
It was a hot evening, and we were circling around an area where a huge male tiger was spotted earlier that day, when we came face to face with the tusker in musth. We reversed respectfully out of the way, until he found a clearing by the road and trampled into the dense undergrowth. Breathing a sigh of relief, we continued our search for the tiger, when we saw another huge tusker on the road, walking away from us. We waited at a safe distance for him to go along his way, when with no warning, he whipped around and started striding towards us. He was clearly not pleased about something, and by the way he kept sniffing around and making short detours into the undergrowth, we realised that he had sensed the presence of the other male and was now trying to sniff him out to chase him out of his territory. Once again, we backed off respectfully, when out of nowhere, we came face to face with yet ANOTHER tusker! These three were playing a very confusing game of dominance that we definitely did not want to be a part of, and we cleared off as soon as all three of them were out of sight and the road was clear, and spent the rest of the evening watching the little calves frolic in the water.
Dhikala’s popularity, which has been on the rise over the years, especially amongst the wildlife photographers, is both a blessing and a curse. The surge of tourism all around the year limits the activities of the poachers, which unfortunately is still predominant in the area. However, as more individuals indulge in the “sport” of wildlife photography, the more the drive for various photographers to bag the best shot, and the further the lengths they would go to to bag it. We witnessed this time a jeep of photographers who blocked the road to prevent a herd of elephants from crossing, to get a better, closer shot with better lighting. The matriarch, justifiably maddened, waited for the whole herd to form a tight knot before charging at the jeep together, in one mighty show of power. The photographers, whom I expected would be rattled out of their wits, were actually tittering about the great shot of the charge that they just bagged! I sincerely hope, that one day, they would learn that the art of wildlife photography is only fully satisfactory when you respect and love the subject you are shooting. It is not just the bagging of an amazing shot at any cost, but the entire interaction and dialogue that uplifts the soul.
I am now in Atlanta, Georgia, pursuing my Masters in Computer Science at Georgia Tech (Go Jackets!) and it has been one year of colossal changes, which I use as an excuse for my stint of absence from the blogging world. I have been hiking and camping around here too, and it certainly is a breath of fresh air from the high rise buildings and the computers. Sadly though, nothing compares to the untamed wilderness that I am used to back at home. Yes, I miss my family, my home and my friends; but most of all, I miss the wilderness that I could escape to when life got a little too overwhelming…