National Geographic : 1957 Oct
The Elephant and 489 Ponderous, Strong, Skillful-and Ticklish-the Mighty Pachyderm Serves Southern Asians as a Four-footed Jungle Bulldozer BY M. D. CHATURVEDI I HAD shot a cattle-stealing tiger in the forests of Uttar Pradesh in northern India. Now, determined to put it out of its misery and to end forever its marauding career, I was trailing the wounded beast. "Sir," said my mahout from his perch above our elephant's ears, "search however much you like, your tiger is just not in this jungle." The words had scarcely left his lips when the tiger landed on the elephant's forehead, so close that the mahout could have whacked it on the skull with his goad. He did not, however. With an enviable grasp of the obvious he declared: "Sir, the tiger!" Shot in Air Saves Author and Mount It was an impossible shot. I had a far better chance of killing my elephant than the tiger. Feeling nevertheless that some sort of action was called for, I raised my rifle and fired into the air. With a convulsive leap the tiger disem barked and evaporated into the jungle. The next morning we found him by the Sarda Canal, dead. His previous bullet wounds had finally brought him to earth. In my 30-odd years of living and work ing with elephants as an officer of the Indian Forest Service, I have more than once had to share my mount with a tiger. But on such occasions I have been almost as afraid of my elephant as of our uninvited guest. For even the staunchest elephant, with a tiger clawing at its flanks, will bolt. And when a four-ton steam roller like that de camps, a rider may well prefer to jump off and take his chances with a mere cat. To a frightened, fleeing elephant, obstacles mean nothing, and neither does the party on its back. If a thorny overhanging branch hap pens to delete its passengers-well, so much the better for a speedy getaway.* I met my first elephant in 1924. Just down from Oxford, I had joined the Indian Forest Service and was posted to the forests of Gorakhpur. Ancient tradition holds that in these tranquil woods Buddha, having attained nirvana, died some 25 centuries ago. But for me serenity was not so easily come by. Before the days of the jeep, in the wilds that lay beyond the back of beyond, one had to carry all the necessaries along or go with out; not for love or money was anything obtainable in the interior. A forest officer's camp equipment in those days made an elaborate kit-tents, stores, lanterns, kerosene, medicines, even such items as needles and thread, wicks and matches. And these had to be guarded vigilantly against such camp rob bers as deer and antelope. The camping season lasted for eight months of the year; the remaining four monsoon months, too wet for movement in the jungle, were spent at headquarters. The initial lap of my maiden journey from Gorakhpur to the base camp at Pharenda was taken by rail, a whimsical narrow-gauge train that would stop at any point along the way at the convenience of the forest officers. No one bothered much about schedules. In fact, when the train arrived for once at the ap pointed hour and a passenger congratulated the stationmaster, he blandly replied: "Mere coincidence, sir. The train was due here yesterday at this time." Beautiful Bud Meets the Train At Pharenda the forest ranger greeted me, shifted my gear to bullock carts, and pre sented me to my mount. Spick and span in its departmental harness, the elephant loomed up a good bit larger than life. Her name was Sundar Kali, or Beautiful Bud-as incon gruous a title, I thought, as a pachyderm ever bore. The problem which promptly suggested it self to me was: How do I get up there? Ele phants dislike sitting down; the posture is most uncomfortable. And forest officers can't lug ladders around. * For other articles on the elephant see, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Africa's Uncaged Elephants," by Quentin Keynes, March, 1951; "Na ture's Most Amazing Mammal," by Edmund Heller. June, 1934; "Working Teak in the Burma Forests," by A. W . Smith, August, 1930; and "Tiger-hunting in In dia," by Brig. Gen. William Mitchell, November, 1924.