Caretaking in Elephant Families

Published on: 20/03/2024

Elephant Families 2

Photo title: Elephant Family


Photo Credits: Gowri Subramanya

At a family get-together, I was surprised by how much buzz the Oscar-winning documentary, the Elephant Whisperers had generated. It’s no secret that elephants manage to capture the fascination and wonder of almost everyone. A story about rescuing and caretaking of orphaned animals, especially elephants, strums on our heartstrings because people love stories of kindness, of authentic bonding – a bond with a ‘wild animal’ so powerful and intimidating, yet so vulnerable as an orphaned calf and to our delight, more than capable of reciprocating acts of love.

We seek affirmation of ‘human’ qualities of care and emotional connection in species that are not human. And the truth is that these traits form the basis of the social and emotional lives of many animals in the wild, most definitely elephants. But we rarely get to witness this in the wild. Not only because we are ‘outsiders’, disconnected from other species’ familial lives, but also because our living spaces, in the modern world, are so disconnected from the wild.

Safaris are the modern world’s solution to ‘getting close to the wild’ with as little direct threat to people or animals as possible. But it’s not always that simple. Often we are left to interpret sights and sounds – the fleeting tail of a feline disappears into the vegetation, strange disembodied sounds rattle up the tree canopy, and booming calls envelop the open spaces. When we do get a clear view of an animal, it is either resting or startled while on its way somewhere.

Watching elephants in the wild can be a more leisurely activity with some special interactions between elephants when you watch a herd for a while. There would be occasions when, on a boat safari in the backwaters of Kabini, the boatman would turn off the engine, to maintain the quiet, and we would watch a herd of elephants dispersed along the bank, feeding from the bamboo clusters.

On one such occasion, we chanced on a group of three elephants, all male but still too young to be on their own. It was safe to assume that the bigger part of the herd were deeper inside, away from the water. Everything was calm, the engine turned off, the boat at least thirty feet away from the bank that curved to our right, forming a little inlet of water ahead of us. The water was about forty feet wide across the two edges of the banks, forming quite a private little bathing pool for elephants. I had been here many times before. The boatman would often head straight to this spot because we had chanced on a submerged tusker enjoying an early morning bath more than a few times.

This was an evening safari. And the group of three seemed like they hadn’t been in the water yet. Their wrinkly bodies were dry and dusty. The boatman wouldn’t go any further. For one, it was too close for young elephants, he said. Young ones get nervous easily in the presence of safari vehicles. It’s funny, I thought, in the case of felines, it’s the young ones who are bolder and curious, the older ones stay right out of humans’ way.

Elephant Families 1

Photo title: Tusker


Photo Credits: Gowri Subramanya

The other reason was that the water was too shallow closer to the bank, and the submerged tree stumps made it harder to navigate and with a herd of elephants around, it wasn’t worth the risk. Other than basic precautions, there was nothing to worry about though. The elephants were swaying their tails and flapping their ears, half turned away from us. All signs that they were relaxed and calm. The only sounds were the occasional cracking of the bamboo, followed by a loud swish and a fall of an entire pole, pulled down deftly by a turn of the trunk.

All of a sudden, there was a shrill trumpet to our right, from within the forest. We turned to the right but saw nothing. A lot of things happened. One of the three elephants we were watching leapt straight into the water, swam to the other side, towards the call and disappeared into the vegetation.

Exactly at the same time, another elephant jumped into the water and came straight for us. Almost instantly, the boatman started the engine and backed off until the elephant stopped. He stood there, in the middle of the water, watching us, torn between teaching us a lesson and checking in on the emergency call. He decided to turn back. He reached the other bank, following the steps of his brother. Before he entered the woods, he made a turn, looked in our direction, gave a final wave of the trunk to say ‘Begone!’ and disappeared.

The third one was nowhere to be seen and we guessed he had taken the land route instead of the water and by now reunited with the herd.

Everything was quiet as suddenly as the commotion a few seconds ago. On the boat, there were confused stares, sighs of relief and even bursts of nervous laughter. And then we all started to talk fast. It was likely that a very young calf from the herd had smelled our presence and panicked, letting out a scream, triggering the herd’s protective protocol. Even the brothers and cousins who were not that much older themselves instinctively knew what they must do. While one ran to make sure the baby was safe, the other chased the most obvious threat away. There’s no way of knowing if the baby got spooked by our presence or something else entirely, but for the elephant near the water, we were the only outsiders and had to be shooed.

Suddenly, it made sense that the bigger herd chose to stay inside and not at the water’s edge. Perhaps the calf was too young to be exposed. All sorts of speculations came up as we moved on. But one thing was clear. Even a sub-adult elephant in the family took its caretaking job seriously. As frightening it was to be properly told off by a wild elephant, it was even more moving to have witnessed this deep sense of bonding and care wild elephants display.

gowri blog kabini

Gowri Subramanya

Gowri Subramanya is an editor and learning consultant based in Bengaluru, India. Writing and photography are her chosen tools of creative expression and the wilderness is her muse. A keen observer of the interaction between nature and culture, she loves to explore the history as well as the natural history of new places during her travels. With a soft spot for bird songs and a weakness for flowers, she indulges in a healthy dose of tree gazing every morning.


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