Those of us who live and work in the wilderness and in close contact with wildlife are often faced with dilemmas. One such is the temptation to project human characteristics and qualities onto wildlife, known as anthropomorphism and personification.
The attribution of negative human qualities onto animals are one of the causes for their persecution and decline e.g. the projection of the Wolf as an embodiment of evil has led to their persecution and extermination in Europe. While anthropomorphism as a literary device has been widely used by many authors, one needs to be extremely sensitive to ensure that no negative associations are formed in the minds of our readers.
The far bigger dilemmas arise when it comes to injured or sick wildlife. Do we interfere or not? Do we let nature take its course? And when the individual animal is one whom we have seen and observed over long periods it only complicates matters further. There is no doubt that, in cases like this, a strong emotional bond is created between man and animal – a bond that brings with it a wide range of human emotions.
Among all my experiences in the wild there is one that stands out, one where I had to face both these dilemmas – the poignant last days of a well know tusker and the unlikely bond that developed between the tusker and an old bull gaur.
The tusker in question was a familiar figure – a gentle giant and a true gentleman that I had seen of and on for about five years. An extremely trusting individual who allowed one to get very close. Blind in the left eye, he was one of the most easily recognizable tuskers in Kabini.
One day while out on safari I noticed that he had an injury on one of his legs of which I made a mental note and hoped that it would heal quickly. He did not seem to be in much pain and was going about his business as usual.
The next time I saw him, after a rather long gap, he had deteriorated noticeably and his wound was extremely grave. He was favoring his injured leg, not being able to put much weight on it. After a few days he took refuge in the river – spending most of the day submerged in water.
There is a saying among the elephant men of the North-East that when a male elephant knows that he is nearing the end of his life, he finds a river to die in. The rational explanation could be that sick and wounded elephants seek out water because due to the buoyancy factor they are able to get relief (easier to take the weight) and also because parasites like flies, ticks etc are unable get to any open wounds etc. It was pretty clear to me that the end was near for my old friend.
After a few days he got out of the water for a while and inadvertently strayed out of the park, even then he was quite tolerant of people who, thankfully, they did not tease him. He eventually did back into the park.
Keeping him company was an old bull Gaur, who was not in the best of health himself. This Gaur had been observed coming out of the park and spending time next to the tusker. For the next two to three weeks these two were seen very close to each other and had seemed to have formed a bond of some sort. Maybe they understand each other’s pain or suffering. I am not the type that usually gets sentimental about wildlife but this situation had forced me to react in unexpected ways.
The story does not have a happy ending, the tusker died in the river and his body was hauled out by the Forest Department using domesticated elephants. As his body was dragged out, the bull Gaur come out of the Park and tried to get as close to the tusker as possible, utterly oblivious to the presence of humans. The people also did not bother him and watched him respectively as he stood there. It was one of the most surreal moments of my life – a undeclared truce between man and beast – to mourn the dead and pay their last respects.
The Gaur eventually turned around and returned to the Park. I did not see him after that day and he seemed to have disappeared as silently as he had appeared.
I plead guilty to charges of anthropomorphism and personification but after listening to this tale can you really blame me?
I would like to thank my colleague Venkatesh Kolappa and our guest Mr. Hugues Breden for the use of their photographs.