Having worked as a Naturalist and lived in Kabini for near a decade, I have got used to people asking me to narrate my most memorable or thrilling wildlife experience. I’m sure they’re quite disappointed when I fumble around and am unable to offer up any one incident. However, I always tell them that the true spirit of Kabini is its elephants, and if pressed further, then I offer up Kabini’s gentle giants — the magnificent tuskers that call it home. While these giants have their charisma and are always a pleasure to watch, it is the elephant herds that give me the greatest joy.

Every year during the dry season, the banks of the Kabini are transformed into the playground of these fascinating animals. We all have our own idea of what the divine looks like but to me, Kabini during the summer would qualify as the manifestation of the divine on earth.

During the summer months, the waters of the Kabini reservoir recede opening up a large plain that supports an abundance of fresh grass. This has proved to be a boom for elephants as it provides fresh grass and water when the rest of the area is drying out. The result of this man-made phenomenon is a large-scale annual migration of elephants to the banks of the Kabini.

Watching Elephants is a fascinating pastime, and during the evening boat safari, I always stop the boat, taking care to switch off the engine, near one of the many large herds that can be spotted along the banks. Typically during this time, many family groups congregate to form large herds. Adult Tuskers also frequent such gatherings, freely mingling with the family groups or forming temporary associations with each other.

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Elephant at the Kabini backwaters – Photograph: Vikram Nanjappa

 

During my last safari, I witnessed some fun and games between the adults and the young. I was also able to watch them dance!! It doesn’t sound believable, does it? Allow me to explain. Due to continuous grazing by the large herds, the grass on the banks was by now too short for the elephants to pluck with their trunks. To overcome this problem, they resort to kicking up the turf with their front feet, effectively digging up the grass along with its roots.

They keep prodding & uprooting the grass with slow rhythmic movements till they have enough for a mouthful, which usually takes about ten minutes. Then they gather it together with their trunk, making a snake-like movement on the ground. They then proceed to remove the mud and dust off the grass by rubbing the bundle on their foreleg with their trunks, before putting it in their mouths with a rolling action of their trunk, very similar to that of a pulley.

An elephant herd is seldom still, there is the gentle flapping of ears, the trunk reaching out for a morsel, a mother caressing her young, two siblings having a bit of fun, an elderly elephant shifting its weight from one foot to the other — you get the picture. Those of you who have seen an elephant herd will know exactly what I mean. Now imagine about twenty elephants doing all of this in concert, each in a different stage of the course of action along with many similar groups scattered all over the landscape.

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Elephant herd at the Kabini backwaters – Photograph: Vikram Nanjappa

 

When watching such a scene, I invariably allow my mind to drift a bit and let my imagination take hold. Usually, I mentally add some music to the scene, a song to match their rhythmic moves, and a fantastic image of a group of wild elephants dancing to music unfolds in front of me.

Frequently we would also chance upon a herd in a playful mood which in my mind would fill in as the chorus line in the background, and one day a herd we stopped by gave us a fine exhibition of elephant behaviour. Two young tuskers were testing their strength, slowly pushing each other moving backwards and forwards, turning and twisting with their trunks making interesting patterns as one intertwined with the other. Suddenly a youngster started chasing an adult that must have been either his mother or aunt for no apparent reason. He had his trunk wrapped around her tail, and the adult female was trying her best to keep out of his reach. Seeing the game in progress, some others of his age group decided to join the frolic. Then, unexpectedly, an adult joined the chase as the other adults looked on in surprise.

Finally, the entire lot came plunging into the river. The female then splashed the water mockingly with her trunk as the young ones eventually left her standing alone in the water.

As we had spent a long time watching them, we left the place, leaving them in peace, with the sincere hope that they continue to dance their way through life for generations to come.