Where Elephants Sing Songs Of Love
Updated: Aug 13, 2021
Dr Naveen Pandey, MVetSc
All jungles are beautiful. Kaziranga’s forest is arguably the most fascinating and dynamic of all. The eastern range of the National Park lures me the most. On a hot and humid day, a graceful elephantine embrace unfolded. I had been following a solitary makhna (a male with no tusks) for half an hour, sweating under the unusually blazing Sun in Kaziranga National Park*. The makhna kept walking with purpose - baking its mud-laden back, wagging its stumped tail. Its tail seemed shorter for such a massive handsome elephant. It curved its muscular trunk up and down to coordinate its destination synchronised with its balletic gait. As it came in the open after crossing the thicket of woods and fern, a young tusker- adorned with a glistening pair of white tusks, surfaced from the other end of the woods. Both the giants seemed to head for the same destination.
The makhna and the tusker headed for a common destination, sniffing the gentle breeze, as silently as they could. Their communication remained beyond the human's auditory spectrum. Photo: Naveen Pandey
Despite a decisive pace, the tranquil air and serenity of the forest reigned supreme. As they gracefully moved through the grasslands interspersed with retreating wetlands, they kept displaying their massive genitalia - engorged with blood and literally touching the ground. While the tusker flashed a demigod stature due to its curves and tusks, the makhna beamed power and determination with its towering size. A momentary pause from makhna made the tusker slow down its pace, and I could now see that the makhna was heading to the destination earlier than the tusker, unlike my prediction. That unspoken authority of the makhna was a stamp of his dominance. I grabbed my camera, expecting a clash of titans.
In the distance, a family of 17 elephants was busy grazing over the lush greenery. Pre-flood showers had added to the foliage. In a few weeks, the masculine Brahaputra would overtake the jungle and the beasts alike. It seemed the right time for the males to follow their instinct to pass on their genes. Sensing the two solitary males approaching them, the herd changed its orientation from scattered to circular formation. Each member faced outward, calves in the centre, and the matriarch turned to face the upcoming uncertainty head-on. The group laid a classic defense strategy, which consisted of adult females, sub-adults, and suckling calves.
The makhna neared the periphery of the herd without any haste. The matriarch trod forward, unaggressively, with trunk extended. Still, the makhna overlooked her probing moves and pushed its way through the herd. Interestingly, it didn't physically try to find out the suitability or preparedness of a mate. Instead, it stood 10 meters away from the herd within seconds - perplexed, and its external genitalia retracted.
The tusker religiously sniffed seven females in the herd. Photo: Naveen Pandey
By now, the tusker was near the herd. The matriarch extended the same gesture as before. However, the tusker's response was strikingly different. It locked its trunk with hers and then moved to its rear side. Extending its trunk forward between her hind limbs, the tusker gently probed her genitalia. Then, it retracted its trunk coiling to bring the trunk tip in its mouth. The tusker didn't consider it prudent to spend a moment with her any further and moved on to the nearby sub-adult female and repeated the act of sniffing and checking. This ritual went on till he had checked seven of the females. And then it finally met the makhna, who showed mild aggression to this exploration by a subordinate male. Meanwhile, the herd had split in two. Both the males found themselves sandwiched between the two sub-groups - waiting to be coerced by the selfish gene' for the following decisive action.
What made the approach of two male elephants substantially differ while advancing to a group of females, and would the clash of titans inevitably occur at the opportune time not so far away? Did age and experience add to the swiftness in probing a mate? Kaziranga’s ecological mosaic provides a rich and diverse succession of habitats for elephants. I wondered if other forests in India would offer the same secured tranquillity to the pachyderm, especially tusk-bearing giants. I decided to listen to another story of joy and survival in the jungle and moved on!
At the turn of the last century, elephants had almost continuous distribution in the northeast of India, including the populations in Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. But now, these populations are discontinuously distributed. Assam is a prime conservation area for elephants. Kaziranga provides shelter, food, breeding ground, and safe refuge to more than a thousand elephants and serves as a stronghold of the elephant population.
(*Field note on 4th June 2018, after completing a transect survey on elephant back)
[Dr Naveen Pandey serves The Corbett Foundation as Deputy Director and Veterinary Advisor in Kaziranga, Assam and could be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)