The first time I saw a wild elephant herd (I was maybe 10 years old), I tried feeding them a branch of juicy leaves. Luckily I was on the right side of a well-constructed elephant trench and my grandmother was around to drag me away. More importantly, the elephants were in a good mood – because no trench is truly elephant proof. They dig the edges, slowly push the mud in, and somehow manage to get in if they are not chased off! Anyway, I got a long lecture afterwards on how dangerous elephants can be, and of course I had many opportunities over the past few years to see this first hand.
I get reminded of elephant naivety whenever new people come to work. Like one time when we inadvertently got stuck in the middle of an elephant herd with a small calf, and they decided (very justifiably!) to charge us. No problem with that, the only issue was that we were on a very steep, slippery, rocky stream in the early monsoon period…
Everyone immediately took off – each man for himself, falling and sliding and tumbling down the slopes – except for the new guy. Who was standing in the middle of the stream, busy pulling off leeches, completely unaware of the angry elephants descending on both sides. Luckily, he survived and got a long lecture from me after that; he is now a seasoned field veteran.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, elephants can sometimes induce a flight and fight response. Like one occasion when we were trudging back to base camp, carrying heavy loads, after a rigorous survey session in a remote area in Shendurney Wildlife Sanctuary, and saw a herd of elephants in front. Two of the elephants turned around to look at us – nothing more, nothing less.
One field assistant panicked so badly, that he turned around to run, waving his machete around (a high-quality aruval from Tirunelveli – where very serious aruvals are made!). And, narrowly missed disembowelling me – it cut through my shirt and caught on a button. For a couple of seconds all of us just stared at him, too shocked to say anything – and then everyone started shouting at him. We were interrupted by the sound of thundering footsteps and the ground started shaking. And looked up to see about 8 elephants running away from us. The boot was now on the other foot. The guy who just had panicked decided now to run right after the elephants, shouting at them and showing them who was boss!
But in the end, such illusions are short-lived and everyone knows who the real boss is. I was told an interesting story by the Malampandaram people, who go into the forest with their dogs while out collecting minor forest produce. Apparently the dogs fearlessly bark at any big animal, including even tigers (!). But when they sense an elephant, they just whimper, put their tails between their legs and try to sink into the earth!