Elephants in the wild. Here’s a trunk show you’ll surely love!

Spotting these majestic animals in the forest is a wonderful experience. Here’s how you can have jumbo-sized adventures across India.

The elephant is a majestic mammal that has inspired awe for its size down the ages. The Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) can be found in three sub-groups – the Indian, the Sumatran, and the Sri Lankan, and is smaller than the African elephant although it can reach up to 21 feet in length and weigh even up to 11,000 pounds!

But size isn’t all that matters. Their brains are said to be just as complex as those of humans, with the same number of neurons, which means that they can not only remember (the colossal elephant memory is legendary) but they can also feel emotions such as love and sorrow, can be playful as well as helpful, and even mourn each other and observe death rites just as we do! And they are one of the few species that are intelligent enough to recognise themselves in a mirror.

Elephant, wildlife, asian elephant, indian wildlife
A family of elephants enjoys by the water at Kaziranga National Park. Image: Shutterstock/Nejib Ahmed.

They have a complex social structure just as we do too. The herds are usually headed by the oldest and largest female elephant, the matriarch. While females mature sexually by the age of nine, and can have a calf almost every four years, the males reach maturity only by 14 years. When they do, they usually leave the herd and strike out on their own or form ‘bachelor gangs’ that hang out independently. The females among Asian elephants don’t have tusks. Even if they have some semblance of tusks, they are just rudimentary and are called ‘tushes’.

Lone bull tuskers are quite aggressive, and it’s best to steer clear of them, especially when they’ve gone into a phase called ‘masth’, during which their testosterone levels are 100 times higher than otherwise. I’ve been charged by one in Nagarhole and, thankfully, lived to tell the tale! He not only made a show of rushing at the safari vehicle I was in, but also persisted even after we drove away, chasing us for quite a while from various angles! The females in a herd, as placid and peaceful as they appear, can also be quite fierce if there’s a newborn calf to protect.

Elephant, wildlife, asian elephant, indian wildlife
Wild Asian elephant mother and baby, Corbett National Park, India. Image: Shutterstock/Mogens Trolle.

But this is what makes spotting elephants in the wild so exciting. Don’t be swayed by tour operators who try to sell you ‘experiences’ that involve feeding or bathing elephants or, worse, riding them! While it’s nice to help out the elephant orphanages that are operating responsibly, it’s infinitely better to catch the pachyderms in their own habitat, watch them enjoying themselves in their own element.

Fortunately, India has a vibrant (relatively) population of elephants despite it going into the endangered category because of habitat loss and poaching. Even though the ivory trade was banned as far back as 1975, the beautiful beasts are still illegally hunted for their magnificent tusks. And then there’s the man-animal conflict that often raises its ugly head as we continue to encroach on their territory, replacing their regular walking corridors with farms, and then bemoan the loss of livelihood when they trample our crops.

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Are the elephants crossing our roads? Or are our roads intersecting their traditional trails? Image: Shutterstock/Atish Banerjee.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests started Project Elephant in 1992 to save the elephant, which was declared endangered in 1986. Forest officials have gone above and beyond the call of duty to save them, especially in the 32 elephant reserves. Since 2010, the elephant has even been declared India’s National Heritage Animal. According to the most recently estimated population figures, there are about 50,000-60,000 Asian elephants in the world, with more than 60 per cent of them in India.

The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change is working to identify and secure elephant corridors in the country. Soon, there will also be an official elephant count just as there is a tiger census.

Their fortunes seem to be on the rise. And now that you’re interest in these intelligent giants has been piqued, here are some of the best forest clusters to travel to if you are keen on spotting elephants in their natural habitat in India…

Karnataka

Bandipur: Stay at The Windflower Jungle Resorts & Spa and enjoy safaris into the Bandipur National Park, which is part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. Tigers are plentiful in this sanctuary, but it was just as rewarding to see the elephants, especially some really naughty babies when I was here.  

Nagarhole/Kabini: Stay at Kaav Safari Lodge, Evolve Back Kabini, or The Serai Kabini, for access to the forest as well as Kabini river safaris, which, I found, are both great ways to spot elephants.

Elephants, wildlife, asian elephant, indian wildlife
Female elephants with her calves of different ages in Kaziranga National Park. Image: Shutterstock/Aditya Singh.

Assam

Manas: Stay at Musa Jungle Retreat and explore the Manas National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Bansbari mountain range in the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas. The river Manas, a huge tributary of the Brahmaputra, and five other rivers flowing through the park are perfect places to see large herds of elephants.

Kaziranga: Although it’s known for its population of Indian one-horned rhinos, I also enjoyed seeing the elephants grazing in the grasslands and in the deep forests as well. Stay at Borgos while you’re here to explore the Kaziranga National Park, also a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Kerala

Periyar/Thekkady: Stay at Spice Village – CGH Earth and visit the Periyar National Park for forest trails and boat safaris around the manmade lake.

Wayanad: The plush Vythiri Resort is a good launching point for forays into the many different elephant-rich forests that abound here. I loved the tall and dense bamboo thickets through which the sun struggles to reach the forest floor and the wind sighs mysteriously through the day.

Elephants, wildlife, asian elephant, indian wildlife
Herd of wild elephants grazing at Thekkady. Image: Shutterstock/Manoj.Attingal.

Odisha

Simlipal: The Simlipal National Park named for the ‘simul’ or Silk Cotton tree that abounds in the area, has some beautiful waterfalls like Joranda and Barehipani. Thanks to the abundance of water and grasslands, you’ll surely see a herd of elephants on safari here. Stay at Lulung Aranya Nivas.

Uttarakhand

Corbett/Rajaji: Check in to The Riverview Retreat from where a jeep safari can help you enjoy the rich bio diversity and follow the elephant trails in the Jim Corbett National Park as well as Rajaji National Park.  

Did you know?

  • An elephant’s trunk has 60,000 muscles and is versatile enough to breathe, communicate, feed, drink, spray, grasp, and much more. It’s delicate enough to pick a blade of grass and strong enough to uproot a tree!
  • An elephant takes 20-22 months to fully form in its mother’s womb before it is born, and is dependent on her for milk for another three years.
  • An elephant can live up to about 70 years.
  • You’ll find the Asian elephant in many different types of landscapes, from scrubland to grasslands, deciduous forests to dense bamboo thickets, riverine deltas to mountainous regions.
  • The pure vegetarian animal feeds on everything from grass to stems, leaves, fruit, and sometimes even tree bark! And it requires between 80 to 200 litres of water daily.

Read more.

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