Till a few years back, a gentle pachyderm roamed the jungles of Rajaji National Park. The gentle giant, aptly named Tipu attained iconic status by displaying a unique brand of personality. He was fearless, he was a chronic crop raider, he was electrocuted by humans from which he recovered miraculously, he was radio collared which he dutifully discarded after a few years. He lived up to the age of 65 amidst all the dangers that tuskers experience as they struggle to adopt to the growing greed of human beings and the unbalanced need for development at the expense of forests.
Tipu’s feats attain extraordinary proportions when one considers that he was born prior to Independence and grew up amidst extensive grasslands and forests. As he grew up, large tracts of his habitat got gradually taken over by crop fields and human settlements. However, contrary to common wisdom, Tipu did not consider humans as his enemy. He simply readjusted and added the sugarcane and paddy grown by farmers within his home range to his menu. And he never killed a human being during his long life!
Unlike his peers, Tipu was not apprehensive of crossing the road and railway track in the Chilla-Motichur corridor area which served as the bridge between the two halves of Rajaji National Park. The exponential increase in vehicles and railway traffic in the corridor made most of his peers apprehensive but Tipu remain unfazed. He stuck to his usual routine and showed complete disdain to the vehicle movement while moving from one part of the forest to the other. It was largely due to him that the Chilla-Motichur corridor was saved by leveraging the knowledge gained via his radio collar. He was indeed the catalyst who reiterated the exceptional ability of bull elephants to move across disturbed areas and maintain the link between fragmented areas.
At his prime, Tipu governed a range close to 800 sq. km and it is extremely likely that his legacy would continue for a long time via his offsprings. Tipu was born free under colonial rule and breathed his last in Independent India. However, his end did not come via a collision with a train or a truck plying at high speed. Nor did he succumb to the stray bullet of a poacher. Tipu sustained severe injuries while confronting a much younger bull over a young female and fell down from the Motichur railway bridge. For a wildlife lover, Tipu epitomized the hope that man and elephants can co-exist after all. And for a romantic, he embodied the free spirit, the ability to live one’s life as per one’s own terms. Tipu does not have an epitaph that he can call his own but if he ever gets one, the following words would be apt.
“They say that somewhere in Africa the elephants have a secret grave where they go to lie down, unburden their wrinkled gray bodies, and soar away, light spirits at the end.”
― Robert McCammon, Boy’s Life
As we planned our trip to Rajaji National Park, my mind was preoccupied with Tipu’s exploits across the length and breadth of the national park. I was brimming with excitement at the prospect of seeing young bulls who may be the torch bearers of Tipu’s legacy. I read and re-read Anita Nair’s beautiful travelogue “The elephants are coming”. I hoped our sojourn to the forest would replicate these lines from her travelogue “In Wayanad, the road to celebrityville begins with the elephant. Everyone, almost everyone has an elephant tale to tell. Elephant wisdom to disseminate; elephant theories to propound and an I-don’t-know-how-I-lived-to-tell-you-this-encounter with an elephant”.
And we were not disappointed. Elephants were everywhere! Our taxi driver narrated stories of his numerous elephant encounters during our back breaking journey to the forest resort. The stories continued to pour in from the resort staff, guide and practically anyone we met and interacted with.
Rajaji National Park lived up to its billing of being the host to one of the largest Asian Elephant population in the country. As soon as we entered the forest in the morning, we heard the rustling of leaves and soon enough we could sense their presence. We did not get a good view of the animals but our guide assured us that we would have plenty of opportunities to see them in the afternoon.
We decided to shift our focus and were not disappointed. The birds of the park enthralled us. The Bee eaters, Kingfishers, Hornbills, Eagles took our breath away and for a while we stopped thinking about elephants.
Following a quick lunch, we were back at the park. The first encounter with Tipu’s clan came via a baby elephant who seemed to have strayed from her mom. While we could not see her, we could almost sense her presence and her stern voice “back off”.
We headed forward and came across a young family on the river bed. The setting sun, the presence of a pair of Spotted Deer and the family’s nonchalant walk towards the bush made it an almost surreal experience.
But our Tipu moment arrived when the guide stopped the jeep abruptly as we were coming down from the cliff. He pointed to the lone bull happily munching grass on the river bed below. The languid posture of the bull, unhurried and unfazed by his surroundings gave us a glimpse of the aura that Tipu was associated with.
As we were about to leave the park, we came across a herd of 8-10 female elephants. As we watched them carry on with their feeding and bonding session, I could not but help thinking what would it take to ensure that we carry on with each other’s’ lives without getting into a conflict.
I reminded myself that Tipu never retaliated despite being on the verge of losing his life at the hands of humans. I also reminded myself of the extraordinary tale of South African elephants paying homage to the man who saved their lives. Here is an excerpt from the article which deepened my respects for Tipu and his clan.
For 12 hours, two herds of wild South African elephants slowly made their way through the Zululand bush until they reached the house of late author Lawrence Anthony, the conservationist who saved their lives.
The formerly violent, rogue elephants, destined to be shot a few years ago as pests, were rescued and rehabilitated by Anthony, who had grown up in the bush and was known as the “Elephant Whisperer.”
For two days the herds loitered at Anthony’s rural compound on the vast Thula Thula game reserve in the South African KwaZulu – to say good-bye to the man they loved. But how did they know he had died March 7? Read more here