Know your mammoths

telly talk

An elephant is simultaneously the most common ‘wild’ animal we know, as well as the one which we least understand. Animal Planet has come forward to help us understand this complex animal in their new programme called Gaj Raaj.

In India, the elephant has been domesticated for thousands of years, and we have fallen into the habit of regarding it just as we would any other domesticated animal, like perhaps a dog. Sadly, we fail to understand the elephant’s complexity for the very same reason. Elephants are curiosities of nature, and often used as crowd draws based on that fact. They are an integral part of our mythology, and suitably revered, but once again, this undermines the necessity of understanding them.

They can work hard; they get treated like unpaid employees. Nobody wonders about unpaid employees’ lives, right? And then, they are vermin when they ‘raid and destroy’ human property and hurt human beings; then they are hunted and hounded. Therefore, the close contact we have with elephants in this country has led to an indifference to the animal itself — its life and its needs are ignored.

The elephant is a highly developed species, anatomically, physiologically and psychologically. Its intelligence is considered to be on par with cetaceans (dolphins and whales) and primates (apes). Its family structure is highly complex, and its behaviour is similar to that of humans sometimes. Their knowledge of self, ability to appreciate art and music, and memory of old friends and family, make us wonder about the invisible line we have drawn to distinguish man from other animals. Their gentleness, deliberate actions and curiosity attract our attention and make us think: Are they like us, or are we like them?

Elephants live in families, made up of individuals, and interact with others, much like our own. Killing one while poaching or as a truant is actually murder of a family member, and affects the whole family. And this gives a whole new perspective on restriction of elephant migrations by the constriction of their corridors in the forests. It becomes a lot like Indian and Pakistani, or North and South Korean families that cannot travel and visit freely across borders. We raise our voices in protest against this difficulty faced by people; who speaks for the elephants?

Animal Planet’s programming special Gaj Raaj, seeks to change this situation. It takes viewers into the world of elephants to witness their social behaviour, their significance to society, their habitats and the threats they face. It covers the three living species of the animal — the African, the Asian, and the pygmy elephants of Borneo. And it talks of the efforts taken to conserve this animal. The photography is very good, and the narrative is hard-hitting.

It also gives many factoids about elephants: Elephants consume about 5 per cent of their body weight (3,150-5,940 kg) and drink 136-227 litres of water per day.

Elephants are right or left tusked, using the favoured tusk more often, thus shortening it from constant wear.

Elephants live in small family groups; led by an experienced matriarch. The males are usually solitary.

After mating it takes 22 months for the female elephant to give birth to the babies.
The first step to managing any situation is to understand it and empathise with it. So any meaningful management of wild elephants in our country has to start from educating ourselves about these complex and wonderful animals and building an emotional relationship with them. This programme is a positive step in that direction.

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