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Spotting the Pachyderm


Valmik Thapar

ELEPHAS MAXIMUS: A PORTRAIT OF THE INDIAN ELEPHANT
By Stephen Alter
Penguin Books, New Delhi, India, 2004, pp. 327, Rs. 350.00

VOLUME XXVIII NUMBER 12 December 2004

In the 30 years of my life with wildlife I have never read such an exhilarating and exciting account of trying to spot an elephant in the wilderness of Corbett National Park as is described by Stephen Alter. It is even more exciting than descriptions of locating a tiger in the wild! After several days of searching he finally finds his elephant. “At first it looked like a boulder but then it began to move, stretching out its trunk and tearing off a cluster of leaves.”   This is a book full of a great personal response to elephants and interspersed easily with endless anecdotes and historical accounts of elephants, be it about their origin in myth, or in science. The author is able to move in and out of science and legend with a remarkable ease making it very comfortable for the reader.   There are lovely bits from the great Kabini River where the author meets ‘Papa’ John Wakefield, the director of the River Lodge—a man in his mid-eighties with over half a century of wildlife experience and someone whose storytelling is superbly entertaining. The author’s journals of the area describe the rich elephant habitats and giant bamboo forests of this amazing area that are contiguous with the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. It is a dream area for elephants and it is a place out of this world and where if you are lucky you can see nearly 200 elephants in an evening drive… … …   The author fluently moves in and out of his firsthand experiences of elephant country interspersed with anecdotes from antiquarian books about the wild Asiatic elephant, how it lives, how it was caught and domesticated and so much more. There is a large section on Ganapati and the worship of the elephant God. It is quite clear that more than 28,000 elephants roam our wilderness and are alive are wild only because of the inherent religious belief of the people of this country. It is these people who allow elephants to ravage the countryside and even their own agricultural fields, rather than try and do harm to them. The link between man and elephant is deeply entangled over thousands of years.   Between the great Ganesh festival in Mumbai the author moves in and out of the Elephanta caves and ends up in the Bombay Natural History Society, where there are discussions on elephant conservation. Unfortunately ...


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