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The Australian Woman's Weekly Saturday April 10, 1937

This article is titled:  Trible Call

By W- Gilhespy

 

ROWSING as they went, resting as chose, bathing whenever they felt inclined, the elephants marched slowly through the forest. 

 

There were but eleven of them, one of the families that had broken away from the main herd during the last "round up," when a number of them had been captured for service and the rest allowed to go free. For a month they had traveled north-east, then westward for a while, and now were heading due south, probably in obedience to some tribal instinct that bade them rejoin the main body. 

 

So quietly they traveled that the sound of their great feet on the moist jungle paths could scarcely be heard, at even a short distance.

 

In the clinging gloom of the deep forest, they could have passed unnoticed by any human being.  But the denizens of the jungle, with keener sight and scent and hearing, marked their progress. One beast alone watched them with greedy eyes, but the striped terror of the jungle was too wise to approach closely. The mother elephant knew this well, but kept her son very close to her side; her offspring should make no meal for a hungry tiger. He was very fond of roaming by day, but not for a moment would she -let him leave her side after darkness fell. Dawn would see them all browsing, after which they would spend an hour or two in some forest pool and rest during the heat of the day.

 

They passed Hurripoor, a collection of tiny villages set amid cultivated clearings in the very heart of the jungle, where the rich, black, humus-laden soil yields three heavy crops every year. The paw-paw trees carried fruit of prodigious size, the melons were ripe and luscious and the breeze that kissed the gold-ripe guavas wafted temptation, to man and bird and beast.

 

It carried an Invitation to the elephant herd. The smell of the ripening maize was tantalizing and the rustling of the sugarcane tops whispered a welcome. After their terrifying experience when the hunters drove their fellows into the keddah (elephant trap), they were loath to approach the haunts of men, but the scent of the ripe guavas, what elephant could resist that?

 

When the soaring kite looked down on an awakening- world and the jackal was slinking home to his lair, there was not an elephant to be seen-and very few guavas on the trees.  The peasants were waiting with drums and conches the next night. The hideous din reminded the elephants of the last stage of the "drive," when they saw their kindred hustled into the huge stockade and they fled.

 

The peasants complained to the Deputy Collector, who forwarded their petition to the District Collector, who sent it on to the Commissioner. The official who was sent to investigate returned to headquarters and reported that the elephants had disappeared. They had.

 

Among the cultivated clearing Between Meeraganj and Pharranpoor, they were again reducing the peasants to despair. Once more the weary round of fruitless complaints and inquiries began. Then the herd found the nursery beds belonging to the Forest Department, and in three joyful nights destroyed the labors of three years, Wilkinson of the Forests, viewed the damage and said very little, he was a worker not a talker. He swung his wiry body into the saddle and rode to the telegraph office within the hour-fourteen miles along a jungle track.  Trees to him were more precious than fine gold, and the sight of those tender saplings trampled into the soil made him shudder, as though he had seen some sentient thing maimed and dying. He wasted no time in sending futile reports. He had no love for red tape, employed the direct method of getting things done. In less than twelve hours the men of the Keddah Department were speeding north.

 

This department is responsible for wild elephants in Government forests, and its men had been sent to capture the herd with the least possible delay.  Wilkinson and his subordinates gave them the benefit of their local knowledge and helped them choose a site for the keddah. Then they went back to their trees, leaving the actual capture to those men who alone understand it. For only the elect may capture and train elephants, only the men who have been born and reared to the profession. Any Indian-if his caste laws permit-may become a camel driver, a groom, or a bullock driver, but NOT a mahout. Only the son of a mahout may drive an elephant.

 

It is an arduous, often precarious calling, and they left nothing to chance. They studied the lie of the land and they studied the elephants, individually and collectively.

 

Swiftly and accurately they noted their ages, customs, and peculiarities of temperament. They knew which would be likely to put up a fight and which would be easily compelled to follow the stronger characters. They then got to work. Other men had the keddah ready, the delicate task of driving the elephants into it fell to the artists. Very cautiously the animals were turned In the direction of the stockade, without knowing that they were being guided. When their care-free wanderings took them in a westerly direction a faint whiff of burning brushwood turned them eastwards. There they heard the far-off sound of an ax. From the north, the distant echoes of drums mingled with the sighing of the breeze that stirred the tree-tops. There was nothing to alarm them, nothing close enough or loud enough to stampede them.  Just enough of the scents and sounds that elephants dislike to keep them moving towards the keddah.

 

Then, when they were within two miles of the carefully-hidden trap, the big cow took alarm. Some subtle instinct warned her of danger, and she wheeled eastward.  A coolie hidden in a tree-top blew a whistle, and she turned northward, the rest of the herd closed in. But the men who were guiding the drivers had anticipated her movement, every movement an elephant could possibly make. Northward there were thin spirals of smoke, westward there was suspicious movement among the undergrowth, and the only road that seemed clear of danger lay due south.

 

Southward, they went at an increased pace. Once more the cow stopped, for her calf was missing again. He was given to roaming by day and was quite big enough to find his way back to the herd, so she had ceased to let his wanderings distress her. Now that danger threatened she wanted to find him and tried to turn back. 

 

The time for gentle measures had passed.

 

The mahouts knew that the calf was not in the round-up and that if the mother should break back to find him, the rest of the herd would follow and all their labor would go for nothing.  Only by bold measures could they accomplish their task now, so the preconcerted signal was given.

 

Now, from every direction except the south, their foes appeared. Tom-toms, conches and cymbals raised a hideous clamor, but the riotous discord was as nothing to the shrill yells of the coolies, for the wild elephant fears the human voice above all other sounds. Forward they rushed; they were between the great pawlings that stretched out on either side of the enclosure when the mother elephant made her last effort to escape.

 

She was too late.  The rest of the herd, terrified by the awful clamor, pressed forward by the yelling crowd, herded by huge tame elephants, urged her through the opening and she was powerless to resist.  The captors paused, the great bars were dropped into place and the herd rushed madly round the keddah, vainly seeking a way of escape.

 

And, while the captives were seeking a way of escape from the keddah, there was one elephant that was anxious to enter. Just when his mother's instinct had warned him of danger, the baby elephant had been pursuing a course parallel to that followed by the herd. His first intimation of peril was his mother's call, his second the sight of a hunter hiding among the bushes The calf stopped, stared in amazement and tried to rejoin the herd. Another man appeared and the youngster tried to make a detour. 

 

He was too late. The leading hunter saw the baby, hesitated for a second only and realized the danger. To give the calf time to rejoin his mother might give the herd time to break back, so he gave the order to hustle.  So, as the baby advanced the men rushed forward-between the herd and himself. As the last resolute drive sent the great beasts into the keddah, his infantile courage failed him and he fled into the jungle. 

 

Lonely, hungry, and disconsolate he stood in deep shadow and watched. For three days and nights he hovered near, then from the keddah there came such squealings and trumpetings as drove him far into the gloomy recesses of the jungle.

 

He could still hear shrill trumpetings of fear, rage, or defiance, for the taming of the elephants had begun. Tame elephants carrying experienced mahouts on their backs entered the enclosure and the bars were fastened behind them.

 

Day by day the taming was continued, without hustle and without delay. A fortnight later the first great lesson had been learned. They were by no means docile, but they had been taught much, and knew now that man was not the enemy they had believed him to be, that he was, after all, a harmless kind of creature who knew much more about them than they did about him.

 

They had still to learn that the puny creature who had outwitted and ensnared them in their own Jungle was one who would treat them kindly and yet knew how to extract obedience, so they were taken to a training camp to learn it.

 

They left the keddah in batches, each captive chained and guarded by highly trained decoys. The baby watched them from a distance, longing to follow, but afraid. He had winded his mother, but the sight of those trained elephants with men on their backs and necks was too terrifying, and he sought the dense cover of the forest.  He was often hungry, for deer Were plentiful and had taken heavy toll of the lower branches, where the sweetest and most satisfying forage was to be found.

 

His wanderings took him to where the herd had destroyed the young trees, but the voices of the coolies who were preparing fresh nursery beds reached him and he turned aside. He knew that he would not find the elephants there, so he traveled on to the clearings and the orchards he had helped to destroy.  The smell of the cooking fires and the dreaded scent of man halted him. and again he hid in the jungle. But hunger made him bold, and an hour before dawn he feasted on guavas, mangoes, and melons, his first satisfying meal since he lost his mother.

 

He fed well, grew stronger, and more confident, and at last his confidence was his undoing. Forest fare did not satisfy him as well as did the tender green crops, the ripe melons or the luscious ripe fruit, and he lived almost entirely on that which he stole.  The peasants soon learned that their ordinary methods of keeping jungle marauders at a distance had failed. Their reports of the damage done were disregarded, so they held a council.

 

It lasted till nearly morning, and while the elders were making long speeches, the little elephant was making another raid. Then the younger men took matters into their own hands and dug a pit.  The authorities had turned a deaf ear to their complaints. Wilkinson was one who attended strictly to his own business and would not interfere unless his beloved trees were damaged. The elders would make interminable speeches that led to nothing, so the younger generation decided on the calf's death.

 

Making a pit and covering it with brushwood and dead leaves and earth was a simple matter; inducing the baby to enter it was not, so they dug another and he avoided that. They dug pits all around the clearing, and all they caught was a decrepit donkey that, according to their custom, they had turned out to die when he was no longer fit for work.

 

Then a little mongrel succeeded where her master and his friends had failed. She had a litter of puppies under a broken bullock cart near the mango trees; the little elephant approached too close for her liking, and mother love making her bold, she rushed out at him, yelping her rage. Nothing dismays an elephant more than a mouse running round his feet, or the barking of a little cur, and the youngster fled in terror. He trumpeted his dread when he fell into the pit. and the peasants rejoiced.

"Let him lie there till morning," they decreed.

 

Mahomed Din, the hunter, arrived at dawn, but the man whose land adjoined the pitfall objected to having any execution there. "Take the brute away Into the jungle and slay him there, if ye wish his death, he hath not harmed my crops," he declared. "If the servants of the Government learn that he was killed near my holding the blame will fall upon me." 

 

The consultation that followed lasted till midday. Then a rope was slipped under the captive and willing hands hauled on it. But even a young elephant is no lightweight, he struggled frantically, and the rope slipped. His captors were inexperienced and hurt him; while the rope was being readjusted he squealed in pain and fear, and his mother heard him. Her education was proceeding satisfactorily, and with the rest of the captives, she was carrying fodder to the training camp.

 

Steadily they marched, browsing as they went, an experienced elephant In the lead and another in the rear. Even these stopped when they heard that Infantile wail-but, not the mother-there was no stopping her.

 

No longer was she the slave of man. She wheeled to the right and her trumpet call echoed through the forest. It told of apprehension, of anger, of savage determination to succor her off-spring. She trumpeted again the call that'every wild beast instinctively obeys-the tribal call for aid. Every beast in the troop followed in her wake. They crashed through the Jungle, trampling down saplings and leveling the undergrowth.

 

The baby called again, the mother answered and the villagers fled as she made straight for the pit. There she halted and knelt, crooning the mother elephant's song, the song that few men ever hear and that none can describe.  She felt her baby all over with the tip of her trunk, then she tried to raise him from the pit, tried again and failed.

 

She rose to her feet, walked to the other side of the pit and tried again. But she was too cautious to go close to the edge and could not get her trunk under the captive. Then she stood up, stepped back and deliberately pushed the edge of the pit in allowing him to escape.

 

The leading mahout rapped out a warning to the men on the half-tamed elephants.

"Jump clear!" he yelled. "That beast will be uncontrollable now. She will lead her young one to the jungle and surely the others will follow. Jump -clear, else your wives will be widows!"

 

The old greybeard knew. The mother wheeled, took three paces backwards and charged the nearest tame elephant. It was the expression of her determination to be free, free to roam her native haunts with her offspring by her side. There was resolution in the gesture, but no malice. It was merely her final repudiation of man's control. Then she turned to the south, guiding her son with her trunk, as though contact with his little body gave her infinite satisfaction. The other beasts followed in their usual order as steadily as though they had never seen a keddah or a camp-as though their past experiences had been but a dream.

 

Sadly the mahouts gathered round their leader. "Shall we not follow, and try to bring them back?" asked a very young mahout. The veteran turned slow, sorrowful eyes on the speaker.

"Wouldst thou capture the morning breeze or grasp a sunbeam in thine hand?" he asked wearily. "Will the sunshine at midnight? Will the dead speak?  Aye," he concluded bitterly, "they may-if ever again the sons of men can drive that herd into a keddah. It is the will of God. Let us go."