It was around 10:30 a.m. on a Friday this past June that a close friend and wildlife enthusiast, Mohan was driving me down the winding hills of Ooty -- a hill station in southern India. We were on our way to a wildlife sanctuary in Wynad, a village in the southern state of Kerala, India.
Suddenly Mohan's phone rang. It was a distress call from a forest warden desperately trying to save an elephant. It had slipped and fallen into a two-metre deep trench (that separated the forest and village). The mighty animal that frequented the village couldn't make it this day. The torrential rains made its path too slippery to cross over to the village, and the tusker supposedly fell into the trench sometime after the dusk.
Mohan reported back the situation and I hastily said, "Let's go." I wasn't about to miss out on a once in a life-time experience, a rescue mission that would leave an indelible impression in my heart...
It seemed like an illusion as Mohan drove his old Subaru like a maniac through the narrow, crowded streets of India, dodging the street hawkers. We were on our way to pick up a GPS collar that would track the elephant's future movements. After a few 100 kilometres of driving, we approached the accident site. A potent stench of manure filled the air, and we knew we were just yards from the accident.
At least a thousand villagers had gathered to witness the drama unfold. Mohan parked his car, grabbed the collar and we swiftly made our way pushing through the crowd, only to be confronted by a human wall of wardens and officers, who'd cordoned off the animal.
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I walked past one of the wardens and peered into the ditch. There it was! The mammoth creature with its most coveted tusks, covered in slush, lying helplessly in a precarious position. Its feet were up in the air, back squeezed against the trench wall, eyes wide open, and trunk swaying.
I wasn't prepared for anything like this! The pathetic plight of one of the most powerful beasts on earth was too amazing for me to bear.
The only solution to freeing the giant is to widen the trench. To do just that, demolition equipment was hooked with a fork basket moved into the zone, as the vibration of its engine echoed through the forest and penetrated into the earth. The poor elephant displayed symptoms of stress, with its trunk swaying rapidly and feet kicking in the air.
The only way to relax him was with tranquillizers. A veterinarian dedicated to rescuing and healing elephants, shot a long thick needle into one of its hind legs. So began a delicate rescue operation, as the gentle giant drifted into sweet slumber.
Now, we were in for some nail biting moments. The digging operation began with a fork basket scooping up the mud from the trench wall and dropping it on the other side. The scariest moment for me was watching the fork basket land right next to the beast. At one point I yelled "watch out for his ears," as the warden gave me a cold look. I sheepishly apologized, and tried to remain calm.
It took about an hour to widen the trench. The next step is to install the GPS collar to track his movements and potentially thwart another such mishap. They measured his neck and installed the collar in a matter of minutes.
Mission accomplished! Trench widened and collar installed...
Now it's time to awaken the animal. No sooner a shot of "energy booster" was injected into a vein in his left ear, everyone moved out of the trench. More tensed moments ensued, as we eagerly waited for the elephant to regain consciousness! Ten minutes went by...and then 15...but no signs of revival.
Meantime, the villagers began to gather around the beast and make sounds, so he could muster up strength to rise on his feet and return to the jungle. It felt so surreal to witness such unconditional love being bestowed upon the animal. During those moments the human-wildlife conflict had melted away. I vividly remember thinking, what if this had happened in Africa? Obviously, the ending would've been tragic.
Anyhow, 45 minutes after the booster was administered, the trunk began to move slowly, then the legs, and finally gathering all its strength the magnificent creature raised to its feet, turned toward the direction it arrived and took a few steps. But soon it lost its footing and landed on the ground with a heavy thud, only its massive belly rising and landing.
Two vets and four helpers hurried down the trench to administer another potent shot of energy booster. Also, in an effort to make it easier for the elephant, the demolition crew began to remove every ounce of loose mud from its pathway. This time around a rope tied to the elephant's collar was connected to a crane hook to aid the elephant stand. It took another half hour for the vulnerable creature to finally rise on its feet. However, after taking a few steps he collapsed again.
By now it was 4 p.m., almost eight hours since the rescue operation began in earnest. No luck thus far! As I glanced at the veterinarian, he was pacing back and forth with a hopeless look on his face. The warden standing next to me said the elephant could have sustained serious injuries to its vertebrae, and if so, the animal would have to be euthanized.
Meantime Mohan rushed towards me, and with a worrisome look said, "We better leave, as you won't be able to handle a tragedy that could unfold," I ignored the suggestion, as tears streamed down my face, although deep down I knew I'd have to leave soon. We had a long drive back to Ooty, and I had to return to Mumbai the next day.
As we walked back to our car I noticed the brave vet returning to the elephant; he wasn't about give up that easy. We drove back with heavy hearts, leaving behind the commotion. Along our way we spotted seven more elephants happily grazing on the jungle's corridor, hundreds of spotted deer, and a sloth bear. But nothing could console this restless soul, as the fate of the fallen elephant continued to haunt me.
I made several phone calls to the WWF representative. But alas! No answer on the other end...finally at around 7:30pm as we were driving up the hair-pin bends, and nearing Ooty, the phone rang. I answered, and a familiar voice on the other end of the line said, "Just moments back the elephant left for the jungle."
Couldn't have asked for a happier ending to one of the most adventurous journeys of my life. As we continued our drive back home, I couldn't help but think: "What a love-hate relationship indeed between humans and the wild!"