Death by the Trunk of an Elephant

Photo by bugphai/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by bugphai/iStock / Getty Images

It happened last week. A planter died by the trunk of an elephant. Unconscious after he was flung by it, his body fought all night to live. Folks from the village and his kin took him first to the taluk hospital and then to the district hospital, but several of his internals had expired already, crushed when he’d smashed into the ground. There are witnesses and they have no differing accounts — and they’re unanimous in regard to who is to blame.

Such a death as this everybody had been anticipating for some time now, with the very human conviction that somebody would go like this, somebody but them. Everybody was proved right, all but one who was 40 years old, owner of the plantation right next to ours on our east with a stream for a boundary between his place and ours. He wouldn’t have been the one if he hadn’t stopped his car after he’d passed the elephants, if he hadn’t got out and walked back 100 meters in the dark of eleven to watch what they were up to.

The planation that neighbours ours on the west goes by the name of its previous owner, although she sold it some time ago, and a new, Bangalore-based owner tends it. Mala's Thota, people call the property, which means Mala's plantation. A state highway running down to Coorg marks Mala's Thota's western boundary. Across that highway there's the sprawl of the 500-acre IBC plantation, a smaller holding among many that IBC owns.

The night we're speaking of, some eight elephants came waddling through the IBC plantation, and when they reached the highway, paused before the sparse traffic before crossing over to Mala's Thota. While they waited for a safe moment a female in the herd went into labour. The herd circled her, the males looking outward and ready to defend. The female's heaving brought them onto the road a bit, causing vehicular traffic to coalesce, and move in a slow, respectful stream. The elephants slipped and slid on the roadside while making room for trucks and buses, not seeming to mind the inconvenience. In the meantime the female delivered, and the baby began to receive its first ministrations. Two hours later, the herd had still not moved, and villagers from the Hydur village a few minutes away had gathered to look, inhaling the drama, savoring the truce between man and untamed beast.

Folks in these parts have been experiencing the elephant every day: Water tanks whose embankments have collapsed under the weight of elephants bathing; fences and coffee plants trampled down; trees humbled and bent to the ground; trees uprooted and tossed about; whole coffee patches laid waste in a game conceived for the toddler elephant; heaps of fresh dung here and there with bright white mushrooms sprouting on them; deep round footmarks everywhere; and, of course, the stories.

Every day, the aged priest at the small Shiva temple on our plantation goes down the slope from the shrine and fetches a pitcher of water from a spring there. A few months ago, he heard a rustle among the mist-enveloped coffee and seeing what had caused it, he ran back to the temple with all the speed his bony legs could give him. He was still shaken two weeks later. "Just ten feet from me, anna!" Basavanna, who is a respected planter and who manages our property for us, was driving back after an evening at the Planters Club, and he saw elephant silhouettes at the far end among silver oaks. He halted to gauge the danger, but his wife hissed, "Drive, drive!" Puzzled, Basavanna looked about. A single elephant stood brooding some ten yards away, his outline showing in the foliage. His panicked heart and feet and his Pajero shot him out to safety. Then there was the incident of a girl who was chased down to Malegalale village. She ran fast enough to reach her home at the edge of the village. Perhaps the elephant was playing a chase. The elephant circled round a spot a few times, shaking his jowly body, and went back up the slope.

It has been a long time since the elephant lost its titles to these lands. But it has its memory and cannot help feeling ownership of these hills that were once jungle and are now human plantations and human playgrounds. It is making its last stand.

At eleven the herd was still at the roadside, allowing traffic to pass, nodding and swinging heads, jiggling bellies and backsides, waving trunks. The planter of this story drove past them and halted. He climbed out of his car and walked back to the spectacle of elephants in possession of a newborn. The planter admonished the villagers to stand back, warned them of the dangers in scaring a beast with baby. Then he pulled his phone from his pocket and began to shoot and, soon engrossed, crossed his own line. A male from the herd detached itself and came over to him in no great hurry, but full of fury.

Two days ago, on Friday, his family performed final rites for him.