The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, March 9, 2003

Tragic tale of the tusker
Rajnish Wattas

Tusker: The Story of the Asian Elephant.
by Vivek Menon. Penguin Enterprise. Pages 258. Rs 395.

Tusker: The Story of the Asian Elephant.INDIAN children are usually fond of elephants. Memories of an elephant ride in a mela or watching an elephant’s antics in a circus, constitute the treasure trove of childhood memories. Above all Ganesha — the lovable elephant-headed God — is a favourite of artists. What a pity this second largest land animal on earth is today a threatened species in its own house of worship!

This book is an authoritative account of what the ivory trade in Asia has done to the plight of the elephant. "It chronicles the threats that are posed by the demand for ivory products and the consequent poaching, the politics that keep these threats alive, and the fight to save the species."

The author of the book is a passionate ‘save the pachyderm’ crusader — and the pursuit is a magnificent obsession. A multifaceted biologist, conservation expert and wildlife photographer, he as spent more than 10 years on the trail of the tusker, researching on its survival and on poaching for ivory.

The book covers a number of issues concerning the Asian elephant. The various chapters range from the very basic descriptions of the animal to myths and legends woven around it in various cultures and the threats to its existence.


The focus of the book then shifts to the menace of poaching, various ways of killing the elephant, male-female ratio and the nefarious ivory trade. While many people believe that natural resources can be exploited, it needs to be stressed that biodiversity and the protection of endangered species is a priceless issue.

"The Asian elephant is one of the most threatened animals in the world today. It is also the second largest land animal on earth. Barely numbering a tenth of its more famous African cousin, the Asian elephant is threatened by habitat loss, fragmentation, human-elephant conflict and the ivory trade. While all the rest are damaging in the long run, none is more urgent and devastating than poaching for ivory."

To add to the woes of the Asian elephant, only males of the species sport tusks, unlike the African elephant. In many Asian countries, as in India, the elephant is also a tireless worker laying railway tracks, helping in lumber trade or pulling gigantic loads. In fact, some of the eastern states of India there is still the practice of elephants being in government service who even get a ‘pension’ on ‘retirement!’

The threat to the Asian elephant seems less worrying because many are safe in such employment or in performing religious duties as temple elephants, especially in South India.

While Menon is a relentless crusader for saving the tusker, there is also a flip side to the cause. In some parts of India, especially Orissa, an overpopulation of elephants causes them to spill over from jungles to damage crops, homesteads and kill innocent villagers. Or at times there is the case of a rouge elephant going on the rampage — calling for the services of a hunter or a zoo expert to put it to sleep.

Interestingly in some states in India, simple beliefs and superstitions related to the elephant-headed God are continuing to help maintain elephant populations. "The tolerance preached by Hinduism, coupled with the elevated divine status of the elephant, means that retaliation even under duress is mostly unthinkable. There is a superstition in the eastern Indian state of Orissa that harm inevitably befalls an elephant hunter."

Another confusion that exists is regarding their population, as there are no accurate methods of counting their numbers and performing census. "In more close canopy forests in western and central Africa, the same problems exist as in Asia and very often indirect census techniques such as dung counts become the norms."

Alas, this ‘gentle giant’ which has no natural predator is then threatened by only one species on earth which, despite smaller physical proportions, has the cunning and the will to hunt the elephant down: Homo sapiens.

Undoubtedly, the book, a work of great dedication and a magnificent obsession of the author, will interest not only expert and conservationists; but all keen animal lovers. Excellent sketches embellish this immensely readable book.

May the tusker triumph over the poacher — at least in the holy land of the divine Ganesha!