An Elephantine Bashing

We were coming back from Trinco - where we were advising USAID on an electric fence – one of the perks of which was that we got to stay in a fancy hotel on the beach, Chaaya Blu. I was hoping to see eles along the main road close to Habarana but it was a bit too early. So we decided to go inside Hurulu Eco-Park. I went and spoke with the Forest Department guys who run the Eco-Park and they said there were elephants close by. We went in with one of the new trackers, who said that there was a group not far from the entrance.

Soon we spotted the group near a patch of scrub forest and a rocky outcrop, in a logged teak area with shortish grass about 200 m from the road. There was a young adult female feeding out in the open and a few others inside the scrub. We stopped on the road and were observing them.

Then another jeep came and it straightaway went off-road and drove to about 20 m from the elephants. The female was annoyed and did a bit of a threat display but resumed feeding. Slowly some more elephants appeared, and all of them continued to move around at the edge of the scrub. Then another two jeeps came and all of them zoomed up to the eles. People were standing in the jeeps and shouting and talking and the elephants looked pretty uncomfortable.

The elephants gathered at the edge of the scrub in a bunch. Presumably they wanted to across the grass area but the jeeps were blocking them. One of the adult females broke away from the group and approached the jeeps aggressively. Walking at a fast pace with the ears out. The jeeps took off and she charged, chasing behind one jeep for about 100 m.

The jeeps managed to get onto the road and she stopped. Two jeeps kept going and soon disappeared round a corner. The other jeep then started backing up to the elephant who was now standing in the middle of the grassy area, presumably in an effort to get her to charge again... I was telling the tracker that they need to stop this kind of behavior by the jeeps that otherwise the elephants are going to get used to chasing and hammering the jeeps. My tracker got off and yelled at the jeep guy not to go back. The jeep driver yelled back at him to shut up and get back in the jeep! But anyway he stopped reversing and came onto the road again in front of me and stopped. When my tracker got down, the elephant seeing a guy on foot, got scared and immediately turned round and went back into another patch of scrub with her tail and trunk raised.

An older female and three juveniles were feeding in the grass area in front of us and another youngish adult female was between them. The elephants were slowly drifting towards us and after about half an hour they were about 50 m away. Suddenly the young adult female started approaching our jeep ('Jeepy') aggressively at a fast walk - with the ears out and sort of a grim look! When she was about 20 m away I shouted and she stopped about 10 m away. I was wondering if I should go but the jeep in front of me was blocking the road and I decided to stay.

She started grazing about 10 m away and slowly the other elephants too came out to her. Then suddenly she made another move and I shouted again but this time she kept coming and coming and 'BOOM" she smashed into the side of the jeep above the rear wheel with her lowered head. Jeepy rocked violently and the side got bashed in. It was pandemonium with clouds of dust, everyone including the people from the other jeep in front shouting, elephants trumpeting, surrounding Jeepy with ears flared and trunks up. Jenny who was in the back had a close view of the elephant’s head filling the entire opening on the side… She was still pushing us with her head trying to topple us… I was shouting to try and get her to move away as I didn't want to pull off while she was pushing us thinking that we may topple then. Then she moved back and bashed us again, 'WHAM' much harder this time and Jeepy was lifted up on my side about a meter off the ground. Things inside went flying... We were hanging on inside for dear life as it seemed the horizontal was rapidly approaching the vertical! I could see her just behind my shoulder in intimate contact with the crumpled bodywork of Jeepy. Jeepy was tilted on to two wheels and was teetering on the verge of going over, when she stepped off. Jeepy fell back on to the level with a resounding crash! I think another centimeter and Jeepy would have gone over!

All this took probably a few seconds, although it felt like an eternity! Then the first female who was in the patch of scrub - who charged the first jeep, came galloping at full speed to join the party! One grumpy elephant bashing us was bad enough - two would have been just too much. So I quickly started Jeepy and stepped on the gas, beating a hasty retreat! The elephants chased behind us en mass a few steps but thankfully stopped before I hit the jeep in front which seeing me coming also took off! I guess they figured that they taught the nasty jeeps a good lesson - even if they got the wrong jeep!!

Jeepy was a bit badly dented but survived in good enough shape to make it back home to Aladdin (my car mechanics) and TLC (Toyota Land Cruisers need lots of Tendering Loving Care) and no one was injured! Shaken but not stirred as they say!

So that was the first time ever I got bashed by an elephant! I guess the thing to learn is that elephants are not always predictable and it is better to be safe than sorry. I was too confident that she would stop when I shouted and that she would not hit a vehicle that was sitting there quietly and 'not threatening' and annoying them. But I guess our presence was the annoyance and they didn't differentiate one jeep from the other. Come to think of it the one that hit us did have a annoyed look about her all along! Kind of a set chin and a glimmering eye....! Good thing we weren't on foot ... would have been a little final! But then again they probably wouldn't come at you if you were on foot - judging by their response to the tracker getting down. Of course if you are on foot you can only be wrong once!

Everyone said the elephant that hit us was 'Kane-Hila' (hole in ear) but the one that hit us did not have any tears/holes in the ear. The one that chased the other jeep did have some ear tears. So maybe she was Kane-Hila and the one that bashed us was another in the group who was her protégé! Now would that be cultural inheritance? – Handing down the culture of jeep bashing!

Story by Prithiviraj Fernando