Elephant herds (Kabini Stories – 1)

It’s not often that you come back from a safari brimming with stories. There are elephants to report, or big cats, seldom both, and this time with birds added in. I don’t want to cause wildlife fatigue on my blog with just one post to cover them all, so will split them into multiple ones, 3, or maybe 4, in fact. Although, this might actually cause the fatigue am trying to avoid.

Feb-March is the time when elephants congregate at the Kabini backwaters from all around Southern Karnataka. They come from Bandipur, they come from nearby Nagarhole, they travel from Kodagu and Chikmagaluru, many from Hassan. The reason is the same why elephant congregations happen around the world – water. The Kabini backwaters become the main source for the next 3 months until the Monsoons arrive.

One could expect clashes and fights,  but this is mostly a getting together of old friends and relatives. A herd of elephants in the wild is typically just 3 adult cows with calves being reared. But here they form bigger herds, not one super herd, that stays together. So you see around 6-8 elephants together as one herd unlike the usual 3. I don’t know what’s the largest size recorded is.

The day we reached there though, most elephants had disappeared. Even the backwaters saw one lone majestic Makhna grazing by the river. A ‘Makhna’ is a bull that does not have tusks. Why they don’t have is not known, but given the way poaching works, elephants might evolve to having no tusks to survive. It’s not for no reason that no elephant poaching happens in Sri Lanka. They don’t have any tuskers at all, all bulls are Makhnas. It has also been seen that tusks don’t provide any advantage in fighting off rivals. The one in musth typically wins.
Anyhow, this bull stayed around us, letting us click some photos and also observe him for a while. His ears seem to have been torn, maybe some fight with another elephant. The way they graze is usually to pull up grass using their legs and then using their trunks to pull it to their mouths. That’s what he was doing too. When you see a bunch of elephants doing that, it looks like they are dancing.

Makhna elephant
Makhna Bull
After this, we had no further luck with elephants the whole evening, nor in the morning. Most of them had supposedly retired into the forest. There were fire breaks being set up by the forest department to prevent major fires from spreading and this activity had supposedly disturbed them.

The next evening though, the first thing we saw was an elephant herd. There were six of them here, a couple of them hidden in bushes on the other side of the path, and four of them close to us.They saw us and a minor jostle happened where they all got together.
Elephant herd

Elephant herd

Elephant herd

I am not sure if there were any calves here, maybe the third one was an adolescent, but it is possible it was just a young cow and there were no calves in this group. The one on the extreme right seemed to be the matriarch, but the spotter was an absolute asshole and we did not want to ask him any questions.

Elephant herd

As we continued towards the backwaters we saw more elephants there, some 3 of them in fact. We saw one on our right and 2 on our left. As we passed, we looked back and noticed one of them charging hurriedly across the path. She was followed by another elephant who charged and trumpeted, and vanished into the bushes. We figured there might be a predator there that might have disturbed them, and moved on to another point from where we could see them better.


This point of course showed us not one, but multiple herds, many with calves. In the one below, there are 2 herds, one in the foreground and the other in the background. We could not see what caused the disturbance, but the herd was in a defensive lookout around a calf.

Elephant herd
Herd enclosing a calf
A few minutes later they became more relaxed and you could see the calf. It could’ve been all the safari jeeps that caused them the disturbance. Don’t miss the one trying to get into the frame on top of the matriarch in the centre.

Elephant herd

Elephant herds are fun to observe because they constantly interact with each other, and their calves are good fun to watch. The elephant behind has decided it can’t get in the frame and has resigned to being there, but the calf is visible now surrounded by its herd, while one elephant wants to tell the matriarch something. The photos aren’t that great as I cropped them from bigger ones.
Elephant herd

The one below is another herd, this on the left of the frame above. I could not capture the whole thing in one frame. There’s an adolescent tusker in the herd, who most likely will get kicked out of the herd in a year or two. Two other cows were circling each other. Not sure what they were trying to prove.

Elephant herd

The last one is the herd at the background, the calf was pretty young and it slipped while climbing up a slope. A few seconds on it regained ground and walked with the herd. A less assholish spotter and we could’ve spent more time with this herd. Again, apologies for the quality of the photo, the focus was elsewhere as I was trying to capture the behaviour ASAP.

We saw only one cow later on, but the spotter was already dismissing them “only elephants”. We noticed that the herd was in the bushes, but that was our luck with elephants. Maybe another year with a better spotter.



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