Elephant Stories (Maasai Mara Stories – 4)

We really wanted to see a lot of elephants in Maasai Mara. They were one of my main draws. Bigger, heavier than Asian elephants, Savanna elephants are the largest and heaviest land animals on the planet! We expected to see a fair lot of them grazing, but came across them only thrice! We hoped to see more in Nakuru, but our guide categorically dismissed all such hopes – “No elephants in Nakuru.”

We went through two hours on the first evening without any sign of elephants. The next morning as we were starting on our all-day drive towards the Mara river, we saw a bunch of vehicles stopped on the road and folks in them looking into the distance. Turned out that there was a herd in the bush. It was a largish herd, with a massive matriarch.
Elephant herd
Elephant herd, calf shows up
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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
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The charge of the elephant herd…

So it was that me and a colleague decided to do the 5 hour drive to Bandipur for 2 out of 5 days of the long weekend between Oct 24th and 28th. The drive was pleasant and quiet thanks to my deciding to dump Mysore Road entirely and drive along Kanakapura-Malavalli-Kollegal-Chamarajnagar-Gundlupet to Bandipur. It added some 12Km but gave us quiet, peaceful roads with barely any other vehicles around and, most importantly, absolutely nil trucks encountered until Chamarajnagar! Leaving at 7:45 AM with some excellent Masala Dosas at Vasu Hotel in Kanakapura for breakfast on the way and with a brief stopover at Shivanasamudram we ended up at MC Resort, bang near the entrance to the Tiger reserve at 1 PM. They had initially asked us to take the Govt Safari, the 45 mins one, but at the last moment said they were running their own Safari and it would be the 2.5 hours one for Rs. 1250 each. All this last-minute confusion owing to the SC order banning and then revoking the ban on tourist activity inside tiger reserves.

We were picked up from the resort at 3:30 PM, 15 minutes earlier than the time they had told us. There were three others already waiting in the van, whom we guessed were Wildlife photographers. The cameras had big-ass lenses and they even wore dulled out camouflage or light brown clothes. You can always make out the more experienced guys on a safari from the newbies. I myself stick to the recommended green and brown to blend in. I used to find it amusing, considering that all mammals except for primates are colour-blind, but later came to know that bright colours like red, yellow etc have their grey counterparts which still stand out in the surroundings, while green and brown blend in better and don’t disturb wildlife as much. The safari jeeps and vans are always dull-green/brown for that reason.
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