Photo by Captain Sarah Armstrong
Soon after we got back to the school, the elephants arrived.
To help the locals overcome their natural fear and hatred of these huge animals – known to them as the wild, uncontrollable beasts that raided their precious crops and destroyed homes – JBS had been bringing the domestic elephants to the school and allowing the children to ride them. It had quickly become tradition following past visits to get the elephants to play a game of football. Unsurprisingly, this was a much-anticipated part of the day’s schedule and the great rush to be onboard an elephant was taken up by children and adults alike.
Once again, many of the children lost out to their parents. However, it was perhaps no bad thing that the adults were also being influenced towards a more positive attitude towards elephants. I suspect, the first elephant football match, more than a decade ago, would have seen far fewer of the population fighting over one another to hop aboard one of these pachyderms, despite their obvious domestication. Progress in building better relationships between man and beast was therefore apparent, even if the cultural acceptance of elders climbing over their youngsters to get aboard them seemed odd to us as spectators.
The game itself was a wonderful spectacle.
Two-a-side trunk ball
Four of the elephants were to play. Each of their houdas packed and overflowing with happy riders. Rajan, JBS and the phanits called order and brought the four enormous players to the centre of the field for a quick discussion of the rules. A whistle blew sharply twice and two pairs of elephants plodded to either end of the pitch.
“Ready?” called JBS from the centre of the field. Rajan placed the ball on the ground. JBS blew the starter whistle and… no one moved.
A count of three as slowly the phanits’ instructions were transferred by leg, to foot, to ear, to brain, to body, to legs and finally movement. An attack elephant from each team began to lumber, at pace, towards the football, leaving a defender behind to protect the goal at the end of the field.
The fastest elephant overshot the ball completely, affording the other team the first touch. Trunk hovered over ball, finding sweet grass instead. The elephant plucked the delicious fodder and tucked her trunk back to her mouth. She chewed contentedly as her comrade on the other team turned around and ambled back towards the ball. Soon two trunks were exploring the meadow around the ball as two phanits sat above trying desperately to get their charges to pick it up. At last, a trunk found the ball, nudging it a few feet. The two attack elephants continued to mill around with no real direction. The ball lay abandoned in the grass.
JBS called a false start and Rajan went to retrieve the ball. The elephants all returned to each end of the field.
Another whistle blow and this time, rather than simply placing it on the ground, Rajan threw the ball into the middle. All four elephants saw it and were off like a shot. Attack and defence strategies were totally forgotten as every elephant charged forward to get the ball. Rajan had to leap back out of the way. Now we had a real game on our hands!
The first elephant reached for the ball with her trunk and scooped it up. But her phanit made her drop it. The idea was that they should kick it with their feet, rather than use their trunks. The ball bounced around under her legs as she tried to back up and retrieve it. She trumpeted in excitement. All three of her fellow competitors gave a resounding honk along with her and soon four elephants were all face forward, the ball lying in the middle. It was anyone’s game.
A second elephant took control of the ball in her trunk, turned and ran towards the goal. All attempts by her phanit to make her drop it and kick were abandoned in the race to the end of the field. Her team-mate protected her flank. The two opposing elephants raced after her. Unfortunately she reached the goal line only to find her own team-mate blocking her path. This gave the opposing team enough time to catch up and fill the gap her team-mate left when she finally extricated herself from in front of the striker. Mild chaos ensued as the phanits tried to negotiate their elephants. Two blocking, one with ball firmly held in the crook of her trunk still trying to score. They appeared to be carrying out a strange, slow motion dance.
Eventually the ball was dropped. One of the elephants from the opposing team plucked it up and managed to get a quarter of the way down the field before being squarely blocked by both members of the other team. This made her drop the ball in turn. Footballs are not the easiest things to hold in a trunk.
The other team took possession, but only for a moment before ball slipped from trunk once more and bounced directly into the path of the opposition. The only elephant who had not yet had the ball finally took it up snorting a high-pitched squeal of delight. I believe this was probably Saraswati. As she ran to the other end of the field, she used her trunk to tuck the ball firmly in her mouth. The crowd went wild. With the ball so securely held, she was able to run at full speed, reaching her destination well ahead of the other players. The whistle blew.
Once again, the players dispersed to either end of the field and, on a whistle blow, Rajan cast the ball into the middle and stepped back out of the way. The fastest elephant, Saraswati’s team-mate, once again overshot the ball a little but was able to back up and recover it before the others reached her. The next moment was a real testament to the observation and learning skills of this amazing species. Rather than running, ball in trunk, this elephant copied Saraswati’s winning tactic, immediately tucking the ball in her mouth and running full pelt to the goal.
Score! Every player trumpeted and snorted in glee, ears flapping and trunks waving and patting one another in delight. They were clearly loving the game.
Sadly it was getting late and the phanits knew their animals could only afford to expend so much energy if they were to also carry us all on a safari back to camp. So time was called and the elephants all returned to the shade of the trees to let their Nepali passengers dismount.
I panned my camcorder round until it landed on Tessa who sat next to me on the bench.
“Hello,” she replied to camera indulgently. “That was a lovely game of elephant football. Even if it was elephant trunk ball… or even elephant mouth ball.”
A sturdy ride
Half an hour later we found ourselves atop four of the domestic elephants. Two were to stay behind to bring the medics home. The rest of us would take a longer safari home in search, as always, for the wild herds.
For the first time I found myself aboard an elephant other than Saraswati. I was squeezed into a houda, along with Duncan, David D-W and Peter, on top of elephant no.4 – the largest (and therefore the eldest and most experienced) of the government elephants.
Relative to Saraswati, this animal had a wide back with musculature that rose up around her spine ridge. This meant her houda rocked less as she walked. Additionally, it turned out that having such an overstuffed houda meant that we were all involuntarily supporting one another. All in all therefore, this was to be my most comfortable elephant ride throughout the entire trip. Oddly, it makes me feel rather unfaithful to the beautiful Saraswati to admit this, but she is young and has much time to build muscle, so I’m sure she’d forgive me for saying so if she knew.
As we left the village, we walked in parallel to the broken elephant fence. It was surprisingly low to the ground because, as our guide explained, elephants can’t lift their feet very high. However, they are so clever that they do find multiple ways of getting passed these fences if they are really hungry. There are stories of them digging below then, throwing enough mud at them to build a pile over the top, pushing trees down onto them, and even throwing baby elephants to bring an electric fence down. It is this wily intelligence that makes it particularly difficult to find sustainable solutions for protecting crops and villages.
Once passed the end of the fence our little parade turned west to cross the great, wide river. Third in line, those of us on the back of elephant no.4 had the childish fun of watching the two animals in front defecate enormously just ahead of us. It doesn’t matter how much we think we might have grown up, there wasn’t a single one of us on the back of elephant no.4 who didn’t find humour in this situation. We all chuckled like school kids and took photographs.
Elephants seem naturally inclined to drop dung as they walk through running water. Whether this is to prevent it being left around to mark their passage or as a matter of cleanliness I have no idea. I did however notice that, as she stepped onto the bank, the elephant directly in front of us dipped her tail brush in the water and used it to wipe her own anus. She then dipped it back into the water and swished it about to clean it. This left me with the belief that, to elephants, a river is as convenient as a flush toilet.
I’m certain elephant no.4 was also taking the opportunity to dump a load, but sadly the fourth member of our party, who would otherwise have been behind us, had had to stop to realign and tighten a rocking houda. This meant her riders missed out on the chance to revel in the immature joy of elephants pooing. They caught up with us an hour or so later as we were scouting through the grasslands.
We safaried until an hour or so before dark, but saw little other than a pile of bones left by tigers. We finally met the jeeps at a designated spot along the road. Saying goodbye to our four tired elephants, we climbed wearily into our wheeled transport and set off back to camp.
Lesson no. 25: elephants are truly smart