“In the mating season, a secretion forms on the elephant’s forehead. We have to keep a safe distance.”
My father was a mahout at an elephant camp run by the forest department. I have been around elephants since I was a child. As a teenager, I got an assistant’s job. It’s a government job but I didn’t have to sit for an examination. They offered it to me because the tribe that I belong to in Coorg has traditionally been in this profession.
My first full charge was a male born to an ageing female under my father’s charge. That elephant is now 40 years old and it’s been over 30 years I have been handling him. We have shifted two camps together and are now at a national park. He is the only tusker among seven elephants and I am technically in charge of all of them. The other handlers joke that both of us will retire at the same age!
Keepers have to be with their elephants 24/7. But it’s a dying profession. Nobody wants to take the job of a mahout or assistant, my child included.
I am yet to be promoted to a full-fledged mahout. Many who joined along with me have been made mahouts because they work with the forest departments and have a better equation with the higher-ups. I have been attached to zoos and national parks and here there are no promotions.
Elephants have a big appetite, they eat up to 200 kg of food a day. In a national park or elephant camp, we let them out into the forests at night to have their fill and bring them back in the morning. The only problem is they come in contact with wild elephants and refuse to return, especially in mating season.
You can be with them for 30-40 years and still not predict their behaviour. In the mating season, a secretion forms on the elephant’s forehead. We have to keep a safe distance. We don’t nudge or poke them with the sickle to control them then. An angry elephant will just lift and trample you. It may regret it the next moment.
(This keeper has worked with elephants for 33 years)