Of elephants - musth and makhnas

My father has become a much quieter person after he suffered a stroke two years back. He has been with us the past three months and I see his former brilliant self only when he is out amidst nature. Unfortunately, our hectic work schedule has not allowed us to travel much this year. Somehow, we could manage brief jaunts to Old Magazine House - Ganeshgudi and Ooty, besides the weekend trips to Nandi Hills and Ranganatittu Bird Sanctuary. On such occasions, it is a pleasure to see Deta straighten up his shoulders and walk about spritely, belying his age and health. 

Last weekend, while driving to Ranganatittu, we suddenly embarked on the topic of elephants. I think the topic sparked off with the heartbreaking report of Mysore Dasara star elephant Gajendra who had killed his mahout of 20 years in a fit of musth. (Musth is a periodic condition in male elephants, characterized by highly aggressive behavior. Read more about it here.)

Deta told us how difficult it was to control elephants when they are in musth. Generally, the mahout comes to know of an oncoming musth when his elephant starts behaving erratically and disobeys his orders. Then starts a rather painful yet important procedure of keeping both the animal and the mahout safe during the period of musth. The food and water ration of the elephant is gradually reduced to weaken him, hoppling chains are tied to its feet, and sometimes, the animal is tied to a tree till its musth wears off in around 12-15 days. Although this method seems very cruel, the danger of the elephant killing its mahout and even other elephants is extremely high during musth. I must mention here that this was how musth was controlled in Deta’s time. Perhaps the methods have changed now.

The name of Ranjit inevitably came up while on the topic of musth. (Read the story of Ranjit here.) We then started talking of makhna elephants. A makhna is a male elephant who does not have prominent tusks. Instead, he has very small ones known as tushes. Deta said that these fellows, despite their size and apparent lack of tusks, are ferocious fighters and can overpower giant tuskers.

“They are like wily wrestlers who wait for a chance to flip over their larger and more powerful opponents,” said Deta.

The first time he had realized this was around the beginning of his career in Manas Wildlife Sanctuary. Those days, in the 70s, there was no internet, no profusion of field guides and no workshops or seminars to educate officers like Deta.  (To be fair, there were a few workshops, but Deta’s seniors ignored that aspect conveniently.) He had to rely on his field experience and analyze behaviours and patterns to arrive at learning points.

One day, Deta received a call from a ‘beat office’ (loosely defined, a forest department camp within the jungle). 

“It was around this time of the year, March-April,” Deta reminisced. 

The officers from the beat reported a large number of vultures circling about in the area, signifying the death of some animal. Deta reached the beat and set about to probe along with a few officers. After walking for some time through thick clumps of tall grass they suddenly found themselves in an area that appeared to be a clearing. On closer look, they realized that it was not exactly a clearing, but all the grass there had been flattened to the ground. 

“This seems to be the site of an elephant fight,” Deta surmised.

The officer accompanying Deta agreed and said that they had heard loud, incessant trumpeting of elephants the previous night. Elephant fights were not uncommon during that part of the year, in order to win over a female.

Soon enough, a few metres within the jungle, lay a huge tusker – dead. The tusker had been known to be in the area for some time and was recognized by the size of his tusks, almost reaching the ground. Thankfully, his tusks were still intact, thus ruling out the involvement of poachers. Deta and his men were puzzled by the fact there were no visible wounds in its body. Till then, they had taken it to be a fight between two tuskers.

Suddenly, Deta noticed several depressions around the fallen elephant’s head. He touched them and found that something had almost smashed those areas on the head, pounding at them relentlessly. (Later on, the veterinary doctor also confirmed that the skull had been shattered in places.) The idea of small but sharp tusks creating the damage flashed through Deta’s mind. Thinking over the matter, and still wondering if his theory was possible, Deta asked the men if there was a makhna in the region.

“Yes, there is, sir,” spoke the beat officer, quite surprised. “He has recently come into the area and we have been noticing him quite often.”

He then paused and Deta’s idea sank into his mind.

“But, sir,” he added a bit hesitantly. “The makhna is no match for this elephant size-wise.”

That time, Deta could not find any other conclusive evidence pointing towards his theory of an almost tuskless makhna killing a giant tusker, but later in his career, his notion was proved correct as he became witness to a few cases where the makhna had emerged victorious, battering his opponent mercilessly once he was able to get a stranglehold of the tusker.

And so, such are the ways of the jungle, where size doesn’t always matter in a battle. I hope I get to learn more.

PS: I don’t know if there was any point to this post but I just thought of putting this down more as a record for my own learning than anything else. Also, Deta is blissfully unaware that whatever he has been telling me, have been posted in this blog. He doesn’t approve of it at all.


  1. Its always wonderfull to read stories of the wild. My father also had lot of experiences to share about the jungles of Ganeshgudi and Dandeli that happened in the 80's and 90's. Keep writing!!!

    1. Long time, Manu! You should sit with you dad and write his stories, too. I would love to hear about Ganeshgudi and Dandeli - they are such beautiful jungles...

  2. Real life experiences and learning are always a better read in my opinion :)

    1. True, Santosh. I love reading such accounts..


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