* Vatsala should be 105 years old now, which makes her possibly the oldest surviving elephant in the world
* In 2010, she retired after a long life ferrying timber and tourists in different parts of India
* Vatsala recently lost her vision to incurable cataract, but she manages to navigate around the elephant camp at Panna Tiger Reserve with the help of her trunk and herd members
“Come see the elephants,” somebody shouted. It was a morning in Panna Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh (MP), but the pachyderm alert sounded equally exciting. Our group walked towards a mix of adult, young and really young elephants, about eight or nine of them at a camp for the large mammals.
The adults wore a heavy chain around one of their front legs; the young ones moved around behind a couple of mahouts who were keeping guard. A little further away, Ram Bahadur, a tusker in musth, stood like a prisoner under strict watch. Experts say that the gentlest of elephants can be uncontrollable when in musth — a condition of aggressive behaviour occurring annually in certain male animals. We took note of the fact and kept safe distance from Ram Bahadur.
While watching this herd, my eyes fell on an elephant that looked much older and bigger, in terms of the size of the body, ears and forehead. I could tell it was a female. She also had a really long trunk, which rested on the ground almost like a fifth leg. She remained still as a young elephant, full of beans, approached her from one side and started brushing against her. The mahout noticed my interest in the older mammal and offered to introduce us: “She is Vatsala, the oldest elephant in the world and she always stands with her trunk touching the ground.”
The oldest in the world? It sounded unreal. I rubbed my hand against Vatsala’s trunk, feeling the wrinkles on her tough skin. She seemed to indulge my curiosity with the same grace and patience she showed towards the young elephant who kept coming back to her like an adoring grandchild. R Sreenivasa Murthy, additional principal chief conservator of forests of the state biodiversity board and former field director of Panna, filled me in with more details regarding Vatsala. “She is the longest living elephant matriarch of Panna. It’s due to the efforts and care of veterinarian Dr Sanjeev Gupta and the management that she is living a peaceful life after retirement. Long live affectionate Vatsala,” he said.
I made a quick drawing of Vatsala in my sketchbook, rubbed her old trunk once more and it was time to go. She stayed in my mind as I returned to Delhi. I dug around for more information on the Kerala native who was transported to Bori in MP from the Nilambur forest division 48 years ago. After spending two decades in Bori, Vatsala went to Panna where she continues to live. In 1995, she lost all her teeth — tusks, molars and premolars. Elephants are known to lose teeth at roughly 70 years of age, so it was easy to calculate her age from then. She should be 105 years old now, which makes her possibly the oldest surviving elephant in the world. (It is said that an Asian elephant in the wild has an average lifespan of 60 years.)
Vatsala’s journey to this ripe old age — like any matriarch in human circles — is full of experiences and episodes. Most of it, in her case, has been about long hours at work, which is the fate of elephants in our country. For 15 years in Panna, she ferried tourists on her back before she was taken off the roster for being too old for service. She went on to become the Nani Maa of her adopted herd at the camp. According to Gupta, the vet who has tended to Panna’s wildlife population for close to 20 years, Vatsala has the perfect mix of qualities one seeks in a grandparent. She is gentle and caring but also firm about discipline. She is also known to lose her cool when the other inmates misbehave. She has survived two attacks by an elephant in musth, in 2003 and 2008. Vatsala recently lost her vision to incurable cataract, but she manages to navigate around the bay with the help of her trunk and herd members.
Other than the fact that she was born there, virtually nothing is known about Vatsala’s life in Nilambur where she spent close to 55 years. The MP forest department, which wants to enter her name in record books, plans to seek her date of birth from the records of the Nilambur forest division.
A sheer stroke of luck led to a meeting with a deputy ranger who had handled Vatsala during her years in Bori. Pandey- ji , whom I met at the Satpura Tiger Reserve, also in MP, recollected that the elephant was engaged in timber operations in Bori till 1991. Her job was to carry tree logs from deep inside the forest to the point where trucks queued up for collection. The lack of a male companion in Bori meant that Vatsala didn’t get the chance to bear a baby elephant in the 20 years she spent there. But it’s not known if she became a mother in Nilambur.
She did, however, have a female companion — one that she was deeply attached to. Geeta was her bosom pal in Bori, who, sadly for Vatsala, refused to leave the place for a life in Panna. Pandey- ji recalls the day trucks were brought in to transfer them to Panna. Vatsala climbed into the vehicle without a fuss. Geeta stood her ground, refusing to budge. She stuck to the spot when the trucks rolled out of the forest area. Vatsala perhaps doesn’t know that her friend is long dead.
The next time you see an elephant, do ask the carer about its past. You may end up going home with a story worth remembering.
Peeyush Sekhsaria is a Delhi-based freelance writer and amateur birdwatcher