The summer holidays had begun and I was eagerly waiting to get enrolled in the Summer Program conducted for teenagers by National Museum of Natural History in Delhi. The program consisted of museum studies, discussion sessions, outdoor nature explorations, individual project assignments and exposure to the ecosystem in a National Park or Wildlife Sanctuary in India.
On one fine summer morning twenty of us got into a deluxe bus with four staff members and attendants and took off to Corbett National Park. I was fourteen year old and looking forward to my first ever visit to any wild life sanctuary. I remembered how each time time read one of Jim Corbett’s books I would long to visit the reserve which was named after him after his death.
It was late afternoon when we reached the National Park. For most of us this was a first visit to the reserve and the excitement was clearly visible. After the usual formalities the bus entered the park and soon we were on our way to Dhikala where the campsite was set up. We still had an hour’s drive to reach our destination. The dense Sal forest greeted us on both sides and soon we spotted herds of spotted deer and monkeys. It was hot and the forest was seeped in a strange silence but inside the bus we were all chatting away happily.
Dhikala chaur is the largest grassland in Uttarakhand. Dhikhla is the core area of the reserve and located right in the center so we were hoping for a tiger sighting. The bus had approached a precarious section and was slowly moving on a narrow path. We were told to remain quietly seated. On one side one could spot the serpentine Ramganga river deep down in the valley and on the other side lay the picturesque and mysterious grassland, home to various species of birds and animals including the Royal Bengal Tiger.
All of us were glued to the windows taking in the breathtaking beauty of the place when suddenly the expert from the museum told us to remain absolutely still and quiet. The bus had stopped in the middle of nowhere. At first we could not understand what had happened but slowly as we watched the huge male elephants sauntering towards us from the front a chill went up our spines. There were five or six of them. Large amount of Musht flowed down their temples as they menacingly approached us. The driver had stopped the engine and was muttering some mantras under his breath. I was sitting on the front seat and had a full few of those majestic animals with huge tusks, their trunks swaying rhythmically from one side to another. I had never seen an elephant in wild and the sight took my breath away.
The girl next to me sobbed uncontrollably and held tightly to my hand. Mesmerized, I just stared at those magnificent creatures who were just a foot away from the bus and had almost surrounded it.
Everything had become still. Not even a blade of grass moved. Male adults are usually solitary beings especially when undergoing a phenomenon called ‘Musth’ so it was surprising to find a herd even though it consisted of only five or six of them. Their sheer daunting size was extremely overpowering and though I had seen elephants in the zoos and cities, this was nothing like those experiences.
Bull elephants are highly dangerous and violent at the time of “Musth’ and can cause great harm. I could see the smelling fluid, rich of testosterone, running down on their cheeks as they gazed at us. We held our breaths and avoided eye contact. I bet everyone was sending prayers up there to the 300,000 Gods for the ordeal to end and for the gift of life.
Those ten minutes that the bulls inspected our brightly painted bus with us rooted to our seats frozen in fear we realized how close we were to death. They could overturn the bus in an instant and send it hurling down the valley. Every time they flapped their huge ears our hearts skipped a beat.
Somehow they took pity on us and giving a last look turned and walked away into the forest.
For those few moments when they moved we thought it was all over. It was a strange moment in time where the thin line that separated life from death seemed to have dissolved.
Many of the kids were crying and laughing at the same time unable to come to terms with what had taken place on their first adventurous trip to a National Park.
I can remember my heart beating very fast but somehow I hadn’t felt the kind of fear that had possessed others. I continued to look the direction in which those mighty animals had gone and disappeared in thick foliage of the forest and wondered what must have made them almost charge at us and then change their minds.
The incident is still fresh in my mind and every moment I thank the universe for small mercies. This was the third time death had come t close for comfort and left.
The incident has not changed my attitude towards either the elephants or any other animal. Humans have encroached their land and destroyed their natural habitats and they sure have a right to cut us down to size at least once in a life time.