Satpura Tiger Reserve, comprising Satpura National Park, Bori Wildlife Sanctuary and the Pachmarhi Wildlife Sanctuary, is one of the finest, and largest, wildlife habitats in the country. Although all parks in Madhya Pradesh are great wildlife destinations, Satpura is unique because you can experience it in different ways: through a safari drive, on foot, on elephant back, on a canoe or even from a hide. Other parks allow only safari drives and elephant rides.
Seeing tigers from elephant back has been the USP of Madhya Pradesh’s wildlife tourism for a very long time. Some of the best tiger pictures and videos that the world has ever seen were clicked from the backs of legendary elephants like Shivaji in Kanha and Gautam in Bandhavgarh. But, over time, a new generation of home grown elephants have replaced the old guard and Siddhnath of Satpura is one of the most enduring pictures of this generation. Sitting atop Siddhnath, one feels comfortable with snarling tigers and leopards around and a photographer hardly misses a tripod to steady his hand. But this gentle giant was not always gentle. He reminds one of Pran, the legendary Bollywood villain: a rogue in youth and a large hearted do-gooder in older age.
Sitting atop Siddhnath, one feels comfortable with snarling tigers and leopards and a photographer hardly misses a tripod to steady his hand.
Siddhnath was born in Bandhavgarh perhaps in 1984 and came to Satpura when he was about twenty years old. He grew up in Bandhavgarh as a pampered darling as the forest department’s fleet started breeding after nearly a century of barren existence, hauling timber and tourists. He was keen to head butt anything that came close, treating them all as toys or partners in play. While growing up, he developed a tendency to push around other elephants, denting vehicles and chasing men, perhaps looking for some fun not harm. Fortunately, no serious damage was done by his playfulness, except, a little bit, to his own reputation. But then, it is this brashness that forces tigers to respect tuskers even at close quarters. Siddhnath was a bit of a nuisance but perhaps all growing up elephants are similar; Bandhavgarh had not seen a growing elephant before.
While growing up, he developed a tendency to push around other elephants, denting vehicles and chasing men, perhaps looking for some fun not harm. But then, it is this brashness that forces tigers to respect tuskers even at close quarters.
Siddhnath - Children Love Him
His training as a working elephant was aimed as much at tempering his ebullience a little as to train him for a lifetime of carrying visitors on his back and to live with wild tigers. Although young elephants learn a lot barely by living in that environment, their formal breaking-in starts at about the age of 8-10 years. Siddhnaths’ training followed a logical sequence of routines. It began with tying just a bag of hay on his back, so that he became used to ropes. After he stopped protesting, a few days later, Siddhnath's trainer, who was a young apprentice mahout himself, would jump on his back and they would have some fun together, with the elephant trying to shake him off and the rider struggling to stay put. With time, the bond between the trainer and the elephant thickens and things start moving. Elephants are fed and groomed by the trainer as a reward for obeying their commands until it becomes a habit and reflex. The elephant first starts participating in tiger show without any load, then only the mahout, then only one passenger (normally a local staff member) and slowly, it starts taking four adults, by the time it is about 12-14 years old. Siddhnath went through all these stages happily.
As Siddhnath grew in size and confidence, his demand by photographers also grew.
Siddhnath grew to be one of the largest elephants in the fleet, taking after his legendary father, Gautam. The size and courage of an elephant matters when facing a snarling tiger. He was steadfast with the tigers protesting his company early morning and was absolutely still when cameras on his back clicked. If a visitor could not get Gautam for a tiger view, he would request for the privilege of riding Siddhnath. As Siddhnath grew in size and confidence, his demand by photographers also grew.
While Siddhnath was growing up in Bandhavgarh, Satpura Tiger Reserve was also coming of age. By the year 2000, people had already discovered Madhai in Satpura as one of the most serene and wild places easily accessible from Bhopal, and traffic had started growing. As the department wanted to recreate Kanha and Bandhavgarh in every park, a few elephants had to be shifted to Madhai from these senior parks. Although Churna and Bori had been the legendary shooting blocks of yore, Madhai had emerged as the new face of Satpura as wildlife, and vegetation, responded to enhanced protection remarkably fast. Although no park wants to donate its elephants to others, Bandhavgarh agreed to transfer Siddhnath to Satpura, perhaps, to get rid of a nuisance. Understandably, neither Siddhnath nor his legenary mahout, Kuttapan, wanted to leave their Bandhavgarh homes. While Kuttapan was suspended for refusing to comply with transfer orders, a sulking Siddhnath was despatched to Madhai under the care of another mahout, Het Ram.
So, Siddhnath came to Madhai along with a young mahout Het Ram towards the end of 2004. Within a few days, it came in musth. Musth is a periodic condition with male elephants when they become unmanageable due to high sexual excitement. They disregard commands and start attacking other elephants and objects without reason or rhyme. It hisses and trumpets threateningly if anyone approaches it. Mahouts have to be careful with such an animal. Often, such animals are tactfully tied at one place and kept hungry and thirsty for as long as they continue to misbehave.
But sometimes, due to their long attachment with these animals, some mahouts become overconfident and take things for granted. Het Ram had known and worked with Siddhnath since his birth and paid with his life for his trust in his ward. He was crushed to death by Siddhnath when trying to control him in musth condition. Siddhnath rolled his trunk around Het Ram and hurled him against a tree for no apparent reason, resulting in instant death.
When Het Ram died, another mahout whom Siddhnath respected had to be called in to handle him. And Ramzan, who also had had a role in his upbringing, was called up. Despite the death of his friend, he still thought Siddhnath to be his bachcha (baby) and did not think twice before approaching him, in Siddhnath’s wild condition. But he realized his mistake and withdrew from the elephant when he saw no respect or recognition for him in his eyes. But that was not enough. Siddhnath went after him and caught him on the edge of a nulla, after a short chase, and crushed him to death in a clear sign of hostility towards his keepers.
What happened in Satpura , i.e. an elephant killing his own mahouts, was virtually unknown at that time. It had never happened before in 100 years of elephants with MP Forest Department.
Why Siddhnath was so cross with his keepers will never be known. Some people make too much of the issue that the elephant resented his separation from Kuttapan and showed his angst through these actions. It is true that elephants and mahouts have a strong bond and should generally be kept together. But the bond of the elephant with his chara-cutter is even stronger as it is he, not the senior mahout, who actually looks after the animal and feeds, bathes and plays with him. Both Het Ram and Ramzan had been his chara-cutters in younger days. Moreover, in a large fleet, all elephants and their keepers live like a family and all animals know and trust other mahouts and chara-cutters like uncles in a family. Although an elephant in musth often becomes uncontrollable and aggressive but it generally trusts its keepers. Although there are umpteen videos on YouTube showing elephants killing people, including their keepers, what happened in Satpura , i.e. an elephant killing his own mahouts, was virtually unknown at that time. It had never happened before in 100 years of elephants with MP Forest Department. Perhaps multiple factors such as its generally aggressive nature, dislocation from its known environment and change of care takers had all joined to create the kind of situation that led to its malevolent behaviour.
When Het Ram died, the incidence was considered almost like an accident and Siddhnath was allowed to roam free in the forests, of course under watch. When Ramzan was killed, matters came to a head. Siddhnath could no longer be allowed to be free and unchained. So he was sedated with the help of a dart gun and was tied to a tree and a punishment regime was put in place. His daily ration was reduced to a bare minimum. Although the ability of the elephant to cause further mayhem had been controlled for the time being, a decision had to be taken regarding its future. In any other country, such an animal would have been immediately shot. But in India, we treat even an animal not guilty unless proven in an enquiry.
So, a senior officer was directed to review the behavior of the elephant and make recommendations about his future. In view of the abrasive nature displayed by Siddhnath during adolescence, and its culmination in the death of two innocent persons, Siddhnath was obviously a dangerous animal and deserved to be destroyed. However, there were other factors to be considered, such as:
Despite the risk of opposition from certain quarters, Siddhnath was awarded the death sentence in 2005.
Although there are examples of killer elephants living a normal obedient life, it was now not possible to trust him with the safety of his care givers or the public. The nature of his job would have put a lot many unsuspecting people on risk. Keeping him in chains would have been cruel and unpopular. Despite the risk of opposition from certain quarters, Siddhnath was given the death sentence in 2005. Whatever the sentiments, human life and safety had to come first.
Forest department has no culture of destroying animals: even man-eaters are, preferably, captured, rather than shot. Therefore, ordering the killing of an elephant must have been a difficult decision, however hardened a professional judge might have been.
But, Siddhnath was never shot. The elephant remained in chains, and on reduced rations, for perhaps two years. The punishment changed his temperament completely, although he lost nearly a quarter of his weight. Siddhnath did nothing to invite the implementation of the death sentence award. Over time, his care givers gained confidence and started interacting with him more intimately and offered to take a chance with letting him be free.
So, it was decided to untie Siddhnath and let him return to normal life, slowly, under careful observation. After a few months of being freed, Siddhnath returned to full duty and has since become the cynosure of all eyes. The internet is now full of praise for him although he could have been dead by now. He has come into musth many times since then and has sired a few calves, but has never shown any aggression towards anyone. Perhaps time, and experience, has taught him all the lessons he needed to learn. Just like Pran playing an honourable man in his later years!
Although we all aggrieve governmental sloth, no one should grudge the delay in the implementation of this decision. If Siddhnath had been shot, we would never know whether the decision to kill him was right or wrong. But now we do. Now we know.