A torch for wild elephants

The edge of civilization


Dhiraj downshifted the jeep and the tires slipped and spun in the dirt before catching traction above the canal edge. Today we were headed up to the rim of civilization to visit with the Gujjar people.


Dhiraj is the medium-set naturalist who runs the hotel we were staying at, the Alia, which is nestled among wheat fields on the border of the national park. He's balding, affable, worldly, and an excellent conversationalist. He and his wife started out working the front desk and are now in charge of things. "I often don't know what I'm doing, it's her who really runs things," he chuckled, with a sly smile.


We parked and walked up into the jungle through a bone-dry gorge. "Are you alright with a bit of a hike?" he asked us. I almost scoffed. Okay? We were more than great, I reassured him. "We love the outdoors, we're used to it and are up for anything" I replied as I hoisted our pack onto my shoulder. The heavens above were neutral gray and the air was heavy and still, and the ever-present baking heat gave us the impression that we were venturing deeper into a gigantic kiln. The earth was a ruddy-brown and the trees had clay-dusted trunks with patchy, knobby, sprigs of bright green leaves. The Gujjar people cut off the branches for firewood.


Dhiraj told us to be on alert for wild elephants. Years ago, when he started coming here, he and his team scrambled up along the sharp rocky ridges to avoid them. One day, at the tip of the highest peak in the area, they found elephant dung. "That's when I realized that elephants are really four-wheel drive," he laughed. "They can walk up anything. There's no getting away. So, we gave up, and now just walk in the valleys." I frowned, and Eve and I glanced at each other. We inquired as to what one does when they encounter elephants. "I don't know. It's never come up," he said without looking back. Thunder clapped as we arrived, yet still no rain.


The Gujjars are some of the last of their kind. They’re the cattle herding descendants of a people from as far away as Persia and the levant, and livestock is their only trade. They don't grow much for themselves. In the tiny village, if you can call it that, there are seven or eight huts around a dry creek bed with wooden beams, low thatched rooves, and mostly open sides. Wattle and mud retaining walls demarcate where the cows and chickens may and may not go, and the people are constantly clucking at them and shooing them out of the gates. Parked here and there were surprisingly new looking tractors and a truck.


It's only one family that lives here, with a kind, toothless old patriarch who we sat down with. Beautiful children of all ages with huge smiles ran everywhere. They go to school when they can, we're told, but the danger of wild elephants during their mating season (right now) keeps the younger ones from going; It’s simply too dangerous.


They offered us tea and the children came to sit, watch, fidget, and whisper to each other with eager smiles. The patriarch was old and stiff and kept whacking at chickens and cows with his cane who kept trying to enter the house area. He and Dhiraj conversed for a solid twenty minutes before we were let in on the topic: the weather. It's exceedingly important when your livelihood depends on it. The incredible heat and lack of rain had made it tough for the animals this summer.


The old man then asked us "what’s good in America?" through Dhiraj, and before we answered, I paused and thought. Where to begin? "What does he know about the USA?" I replied. In response he cackled and said "First there were the Mughals in India, then the Americans, and then we had a war with Pakistan." I thought about it for a second. He thinks we're the same as the English.


The old man abruptly switched topics and asked if we couldn't find him a giant spotlight. Not a little flashlight but a huge torch to illuminate great distances and scare off elephants and leopards. He said he’d gladly pay us for it if we brought it next time we came. Eve and I felt immediately amendable to this, and I’m not sure what it was but I suppose I was endeared by their self-respect and complete lack of interest in handouts, matched by an awe that in this day and age leopards were a nuisance. "They’re totally self-sufficient, money is not a problem for them," Dhiraj interjected. Their height of technology is a solar panel on the corner of one of the houses, of the consumer variety, about 1 x 1 ft., and it powers a little light the size of my fist. They showed it to us, turning it on and off. "Don't worry about the torch" Dhiraj whispered, as we got up to leave. "We obviously have those in Delhi. I can get them one."


On the way out, the father joined us in the jeep because he wanted to show us some of the elephants. I couldn't have been more thrilled. They go to the canal at night to drink and as dusk approached, we drove up to a section of the cement wall embankment where it was crumbled and broken away; elephants had destroyed it getting down to the water. I couldn't believe that a gaping maw in such a solid barrier could have been wrought by animals, and I tried for just a moment to visualize being out here even one night without a light. I shivered. Something about all of our adventures back home in the Sierra Nevadas and the prospect of black bears utterly paled in comparison to something that could do this.


With none of the great beasts to be seen, we dropped the old man off with his son at a truck which was siphoning water out of the channel and bid us goodbye with a touch of his forehead. Our jeep skidded up the dusty embankment onto the highway lit by the dying orange sun and meandered on back to our air-conditioned hotel room. 


Curious about the Gujjar people? Learn more here!