Almost 30 years ago in my first week of staying in Corbett National Park, I took an elephant ride in the thick deciduous forest behind Tundi Road. Sitting on top of the howdar we rocked slowly from side to side, to the quiet sound of ropes creaking like the rigging of an old ship.
It was peaceful, almost hypnotic, picking our way gently through the tangle of trees. Every few minutes the elephant reached out with her strong flexible trunk and, with apparent ease, ripped off branches the size of my arm.
Rohini is a favoured small tree which elephas maximus just loves to eat. The mahawat taps the elephant behind the ears and quietly encourages her to eat some more. This monumental vegetarian needs copious amounts of food and can eat more in a day than the weight of a fully grown tiger. Wild elephants, as nomadic grazers, need to find this food from different shelf heights in different seasons, allowing their food to regenerate in their absence. They need a lot of space and a healthy population of wild elephants indicates a healthy forest.
As we moved on through the undergrowth, my lens cap caught on a twig and spiralled to the ground, lost in the thick lantana bushes that lay around us. I leant forward to the mahawat and whispered in his ear, “I’ve dropped my lens cap”. He spoke to her again in a quiet voice, and immediately the venerable animal began to reverse. She lifted her trunk, smelling the air and then rolled it down into the tangle. Up came my lens cap in the tips of her trunk! She passed it back over her head to the mahawat, who handed it back to me.
I no longer have this lens but the memory will never be lost – it stays in my heart forever.