Animal babies are lovely – Innocent looks, naughty acts, playful moods, not a care in the world…
I am in Panna Tiger Reserve. Based at Karnawati Forest Rest House, it has been wildlifing mostly in Madla Range of the Reserve. I am told that in the adjacent Hinouta Range there is a very young elephant baby – less than a month! Oh my god! That is exciting.
I plan it out. I decide to spend one night at Hinouta Jungle Camp. Here the Elephant Camp is nearby. So it will not be touch and go. I can spend time.
I start with bags and baggage in the morning jungle drive at 5.45 am. It’s still not full light. As a routine we go around the forest, chase tiger which plays hide and seek. There is always a news – the guy passed this way few minutes ago, the lady is hiding in the bushes, cheetal is calling in fear of a large carnivore… But no direct sighting. Of course, we see pug marks i.e. foot prints of tiger at number of places. Cheetal and sambar are a plenty, in all kind of actions and so close, one can almost touch.
We reach Hinouta Jungle Camp around 10.30. Hungry. First thing to do is to eat breakfast – traditional stuffed paranthas, pickle and beans. I am so hungry, I decide to convert this into brunch by stuffing in more paranthas, as it is almost 11.30 and merely two hours later the staff will start pressing for lunch!
I do not want to delay meeting the baby. Immediately after eating, I take my equipment and dash to the elephant camp. I see that the elephant camp is just across the boundary. In fact, there is short cut and I do not have to go out of the resort gate even.
I see several mahouts (elephant drivers) and chara-cutters (helpers of drivers) crowded around in one verandah, probably busy playing cards.
As soon as they see me and I enquire about the baby, concerned Chara-cutter, Prakash, comes out immediately.
I can see the mother and baby in a nearby hall with completely open front. Baby is hiding being the mother. Prakash tries to bring baby forward. Mother makes some rumbling noise as if talking to the baby, “Cool baby cool, Prakash is here, no worry.” Baby is quite small in comparison to mother, but huge in isolation. Lovely – A woolly ball. Some fodder is scattered around.
I do not want to disturb the baby and nursing mother directly. Let the people close to family direct the mother-baby and me so that there is no stress and tension. So, I give directions to Prakash and Prakash to me, to manage watching, spending time and photo-shoot.
Just to give you a brief background, Panna does not have wild elephants. Domesticated elephants are kept for tourism and surveillance to visit off-track dense forest. These elephants include male and female. They mate and so we have more elephants.
In Hinouta Elephant Camp there are 10 individuals – 5 adults and 5 calves, of all age. The group is headed by a grand old lady, Vatsala who is going strong at 97.
Prakash has steered mother and baby out of the hall, behind the camp. It is virtually jungle. While the animals settle down and relax, I start small conversation with Prakash. He informs me “the mother is 55 year old and is named Roop Mati. The baby has been born on 25 February.” I calculate, ‘today is 18 March, it’s just 21 days old!’
I ask if they have named the baby. Prakash informs me it’s ‘Chandni’. Oh my God. This is a pleasant surprise. My daughter is also named Chandni. Chandni has been uppermost in my mind today. It happens to be her 35th birthday. Only an hour ago, I texted wishes to her. And here God has provided an opportunity to meet baby Chandni, while the other Chandni is 13000 km away in States. This whole coincidence endeared the baby more to me.
Roop Kali is not allowed to go to forest these days since she has a small baby and there can be an encounter with tiger which can prove fatal for baby. Now, being out of her abode in open, she is heading to forest. Prakash has to stop her and bring back again and again. And as the mother goes, the baby follows. It’s difficult situation for photography. When Roop Kali is brought back, Chandni would hide behind her. Once, mother protests by loud striking of trunk to ground and raise dust for not being allowed to walk free to forest.
At times, when baby is left behind, the mother would shout. On one such occasion, I try to engage with Chandni by doing pep talk and taking some portrait shots, when it decides ‘enough’ – she cries so loudly that the mother trumpets and comes rushing back, and I have to take care of myself! I have never imagined that an elephant baby can call so loudly.
As it is, they are pampered lot. Mother gets extra porridge and jaggery. Prakash brings freshest tree branches for fodder from forest. A vet visit every week and administers required supplements. Baby is entirely on mother’s milk. So she will be for about three months. Vatsala loves Chandni most. As soon as she is back from the forest, she would reach out to Chandni. The other young ones too try to please her by their gimmicks. Talking of young ones, I remember of an elephant calf about half an year old in Kanha Tiger Reserve. It would rear up and surprise visitors by giving a back kick. The strength is so much that one can get toppled over, if not careful. This is the usual trick babies around 3-month and somewhat older play on unsuspecting visitors to have some fun of their own.
Chandni is an added attraction in Panna. I am told, most of visiting keen wildlifers do come to meet and spend time with her these days. Yes, why not. Where would you get such opportunity – to look into eyes of less than a month old elephant and actually touch her!