I am staying at Hinouta Jungle Camp, just adjacent to entry gate of Panna Tiger Reserve with family and friends. Jungle surrounds the Camp. I can see domestic elephant camp about 200 meters away. One afternoon, we decide to meet the elephants and mahouts, and just walk across.
Uniqueness of Panna as far as domestic elephants are concerned is the 100-year old grand lady, Vatsala. Vatsala has been brought from Kerala to Hosangabad in 1971 and shift to Panna in 1993. She has worked in Nilambur Forest Division of Kerala in her early days. The grand old lady love calves born at the camp and take full care of them. She is always there from the day baby is born to help the mother in calf-care. She is docile. She does not mind touching and caressing by visitors. One mahout tells me that she has never shown displeasure to anybody inside or outside the Camp. It is a different matter that one male elephant, though named Rama, has behaved like Ravana with her – grievously injuring her with his tusk not once but twice during last 15 years. Reserve management has sent Rama to Vanvas i.e. shifted to a separate forest camp while on the other hand, Vatsala has been relieved of all work. She is free to have good time.
There is action all around. We see there are at least four calves at the Camp. With an adult, they are busy eating. My friend, Amar Singh Gond, Forest Range Officer, joins us. He takes our photo with Vatsala for posterity. In the meanwhile, mahouts tie naughty calves. These calves playfully kick and push visitors, which can hurt.
I am attracted towards a calf about two years old, who is swinging. On observation, I notice that the baby is actually dancing with rhythmic movement of trunk, tail, ears, legs and body. Incidentally, the dance is pretty fast and continue at least till we are there i.e. about half an hour.
Noticing our interest, Mahout, Ekka Jhabru joins us. He informs me that this dancing calf is Purnima. He points to another older elephant calf, Vanya, a seven year old female, about 100 m away. We notice that this young lady too is dancing but much more softly, its rhythm involves front feet only, which automatically gives a little swing to the body.
I think this is a coincidence. Ekka tells me, “No, this is not the case. Vanya is elder sister of Purnima!” “Genetic?” I wonder.
Incidentally, elephants go to roam free in the nearby jungle around 7-8 am. They come back around 5 pm and enjoy laboriously prepared meal – food balls cooked from rice, aata (wheat flour) and besan (gram flour), salt etc. There can be variation in quantity and contents depending upon age and health of elephants, and season.
Continuous i.e. non-stop dancing is real energy. I brood, “Can this be due to meal just taken?” Ekka updates me, “Purnima is normal in jungle, it is only when it is tied in the evening that it dances continuously till it falls asleep. Similar is the case of elder sister, Vanya.”
“Where is Purnima and Vanya’s mother?” I enquire. I am shocked to know that their mother, Mohan Kali, lives in another forest range, Chandra Nagar, 30 km away. Here, another adult female, Anar Kali, has adopted the calves. And of course, Vatsala is always around to watch and take care. What a fraternity.