Website by AQEEL FAROOQI  



*  *  * 


Problems of identification of camera-trapped tigers
Indian Wildlife - challenges in the new millennium
The greying of India
On the road to extinction
A Tribute to Rumbha - the elephant  
State development project threatens state bird - Sarus
Shahtoosh ban gains momentum worldwide
The road to disaster
Killing nilgais in the name of crop protection
Warring NGO's may spell doom for the tiger
Where have all the sparrows gone?
Cuckoos that fly out of crows' nests
Corbett park woes continue to mount
A question on post mortem examinations in the wild
Is it time to 'cry wolf' again?
Lifting of US sanctions may boost wildlife conservation
Migratory waterfowl may be hit by war in Afghanistan
UP wetlands to provide improved habitat to waterfowl
Anthrax as a potent wildlife killer
Man-elephant conflict takes heavy toll
Demoiselle cranes fly to safety in India
How long lasting are conservation victories
Fake tiger skins : a knotty disguise
Who cares for the wild here anyway?
A tribute to Charger - the long living tiger
Draining of wetlands threatening wildlife
Wildlife management needs rapid response units
Dudhwa loses another tiger
Indian Wildlife Board meets after five years

 WILDLIFE WINDOW | Aqeel Farooqi

Hindustan Times, Lucknow | January 16 & 30, 2001


A TRIBUTE TO RUMBHA - the elephant

When I mentioned two famous tigers of Corbett national park earlier in these columns, I was pleasantly surprised by some very evocative responses from readers who recalled the good old days when these tigers were the pride of Corbett. Heartened by these responses, I am moved to recount the story of the famous Corbett mahout Ishtiaq and his elephant Rumbha, which was published soon after she died.....

The tiger had moved deep into the elephant grass, and it now seemed difficult to dislodge him from there. Although we could still see him indistinctly, a deep nullah prevented us from going any nearer for that vital photograph that I still hadn't been able to get. It was here that the intricate combination of mahout and elephant revealed itself.  Ishtiaq, the mahout, motioned to me to stay ready with my camera, while his toes sent silent directives to Rumbha, the elephant. In response, the snaking trunk lifted a huge clod of wet mud and sent it flying across the dividing nullah, landing in a spray on the recalcitrant tiger. Alarmed, or probably angry at this ignominy, out he came roaring in a mock charge, canines fully bared. For those few moments the humans clearly perceived the terror that strikes a tiger's prey. It may have lasted seconds, but was enough to freeze our blood. Thankfully, the fingers worked away in reflex to give our cameras the everlasting impressions of a charging tiger. "Wah wah Ishtiaq, wah Rumbha wah, shabaash!" went the rounds of congratulations and thanksgiving, showered excitedly on the mahout and his charge, following this magnificent sighting of the elusive tiger.

Ishtiaq and Rumbha, Rumbha and Ishtiaq. A combination in which there were no peers. For all serious visitors to the famous Corbett National Park, a ride into the forests with Ishtiaq is a unique experience. An excellent tracker, he deftly reads the signs left by the denizens of the forest from atop his lofty perch on Rumbha's neck. And if during the ride, the situation does not warrant absolute silence, in his own inimitable style and dialect, he will give you a lesson or two in jungle lore that you are not likely to find in any book. Being the most sought after pair in Corbett, he and his elephant have perforce taken many a pompous VIP into the forest, but for the average wildlife enthusiast, Ishtiaq is the VIP, easily striking a balance of camaraderie and strictness with the tourists while out on his two excursions each day.

I have had the privilege of being a close friend of Ishtiaq ever since my visits to Corbett started in 1985. Initially going out with any mahout that happened to be allotted to me, I gradually learnt to distinguish between the good ones and the average. This process of elimination finally resulted in short-listing a couple of mahouts like Nazir and Nawab. And of course, Ishtiaq. The top slot, however, went easily to Ishtiaq because of his elephant, Rumbha. She was sure-footed and steady on all kinds of terrain. Right from the time one started off from camp astride her, one felt brave and confident of facing the tiger on its own ground. Never known to have backed off or panicked, she easily conveyed her confidence to the riders through her studied nonchalance during tiger sightings. Even if there were no sightings of the big cat, the ride itself was always eventful.  And so, year after year I returned to Corbett for the inevitable rendezvous with my human and pachyderm friend.

Recently preoccupied by frequent visits to Bandhavgarh and Kanha national parks, I had been unable to find time to go to Corbett for almost two years. Blaming myself for this lapse in loyalty for my most favourite forest, I finally squeezed in a trip to Corbett during end-January. The thrill of reaching Dhikala camp was as exhilarating as ever. The welcoming hugs from the modest staff members were so warm that they dispelled the biting cold of the season. But tragic news was at hand.  "Rumbha is dying," they told me. It was shocking and unbelievable. Elephants have long lives, we've been told. How could she die, she was only seventy. We made a beeline for the place where Rumbha was lying sick and helpless. The very first sight of the fallen giant made me falter. She was lying on her left side. The ground where she lay had been scraped and muddied by her vain efforts to stand upright. A bonfire was burning nearby to ward off the cold from her, as well as the humans attending on her. There was Ishtiaq, his wife and children, the Range Officer, and a motley group of other mahouts and characuts. All had genuine concern on their faces. An elephant for a mahout is not an animal but a family member. And here, a family member was dying.

Ishtiaq and I met each other without speaking. The signs were all too evident to warrant speech. We walked up to where her head lay, and sat down close to her. The only eye visible on that gaunt face followed us. While I stroked her feeble trunk, Ishtiaq reached out and wiped the trickling discharge from under her eye.  " Na beta, mat ro. Bahut dard ho raha hai?" he asked. I also felt the start of a trickle on my face that needed wiping, and I did that furtively.

Later, sitting on a charpoy near the blazing fire where Rumbha lay, I finally managed to piece together the events that were about to deprive Corbett National Park of one of its most well known treasures.

Soon after Corbett Park closed for the monsoons last year, a wild tusker started making frequent forays into the Dhikala encampment. Probably emboldened by the lack of tourist activity, or maybe spurred on by the enticing smell of the female riding elephants in the camp, he repeatedly targeted the filkhana or stables where the elephants were quartered. More often than not, he was driven off before he could actually enter, but on 16th July, he managed to sneak in, and in the ensuing melee, drove a tusk into Rumbha's right ear. The wound was not severe, but took time to heal. During treatment, she was quartered at Ramnagar from where she returned to Dhikala in November, in time for the start of another busy tourist season. But not being certified fully fit by the vet, she remained off duty.    

It was on the fateful night of 24th November that the wild tusker raided the filkhana again. Probably out of panic because of her last encounter with him, she jerked frantically at the hobble-chain restraining her hind leg, breaking it with sheer effort. The commotion culminated with the Range Officer firing in the air and scaring off the tusker. But in the effort of breaking the chain, something in Rumbha's leg snapped too. According to Ishtiaq, it was not a broken bone, nor even a dislocation. It was some vital nerve that suffered a traumatic injury, resulting in the leg getting inflamed and bloated out of all proportion.

Getting to work with his indigenous and native remedies, Ishtiaq treated and nursed her leg for almost one month. Rumbha showed signs of recovery, the inflammation on her leg subsided, but she didn't attain full fitness. She was checked up on 21st January by doctors from Pantnagar, who prescribed tonics and calcium tablets to speed up her recovery. But that probably was not ordained. She stopped eating her rations from the next day, despite all efforts from her human friends to coerce or force-feed her. Six days of starvation for an ailing elephant took their toll, and on 27th morning, she fell down heavily on her face. That, according to Ishtiaq, was an ominous sign. All her desperate efforts to get up, even with the support of the puny human hands, sapped whatever little energy that may have been left in her emaciated frame. Nayyar, a forest department staffer, gave her two bottles of intravenous glucose, but it was already too late. By the time I arrived at Dhikala at noon, all hopes had been lost, and when I sat down near her with Ishtiaq, we were just two of a group of helpless onlookers, desolately awaiting the passing of a forest giant.

While we sat near her late into the night, Rumbha's death throes continued. She kept writhing and stretching her legs again and again. Each movement resulted in a discharge of urine, indicating that her sphincter muscles had succumbed to the weakness. But not once did she utter a sound. When Irfan, her characut pushed in a lump of gur into her mouth, she weakly but firmly twirled her trunk around his arm and clearly told him not to do that. And so, all that her human retinue could do was to stoke the fire to keep it burning warmly, and to keep adjusting the huge cotton gadda that was her protection from the night dew, and which repeatedly kept falling off her jerky, twitching body.

Before retiring for the night, I stroked her gently for the last time, and promised myself that I would not come near her again, and thus avoid seeing her in mortal agony. The thrill of coming to Corbett had transformed into sadness, and even the sighting of a magnificent male tiger that crossed from under the Dhikala watchtower, had failed to dissipate the gloom. Next morning, I was told that she spent the night in great discomfort, and that the road gang labourers had now been requisitioned to start digging the pit that would be her grave. Not feeling brave enough to face the end, I came away from Dhikala, foolishly confident that I had left her alive, and hoping that she just might survive after all.                            

Since then I have had one thing uppermost on my mind. I wanted everyone who knew and loved Rumbha to know about her passing, but the hope for the miracle to happen kept alive. The dreaded news however arrived on 4th February when Suresh Pant, a Dhikala staff member, came to visit me.

Rumbha died at 8.45 PM on 28th of January 1998. Her gaunt body now rests within the Dhikala camp, at the very spot where she had fallen down to breathe her last. Ishtiaq's companion of fourteen years, and the favourite of countless Indian and foreign wildlife enthusiasts, has finally passed on to the Happy Hunting Grounds.