Zoo

Encounters of the elephant kind

Toby Ninan retired from Delhi Zoo about two years back. With his varied experiences with the wild animals in the zoo, he is the right person to direct your queries to. Hear what Ninan has to say about his life and chosen career!

Elephants, though very intelligent, have their moods - strong likes & dislikes - like a large number of us. They are a great hit at all ceremonial occasions & look very majestic especially when they are decked up in colorful trappings like ornate 'howdahs', richly embroidered back cover up & golden headdresses.

The Republic Day Parade is one of those occasions when elephants are taken out in parade with the children awarded for bravery,  riding these majestic animals.

For a number of years,I had the privilege of leading the elephant brigade but my function was purely that of keeping some 50 paces behind the fire brigade - these being mechanical would & could easily keep a constant speed but the elephants had a very leisurely pace & could easily fall behind the slot which was allotted to them; this was especially bad because the folk dancers (following the elephants) were again notorious for stepping  out of their slot.

I had another job to do and this was to see that the elephants were behaving properly.  If (God forbid)  any one of these animals ran amuck, they would have to be put down by the sharp shooting army escort under my command.

Well everything had gone off well & the elephants, brave children and  army escorts,  were all waiting for their turn near the parliament house. I certainly could not have led the parade in my ragged jeans & scruffy shirt so I was grandly dressed up in an ornate achkan  which once had belonged to the Diwan of a princely state in Himachal Pradesh. The Diwan's grandson was a colleague of mine & he graciously lent the dress for this occasion. I wore a pair of churidar pyjamas with a beautiful turban on my head & I also wore some ornate "joothies". 

I was standing in front of one of our   elephants "Bholi". Now, "Bholi" was a somewhat bad tempered or rather a moody animal but we (she & I) used to get along like a house on fire. What I & any one else did not realise was that I had been given a generous spray of "Attar" i.e; the strong smelling rose scent which nearly proved to be my last day on earth. "Bholi" just could not smell my body scent & she got very upset by a strangely dressed being,  enveloped by an upsetting scent, standing nonchalantly in front of her.

She made up her mind that this being would have to pay a dear price for this behaviour & slowly but surely she gathered up the backdrop of the flowing "achkan" in her trunk & was just about to yank me off the ground when I felt a gentle tug on the "achkan" &  just in time I realized that I was about to be lifted  up & smashed to the ground by an upset elephant. I could only do one thing & that was to yell "Bholi".  Hearing the familiar sound of her name she let go of the "achkan".   Though I was slightly shaking, I went up to my pachyderm friend & apologized profusely for my lack of manners. She accepted this graciously & when her turn came to join the parade, behaved really well so that I could reward her with a couple of "laddoos" when we were done & ready to go back to the zoo.

Bholi had previously belonged to a princely family & was used to being served,huge " thalifuls" of laddoos on ceremonial occasions by the princesses so this was hardly a snack but she understood the gesture & I had learnt a good lesson!




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