Encountering Elephants In India

Indian Elephant Made From Papier Mache
Indian Elephants Made From Papier Maché

Seeing Elephants

Spotting elephants walking in the road is not the norm for a Western woman like myself.

However, I am happy to say that I have now experienced that phenomenon in India.

Marriage Partners

Getting married in India means that the bride’s family gets out the great guns, and that is what led to my first sighting of an Asian elephant swaying down a neighborhood street.

Made up for the occasion with white markings on her face and body, she was accompanied on a street in Udaipur by a group of musicians decked out in red and white.

Gracing The City of Lakes

Also known as the romantic ‘City of Lakes’, Udaipur is located in the state of Rajasthan in western India and its ambiance provides a lovely setting for tying the knot.

So although the bride and groom were not on the scene yet, these other participants were there in anticipation of the big event.

Indian Wedding Elephant
Indian Wedding Elephant

Standing back a bit in the street, David took another shot of her being given a pep talk by her handler. As you can see, her name is Ranu. And as her handler explained to us, she was wonderfully decorated to participate in the wedding festivities.

Ranu - The Indian Wedding Elephant
Ranu - The Indian Wedding Elephant

Seeing A Mom And Baby From An Open Jeep

Several weeks after this, I spotted elephants on the path beind us – but this time it was from the back of an open jeep. I had never traveled about in such a vehicle before, which made eyeing pachyderms all the more fun from its vantage point.

The setting this time was in Rajaji National Park. The park is a tranquil area of scrub and forest covering about 300 square miles (800 square km) in the foothills near the holy town of Haridwar, which is located where the Ganges becomes visible as it flows down from the Himalayas.

As you can see, this time what I saw was an Asian elephant mom and baby out for a stroll in the middle of a lovely afternoon:

Elephants In Rajaji National Park
Elephants In Rajaji National Park

Lucking Out

There were four of us in the jeep that day – David, our guide, another man visiting the park, and myself.

The weather was sunny and mild. Besides being fortunate with the weather, at the end of our ride our guide told us we had also lucked out because we had seen about fifteen wild elephants besides this pair.

Wet Versus Dry

Apparently many people go to the park in search of elephants but they never see any. Our guide explained that this is especially true when there has been rain.

Why is this so? Because when it’s dry, the elephants in the park congregate at waterholes. The guides know those waterholes, and so they can drive tourists straight to them.

However, when it rains, the elephants can drink from many areas in the park.

That is why we were doubly lucky to see elephants as we did because it had rained just the day before.

Spotting A Woebegone Fellow

Through his binoculars (and too far away to be photographed), David also saw a makna, as the perpetually sexually frustrated elephant is called.

David called the animal to the rest of us in the jeep, whereupon we all leaped for our own binoculars to view the poor creature.

Maknas – Unfortunate Elephants Who Never Mate

Now why are maknas in such a sad state, you may wonder?

Well, maknas are bull elephants without tusks. Because of this, female elephants find them unappealing and they will not mate with them.

To rub salt into the wound, these poor maknas have the unfortunate distinction of always being in must.

What Being In Must Means to Elephants

During must, the temporal glands of adult male elephants become swollen. They exude a strong-smelling liquid that is rich in testosterone, and this liquid runs in rivulets down the sides of their heads. The must is, of course, designed to attract female elephants.

Males are very aggressive as well as being sexually active during this must season.

How Maknas Exhibit Signs Of Perpetual Must

For the maknas, must never ends and they never mate. Perhaps one saving grace is that many Indian mahouts (elephant trainers) believe that maknas have a milder form of must than tuskers (male elephants with tusks) do.

You can tell a makna because he’s large like his fellow tuskers but without the tusks. You can also spot the potent fluid running in rivulets from the gland on the side of their head as we did during our visit to Rajaji National Park.

No Relief In Sight

Because maknas are noted for being dangerous because they are always suffering from their rampaging hormones from which they get no relief, our guide went into alert mode and readied our jeep into gear so he could reverse out of danger.

Luckily the makna did not come any nearer to us, and instead he continued on his way.

Teatime, Elephant Style

At the end of our tour, our guide took us to visit his relatives who lived just outside the boundaries of the park.

They had several rescue elephants whom we had the pleasure of seeing, including this tusker who was having an early evening snack consisting of a pile of whole wheat flat bread called ‘roti’.

Indian Elephant Eating Roti
Indian Elephant Eating Roti

Elephant Destinies

This animal seemed happy with his lot, which gladdened our hearts since we had felt so bad for the sad-looking makna whom we had seen less than an hour beforehand.

And so once again we saw how life does not deal a fair hand to everyone, including in the Asian elephant world in India into which we had had some fascinatingly diverse glimpses.


  1. says

    I love Elephants and really quite envious of you for experiencing them at such close quarters. Anyway shall travel more in time no doubt :-)

    Love the background info and as ever really interesting to read :-)

  2. Tamara Colloff-Bennett says

    Hi Nick,

    I agree with you: Elephants are wonderful!! And so smart, as most people concur. So I hope you do get the opportunity to greet them up close, it is quite astonishing to experience.

    Many thanks for your compliment about the article otherwise, I appreciate it.

    Oh, and one last thing: If/when you do go – remember to avoid going during the very hottest months as the heat is very extreme, as no doubt you have heard.

    ‘Happy Trails’ to you in the future, then…

    • Tamara Colloff-Bennett says

      You’re welcome, and I’m glad you found the article interesting. Yes, I agree with you – elephants all decked out for a wedding look wonderful!

  3. Mark Mansram says

    Thanks for sharing your experience with elephants. I get terrified everytime I happen to drive down from Tura to Siju. I wish I could somehow avoid the two elephant zones that come in between these two places, but there is only one way.

    A week ago or so a couple of people were attacked by an elephant in the and both died. A few days before this incident happened our doctor and two other employees who are currently stationed at a primary health centre (PHC) in Siju were coming to Tura in a hospital ambulance. They started from Siju at five in the morning. The doctor was driving and the driver sat at the back seat of the ambulance. The road is just enough for one vehicle to pass by and is full of curves.

    A twenty minutes drive from the PHC at one of curves, the vehicle suddenly comes to a halt. “Stop the vehicle!” said the driver who was seated at the back seat. “We’ll have to wait, let the big ones cross first”. In front of them were five adult elephants trying to cross-over to the other side of the road way into the jungles.

    They halted there and waited for the elephants to cross-over and then resumed their journey towards Tura.

    I was glad that they reached Tura safely.

  4. Tamara Colloff-Bennett says

    Hi Mark,

    My pleasure sharing our experiences with the elephants, and thanks for your detailed story here about your experiences.

    Yes, we all realize how dangerous elephants are, and how sad that those two people you mentioned were killed by one recently.

    Well, I’m glad that later on here you wrote how you reached Tura safely – and it must have been something to watch five adult elephants crossing the road in front of you before you resumed your journey!

  5. Tamara Colloff-Bennett says

    Hi Sandeep,

    I know that India has such a dense population, but I didn’t realize even though we traveled there that there are so many elephants in the country!

    What springs to mind first is because so many animals are endangered now – very much including tigers who are in real trouble worldwide and particularly in India – how nice it is that there are so many elephants in the country and that they co-exist so well with the local population.

    Many thanks for this interesting factual comment, I appreciate it.

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