Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Beast of Bardia

This is a report on the observation of certain large elephants found whose appearance conforms to that of the ancient ice age mammoths.  The most noticeable feature is the characteristic double skull dome.

This allows us a couple of conjectures.  The first is that the ice age mammoth was a larger version of the Indian elephant that had grown a protective coat of hair and fur for the harsh conditions.  We suspected that already, but this sample shows just how close they were.  Simple largeness leads to the appropriate changes though triggering fur surely takes more.

That is important.  This means that the mammoth was an Indian elephant and that it could be domesticated.  That means that ice age man could have operated throughout the mammoth’s range using the mammoth as his conveyance exactly as described by our fantasy artists.  I think that he also had little choice.

This huge hunting range was wonderfully stocked with large and plentiful deer and bison and a whole related bestiary including oversized versions of wolves and lions such as the mega lion.  Mankind on foot was overwhelmed in face of such a confrontation just out in the open.

In partnership with transport mammoths and dogs, they would intimidate even the large carnivores.  Their advantage to a mammoth herd was also huge.  They could assist in protecting the young from those same carnivores and help in grooming and general care as we do the domesticated African elephant today.

A mammoth man team could also have passed the Bering Strait and made their way through even the ice possibly south.  It would be well understood that in the south lay clear fields and the intervening snow fields were at least reduced along lowland structures like the Alberta corridor.  Likely wolves were observed passing through and a modicum bit of preparation would make it possible.

It is reasonable that the man mammoth culture emerged as early as early Cro-Magnon man and sustained itself until the demise of the ice age around 13,000 years ago.  That span could be a full 100,000 years.

In search of the Beast of Bardia

The explorer John Blashford-Snell's latest quest: to find a near-mythical elephant in Nepal

By Charlie Norton

Published: 9:00AM BST 14 Oct 2010

Col John Blashford-Snell's team comes across an elephant with a distinctive twin-domed head - is this the Beast of Bardia? Photo: Giulio di Sturco/VII Mentor Program

Dawn is the perfect time of day in the jungle – strips of dewy light cut through the cool haze before the power of the sun breaks through.

Eight feet below me, a couple of hog deer scatter from their resting place under a blanket of pungent-smelling bonmara. We have seen the tracks and we must be getting very close.

The hours tick by and the suspense mounts, but the beast we are tracking seems just out of reach. From my perch on the cushioned howdah I crane for a distant glimpse of the gargantuan creature – but the bush is still thick ahead.

The driver, the phanit, directs the elephant we are riding through a thicket with a light thwack of his stick, which sets her galumphing down to a silt beach by a shallow channel of the Karnali river.

Suddenly our party of six female elephants stop dead in their tracks, and you can sense wild bull elephant testosterone in the air. There he is, 40 yards in front of us, a colossal specimen with a giant twin-domed head and great sparkling tusks. We have surely found the Beast of Bardia.

I have joined an expedition in the jungle of Nepal with Colonel John Blashford-Snell’s Scientific Exploration Society (SES). We are on the trail of the infamous Raja Gaj, a hulking animal once considered to be more mammoth than elephant, but later discovered to be the largest specimen of Asiatic tusker ever recorded.

Blashford-Snell, one of the 20th century’s most colourful explorers, had first heard rumours of a mammoth-like bull elephant running riot in Bardia, a region of western Nepal, in 1987. Determined to get to the truth behind the legend, he collected evidence of footprints and rare sightings, and listened to tales of death and destruction.

The beast, then aged in its mid-forties, was seen only at night when it emerged from the forest to feed on village gardens and smash down the heavy mud walls of houses. It had probably been responsible for the deaths of several Nepalese villagers through trampling. Blashford-Snell listened to tales about the elephant’s massive domed head and tusks and heard claims that it was a direct descendant of the extinct woolly mammoth, one of an aggressive sub-species that had genetically evolved in the Nepalese jungle.

Blashford-Snell was certainly the man for the job. Born in Jersey in 1936, he spent 37 years in the Army. Now 73, he has organised and led more than 100 expeditions to the frontiers of the world. Still an imposing, lean figure, Blashford-Snell has never lost his appetite for adventure.

As a Royal Engineer in 1968 he made the first ever descent of the Blue Nile from its source, Lake Tana in Ethiopia, to the Sudanese border. 'People thought we were mad when we said we would go down the rapids in rubber boats,’ he said. 'But it worked.’ This was the inspiration for white-water rafting as we know it today.

In 1974/5 he navigated almost all of the 2,700 miles of the Congo. He also established the youth charity now known as Raleigh International, running volunteer projects and global expeditions. In 2000 he managed to take a grand piano through the jungle to the musical Wai Wai tribe in Guyana.

Blashford-Snell first tracked down two of the giant Nepalese elephants on an expedition to the Bardia National Park in Nepal in 1992. The SES party estimated the height of the larger bull to be 11ft 3in at the shoulder, its weight close to eight tons, its tusks more than 7ft long. They named it Raja Gaj, King Elephant.

Further SES expeditions to the area recorded the existence of a herd of up to 50, including cows and calves. A television documentary, Mammoth Hunt, was made about Blashford-Snell – the film crew survived a full-blooded charge from Raja Gaj’s companion, Kancha, when all their equipment was scattered – and he co-wrote a book of the same name with the actress Rula Lenska, who went on one of the expeditions.

In 1992, following the publicity generated around Raja Gaj, the country’s wildlife conservation department enlisted 600 troops from the Nepalese Army to guard the Bardia park from poachers. But after the Maoist revolution in 2002 poachers encroached on the park again.

Six years ago Raja Gaj disappeared completely. There were rumours that he had been poached or swept away in a flood. But no remains were found. Then, last year, the Kathmandu press reported that Raja Gaj was back, a little leaner than before, but alive and about 70 years old, according to the Bardia game wardens.

It was a mystery Blashford-Snell could not resist. Was Raja Gaj really still alive after all this time? Or was it another massive tusker? He set about organising one more hunt for his long-lost friend. Now something of a celebrity in Nepal (there is a rapid on the Trisuli river called Snell’s Nose where Blashford-Snell broke his hooter), he was granted special permission from the government for a seven-day expedition this year.

The park, which covers more than 370 square miles, is like a land that time forgot. Its species include wild Asian elephants, Bengal tigers, one-horned rhinos, sloth bears, chital and sambhar deer (spotted and shaggy), black wild boar, monkeys, golden jackals, pink Gangetic dolphins, and long-snouted, fish-eating gharial crocodiles. Among the SES party for the expedition are crew from previous trips – from artists to zoologists and photographers – including Sue Hilliard, a fingerprint specialist with Mersey side police who is an expert at identifying the tuskers; Sir Charles Blois, an experienced adventurer; Ali Criado Perez, a nurse with Médecins sans Frontières; and Blashford-Snell’s wife, Judith, the ever-present and humorous foil to his grandiose ambition.

By the third day the expedition party has narrowed down the areas where the tuskers may be found but has discovered no tracks. In a party of six elephants, riding three to a howdah, we set off on a southern recce. We cross a small tributary where tiny golden mahseer fish sparkle around a fallen branch in the water. We wander for miles through tangled vegetation that would take a man with a machete days to pass through. Hitlaal, our phanit, gently massages the skin behind the ears of his elephant, Sonar Kali, with his bare toes.

He directs her left and right with his feet, and keeps her speed up with the odd whack on the head with a stick – about as hard as being castigated with a small twig would be for us. When we come to a seemingly impassable tree, Hitlaal gives the command to break the branches – 'Kuba! Kuba!’ – and with a couple of trunk-swats the obstacle is removed by our own private bulldozer.

We arrive at a sparsely populated savannah of imposing kapok trees, the macabre nature of their gothic branches and crimson flowers accentuated by a deer carcase at the foot of one of the trunks. Sightings include a scuttling mongoose, an Indian horned rhino, plated like an ancient war machine, and a sleepy python digesting its lunch. But still no wild tuskers.

It is funny how safe you feel on top of an elephant – ironic, because it is easy to forget the strength of your ride, which could flick you off and nonchalantly trample you to death if it felt like it. But there is an extraordinary bond between elephant and man. Humans have been training elephants since 3500BC; the Carthaginian general Hannibal crossed the Alps on his Atlas tuskers in 219bc. Elephants can understand 30 or more commands, but you have to be very careful when they are injured or jealous. It is not wise to swap the elephant you are riding on, or to be too widespread with your affection. In the late 1970s one of the females in our party, Madu Mala Kali (Honey Blossom), fought with another, Kristjen Bahadur, and when the handler walked over between them, she lashed out with her trunk and broke his back. He died from his injuries.

The care needed for domestic elephants requires a jungle pit-lane crew. As well as the phanit there is a mahout in charge of the elephant’s diet and health. Every day he must make 70 brick sandwiches of molasses and salt wrapped in folded grass; he has to be clever enough to get medicine down the elephants’ throats when they are adept at sensing and blowing out any powder in their food before they eat it. And then there is bath time. Every elephant is happiest when it is being bathed and scrubbed behind the ears.

When danger is near, elephants communicate by trumpeting or emitting a low growling sound. One afternoon there is a deep trembling inside Sonar Kali, an almost impalpable tremor of warning: tiger. The elephants come together and continue their growling, surrounding the area where a female tiger is crouching, 10 yards away. The tiger eyes us for a few seconds before strolling purposefully away; we glimpse her sleek, striped and muscled back as she slopes off into the jungle.

On the morning of the fourth day our luck changes. At first light we spy wild elephant tracks no more than a day old. Then we spot an enormous mound of dung and a trail of destruction, as if wrought by a steamroller, leading through the bush. We follow the tracks to a tributary of the Karnali where our elephants cross, wading through rapids five or six feet deep.

More broken branches on the other side lead through fields of yellow lentils into the village of Gola, where much damage has been done in the past. About 850 schoolchildren of the Dangora Tharus tribe are there to greet us. Last year, two children were trampled to death in the middle of the night by a wild bull elephant. The village has electric fences, but even so the children are 'very frightened by elephants’, the assistant headmaster, Tikaram Chaudhary, tells us.

'Hearts and minds of the locals are crucial,’ Blashford-Snell says as he hands out gifts of school and sports equipment. 'We must teach them about conservation so they will not have to poach to survive.’ Blashford-Snell and the children scramble up on to the backs of the domestic tuskers to play elephant soccer. The elephants pick up the ball with their trunks and wander off the pitch; then one of them treads on the ball and bursts it. The children scream with delight.

Just as we are starting to think about lunch, one of the team spies through his binoculars a wild elephant on the other side of the river. A ripple of excitement runs through the party.

'It looks like a huge bull,’ Blashford-Snell says. 'I can only see its behind, and it’s jolly big. If he has scars on his bottom then that’s Raja Gaj.’

We cross the river again and approach quietly on the left flank through the bush, but the bull is out of our eyeline for half an hour, which makes us nervous that he might appear at any moment. Another order snaps through the walkie-talkies from Blashford-Snell, who is leading the way on his elephant: 'We need identification before he gets away. Please try to take photos of his left buttock.’

For a split second, we come face to face with the gargantuan head of the bull. The rugged tusks and the head with its distinctive twin domes make him look like a wild ancient creature. Our domestic elephants freeze. As soon the bull sees us he throws up dust with his trunk and flees for the cover of the bush. He has no scars on his bottom. It is not Raja Gaj, the Beast of Bardia, but a stunning younger bull (about 25) with a similar domed head, hulking body, long tusks and sloping back. He turns to face us – it feels like a moment frozen in time, a few slow seconds of visceral excitement. Then he charges.

Our adrenaline goes into orbit. Hitlaal puts Sonar Kali into reverse, and we quickly shamble to a safe distance. 'I wouldn’t like to see what would happen if you didn’t back away from a bull like that,’ Blashford-Snell says.

At least we have had time to take pictures and a laser measurement down to his toes. The general feeling is that he must be the offspring of Raja Gaj, and he is swiftly named Rajim – son of Raja Gaj. Big though Rajim is (more than 9ft at the shoulder), he will not outgrow his father, according to Professor Adrian Lister of the Natural History Museum in London, who had been on previous SES expeditions to Bardia. It was Lister who had discovered in 1994 that the DNA of the Bardia tuskers matched that of the smaller Asian elephants, although their domed heads are reminiscent of their ancient Asiatic ancestor, the woolly mammoth.

'If Rajim is 25-30 and 9ft at the shoulder, he might grow to be 10ft 4in by the age of 40,’ Lister says. 'It is hard to speculate how much he may grow after this; some of these elephants continue to grow for the rest of their life.’

After I had left Bardia, the expedition encountered a second, smaller bull elephant and the footprints of about 18 wild elephants and their calves in a nearby valley – the future of these rare Nepalese tuskers seems secure. Raja Gaj may well be dead. Long live Rajim.

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