The Amazons

Today we spent some time among a group that we fondly call ‘The Amazons.’  They are quite simply the biggest females we have ever seen.  Amazons, of course, are the famed fictional tribe of female (human) warriors.  This group of elephants isn’t particularly fierce, they are just quite tall.  What’s special about them is that they have a penchant for coming up to the jeep, and for all intents and purposes, appearing to fall asleep around us (standing up).  It’s not entirely clear to us whether this is unique to our jeep, or whether they would do the same to any other vehicle that showed up in front of them and sat still long enough.  We remember the first day we ever met this group… July 13, 2007 — We were following Chandrika.  We were on an old logging road, now kept as a fire belt, called Kota road.  These days the teak is gone, but the tall grass and scrub are where many herds spend the daytime, breaking out into the open along the edge of the reservoir from time to time. Up ahead we spotted a separate herd of elephants.  We didn’t recognize them, so we paused to take photographs, planning to catch up with Chandrika soon afterwards.  We stopped some distance away, which didn’t bother the group much, and they continued grazing.  Within a few moments however, they perked up and looked off to the distance.  We saw and heard it soon enough.  It was a regular tourist jeep, but packed with a lively crowd.  Someone was also apparently on his cell phone. As they approached, the group blew and bounced their trunks on the ground, pawed at the the earth, tossed dust over themselves, and periscoped with their trunks. The jeep pulled up alongside the herd, its engine running.  They backed away in a hurry, one of them spun in place and stared at the newcomers with a backward glance over her shoulder, ears pinned back and trunk up.  But rather than retreat, they soon turned around and advanced in a tight phalanx.  They made little noise, and they didn’t run.  But it was too close for the comfort of the crowd in the jeep.  The driver hastily got his vehicle in gear and pulled away.  They skirted around our own jeep and were gone. The elephants uttered a few rumbles and trumpets of protest, walking behind them a few paces before losing interest.  They scattered.  A few resumed grazing on the other side of the road, while others lingered on, seemingly at a loss for what to do next.  It was then they noticed us. Redirecting her curiosity, an adult female ambled up to the rear of our jeep and peered at us.  We’ll call her Amaya.  She was the one who had spun around earlier.  Some calves and sub-adults encircled us, jostling and bumping against each other, as if they had just gotten permission to sneak into a movie theater and no one wanted to be left behind.  Their eyes were bright, cautious but eager to investigate and full of bravado since they had an adult close at hand. The tracker in our jeep was fortunately a weathered old hand, and this did not daunt him one bit.  He promptly fell asleep.  We hurriedly readied our audio and video equipment in case anything interesting happened. The adult female advanced parallel to the passenger’s side, her body rubbing against the jeep, as if purposely testing our resolve.  Her ear creased against a bar and unfurled with a leathery thud.  One big eye with beautiful lashes ogling the oblivious human inside.  We had our first and most accurate measure of elephant height and body length!  Just about the length of our Defender, minus the hood, which was about 2 meters.  And she was quite tall for a female, nearly as tall as the vehicle. Presently another adult female approached.  She was shorter, but clearly much older.  Her ears were long, one with a torn tip.  Behind her, a young female timidly followed, peering at us from behind everyone else.  The elder one clearly had much authority.  We’ll call her Aachchi, which means ‘Grandmother‘ in Sinhalese.  At a very soft growl from Aachchi, they had gathered alongside, touching her.  Amaya felt the corner of Aachchi’s mouth and face with the tip of her trunk.  All but one – a second adult was still about 20 meters away.  We thought it might be a male, it was so tall.  Turned away from us, the round belly and raised backbone resembled a small dagoba. The herd froze, still surrounding us.  To our utter disbelief, they seemed to fall asleep on their feet in the middle of the road.  Aachchi had her eyes closed, as if in meditation.  Only the occasional ear flap and shifting of weight betrayed they weren’t life-sized statues.  The minutes ticked by placidly.  Not wanting to disturb them, and fascinated at this opportunity to observe so closely, we stayed where we were and took notes.  We hardly dared to breathe, lest we break the spell. Unfortunately, Ashoka sneezed. The elder’s eyes opened in an instant, and again she uttered a soft purring sound.  At this, the distant adult finally approached.  We could see now she was clearly female, but she towered, nearly half a foot taller than any of the others in the group and certainly the tallest female we had ever seen.  It was difficult to say who was older – her cheeks and forehead were sunken in, just as much as Aachchi’s.  Her name would be Ayanthi. She walked straight through the middle of the crowd, and craned her head upward, looking directly into the video camera Ashoka was holding.  She looked back and forth at the occupants in the little wheeled cage before her, amber eyes wide, her ears outspread. Having had enough of this distraction, the two elders strode away.  The group spread out once more, grazing. As it turned out, Ashoka had had the presence of mind to set off his stop watch.  It had been just about 63 minutes.  We’d spent just over an hour rooted in the peaceful midst of a single elephant herd.  We barely felt the time.

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