Sept 07 (Hindu) Raja, the elephant, frequently hung out by the side of the dirt road leading through Yala National Park to the Buddhist temple of Sithulpahuwa, Sri Lanka. He tugged at the foliage lackadaisically, an elephant minding his own business.
A van crammed with pilgrims approached and the driver paused, uncertain whether to zip around the elephant or wait for him to move. Raja showed no sign of leaving, so the driver edged closer. Once the vehicle was near enough, Raja abandoned his pretence. He swung around and blocked the path. A pilgrim offered a couple of bananas. Happy with his toll, Raja moved aside and let the vehicle pass. Rom and I witnessed this scene numerous times.
Farther up the road, at the temple complex, pilgrims fed fried snacks, fruits, biscuits, and picnic leftovers to a troop of grey langurs. Sometimes, Raja would wander up to join the party. When food ran out and it was time for the pilgrims to leave, the teashop owner or a local guard would fashion a torch by setting fire to a wad of newspaper and chase the elephant away.
We love sharing food. Festivals usually culminate in a grand meal with friends and family. We invite friends home and feed them. By extension, we feed creatures too.
Feeding animals encourages them to intrude on our space. When they approach closer, we complain of a nuisance animal problem. Raja turned into a highway bully after being fed by well-meaning pilgrims. Although this story took place in Sri Lanka, Indians also feed animals such as monkeys, nilgai, and sambhar in various sanctuaries across the country. Compassion or wanting to earn divine favours drives our generosity. In reality, we play with animal lives and ours.
Barring a few exceptions, animals rarely share food. They gift morsels to their mates during courtship. Parents feed young until they can fend for themselves. Otherwise it is common for dominant individuals to snatch food from low-ranking members. So when we feed them, what do they make of our gesture? Wolfgang Dittus, a primatologist with the Smithsonian Primate Biology Program, says monkeys begin to see humans as subordinates. Thereafter, if any human withholds food, monkeys will grab, threaten, and turn aggressive.
We often wondered what Raja would do if a vehicle didn't stop to feed him. Rom was driving on the Sithulpahuwa route, when he saw Raja and stopped. A pilgrim van approached from the other side, with a picnic strapped to the roof rack. The driver tried to sneak past, but Raja would have none of that. He leaned on the van, wrapped his trunk around the roof, and tried to bite the roof rack.
The desperate driver tried to speed away but could get no traction. With Raja's weight bearing down on one side, two wheels were lifted off the road, and the van swayed. Panic-stricken people, including an elderly woman, poured out of the vehicle. A ranger riding with Rom yelled at them to get back inside before the elephant turned on one of them. In the pandemonium, no one obeyed.