Elephant Man of Bandhavgadh - E Kuttappan.

Elephant Man of Bandhavgadh - E Kuttappan.

This entire theme is dedicated to my friend Deeps Sanghavi-Joshi. Without her assistance and encouragement this would not have been possible.

I have been seeing this man during my many visits to Bandhavgadh majestically riding Vanraj with his cowboy hat perched on his head in funny fashion. For over two decade this legendary mahout, naturalist and wildlife photographer followed particularly tigers of densely populated forest of Bandhavgadh. He maneuvered Vanraj and other elephants to patrol the park for past several years. When I met him at Barah Dam (part of Panpatha range of Bandhvgarh) he was locating a male sub-adult tiger who had strolled over from Tala range. He stopped for a while to greet me and went off in a flash in search of the sub-adult tiger.
Vanraj understood his master’s every command even before Mr. Kuttappan had commanded him. His tummy rumbled and loud expression of wind told us to get on our way. He understood the eagerness of locating the tiger for which Mr. Kuttappan had been appointed for. He seemed more eager than his handler to locate the tiger. He turned with slight nudged from Kuttappan and went off in flash with Kuttppan sitting astride majestically with his helper sitting behind.
Such affection between the beast and a man was phenomenal. During his long period of service at Bandhavgadh, Kttappan has witnessed most uncommon and natural history events. Many of these events he has captured in his camera.
He watched many families of tigers growing from childhood to sub-adult to adult. Kuttappan had opportunities to watch closely their playful acts, mock fights, stocking small preys and later creating their own territory. I was determined to get as much information as possible for the wild life enthusiasts in world to know him better, about his work, how he came to Bandhavgarh and his encounters with tigers, forest officials, his thoughts and meeting highly influential people who admired him for his thorough knowledge of tigers.

Dedicated to Deeps Sanghavi-Joshi.
Kuttappan began his life story when I met him at his residence. He was lost in past, probing his memory to be unfolded. His Malyalam language was lost years back and he spoke Hindi fluently. He arrived from Kerala a place called Calicut when he was 18 years old. Along came four more with their elephants and they all settled in Bandhavgadh for ever. One of the five mahouts was E. Abraham Kuttappan who later became India’s most accomplished wildlife photographers.
He rode an elephant named Taramati who had an excellent rapport with Kuttappan. His thoughts automatically transmitted to her. One day, early morning - Kuttappan went into forest to fetch Taramati who was let lose previous evening to feed into forest. He knew there was a Man eater roaming in the forest. Duty first, he ignored the fact and went looking for her. After an hour, he noticed her feeding on soft grass in meadows. Small bushes and bamboos closed view beyond either sides of the muddy road. Unaware that a tiger lurked beyond cluster of bamboo perfectly camouflaged and waiting, Kuttappan walked toward him. But Taramati who was nearby had already seen the tiger waiting to pounce, rushed forward before the man eater could charge. She pushed bamboos
with her head before tiger could charged. With an unexpected charged by the elephant, tiger panicked and ran into forest with loud woof sound.
Kuttappan realized how close he had encounter death. He froze in his track with fear until he felt soothing feeling over his head. He looked up and noticed Taramati was assuring him with her trunk as though telling a child that the danger had passed away and there is no need to worry. Such was the close tie between the beast and man who live for each other and can’t think of being separated.

It is just a matter of Kuttappan entering the forest and he transfers himself into man of purpose. His concentration and communication with Taramati (his elephant - years ago) was commendable. His communication with Taramati and guidance she received through his physical touch such as his toes and knees was superb. It was an example of fine tuning of communication between man and elephant. This shows how a man can overtake a physically huge and mighty animal with his affection and skill. He narrated many incidents to me. One of it was how Taramati picked up things dropped or fell from hands of people were retrieved back to them with mere just a touch. Such was commendable rapport and supremacy between two.
Kuttappan owned a Agfa Click-III type of camera which cost him Rs.128/- which was half of his monthly salary. His liking and photography skill flourished when one of his black and white images of a tiger was published in India’s leading Hindi newspaper ‘Navbharat Times’. This was the momentum for him to become one of the finest wildlife phototographer.
Arrived from Kerala, Kuttappan does not show any sigh of typical Malyalam language. Moreover he speaks Hindi with such fluency that we find difficult to speak. His desire to be close to forest, among wild cats and his elephant was immense. He said he could not even think of being away from wither of them. Don’t give me food for an entire day, but keep me with elephant and that is how I will survive-those were his words that shows how deeply he is involved with his surroundings.

Kuttappan, a dark, average height, oiled black hair and piercing eyes knows Bandhavgadh National Park like back of his hand. He usually talks very little about himself and more about forest and wildlife living within. It took me quite a while to break his shell and make him talk about himself.
Kuttappan was born in Charmora Village of Calicut in Kerala on February 27th 1952. Father - Abraham was a carpenter. He would still be continuing his ancestor business – carpentry if it had not been for his friend who told him about M.P. Govt. is intending to buy 5 elephants in 1970. Kuttappan was only 18 years old when he grabbed the idea of being mahout. Elephants were his fascination but there was one small snag – Kuttappan was not a trained mahout.
Determined Kttappan was not crippled with this problem. He approached an expert mahout to train him for a whole year including six months training at an elephant camp in Topslip, Parambikulam. He was elated when asked about his decision whether right or wrong. His spontaneous response was, “ I always dreamed to be a mahout and it was the best choice I made in my life”.
Geeta was his companion for next six months. Kuttappan never left her side. He would often spend long time with speaking to her, making friends with her and reassuring her. This was necessary for him to be in control of her. Soon the result paid off. The bond between man and elephant tightened. Kuttappan took no long to learn the basic of mahout due to his interest and hard work to learn. No elephant will ever tie close relation with a mahout unless he build his relation with her with bathing, massaging and offering special treats to convey his relation with him/her is just beyond work.

Finally when the call came, Kuttppan set with other mahout with their respective elephant for Bori in M.P. in a goods train. After seven long days they reached their destination.
They worked five years at Bori hauling logs. In 1974 he married Jaibun the daughter of other mahout at Bori. Not even a year had passed for their marriage when Kuttappan was almost killed by another elephant called Rani. She was still being trained for work. She violently threw Kuttappan off her back. The moment Kuttppan fell on the floor, she almost leaned on his chaste with her knee to kill him. The other mahout somehow rescued him. Kuttappan was vomiting blood due to the internal injuries. He was hospitalized for a month.
1976, Kuttappan think it was major transformed period in his life. It so happened was that Late Mrs. Indira Gandhi noticed the forest being ravaged for timber. She placed an immediate order that the timber felling must immediately be stopped. The mahouts at Bori were jobless. They had to be accommodated and hence they were dispersed to Kanha, Chindwara and to Bandhavgadh. In Kuttappan words “God sent me to bandhavgarh” where he made his final home for his fife.
Instead of dealing with the trees like lifting and carrying them, his new job was to explore forest of Bandhvgarh, protect tigers and help people to enjoy the nature at Bandhvgarh. His present partner elephant was Lata.

1976. Kuttappan was now reborn. It seems he reincarnated to do the precisely what he dreamed to do. When he began his work Bandhavgadh National Park, it had an area of just 105 Sq.Km and was unknown to outside world. It had grade of Sanctuary and later was declared as National Park. He recollects the trio who inspired him. They were DHO-Mr.Tiwari, District collector – Mr. Ajit Singh and Commissioner of Rewa – Mr. Mali. These trios passed on their passion on to Kuttappan. They spoke about their experience to other and more people flocked to Bandhavgadh to experience.
At the time VIP were taken on elephants during night. Kuttappan was happiest person on earth to take them to the forest and show them tigers on kills by torchlight. Kuttappan used his all skill, sight, experience and sixth sense to locate tiger.
Bandhavgadh soon became one of the prominent forests among other. Many wildlife watchers began to visit it. This included highly influential political people like Prime Ministers, Chief Ministers, govt. diplomats and celebrities. Kuttappan was most sought after person. He became famous among highly influential people. This was the making of Kuttappan he said. Perhaps this was the cause of troubles in his life which he never estimated.

He recalls, he was separated from Lata in no time of appointment. He says the elephants are highly communicative and they develop close bonds with mahouts. When he was separated, it was like a losing a family member. Lata was handed over to another mahout.
Kuttappan never lost hopes. Soon he was asked to handle Taramati a elephant bought in Sonpur mela (fair) in Bihar. Kuttappan and Taramati were partners for five years. They became star of Bandhavgadh. Kuttappan taught her to sense tigers. She became fearless and virtually smelled tigers out. Visitors were delighted to have seen a tiger,
Later in 1984, Kuttappan was handed over a yet another elephant named Gautam which was brought from Kerala in 1976. This was the longest period of 16 years for both the man and the mighty-intelligent elephant to remain in company of each other. They learned from each other and both worked in unison.
Bandhavgadh was shot to fame in world by three aspects Kuttappan, Gautama and Sita, .the tigress of Bandhavgadh. Sita was hardly two years old when she separated from her mother. World began to experience the phenomenal relationship between these three. Sita, now used to the duo of Kuttappana and Gautam completely trusted them and began to appear from nowhere when these two used to be around.
Sita became very famous and even a television channel-National Geography began to shoot documentary of her. Undoubtedly Sita became ‘Queen Mother of Bandhavgadh’. She is the one who gave birth to almost all tigers in tourism zone of Bandhavgadh today. The present renowned tiger named B2 happens to be of them. There is also a spot named after her in Bandhavgadh called as Sita Mandap which was part of her territory.
She would allow other passer male tigers to share her territory and one of them was Charger the famous tiger of Bandhavgadh.

Elephants are well known for their intelligence remarks Kuttappan. Ha said, he hardly had to do to locate Sita. Gautam almost immediately used to sniff her out. It was a trio union and they met daily. This was a treat for the tourists who flocked Bandhavgadh. Kuttappan used his rough- funny voice and Gautam using his snuffling breath assured Sita. Kuttappan recollects a documentary film shot by Chandola Sahib for Survival Anglia showing Sita as in main role.
How Sita trusted both Gautam and Kuttappam was narrated by Kutappan himself. In the documentary, it was recorded that Sita sat not more than 100 meter from her cubs. Her two cubs were sick and thin. They needed medical assistance. But it was very difficult to use the tranquilizer as it was very difficult to measure the dose. It could prove fatal if used wrongly. The only solution was to approach cubs personally and inject them with medicinal drugs for recovery.
Field Director K.K. Singh planned a strategy to accomplish the plan. Every one knew the relation between the trio and they used it to their purpose. They reached the site where Sita sat with her cubs far from them, Kuttappam calmly got off Gautam accompanied by Mr. B, K. Singh to administer an injection to the cubs. Sita seeing Kuttappam did not object them nearing her cubs. They completed the task and returned to Gautam without being harmed.
Later, one of the cubs died but the other survived.

uttappan was not always available in the evening as normally every one does after work. His job was to be present on duty 24 hours depending upon the area and kind work he was assigned to. But whenever I met him during my visits Bandhavgadh, he related those tiger sightings that normally rarely someone gets during safari. His long time association with Bandhavgadh always made him touchy about future of this forest..
Gautam meant lot to Kutappan. He talked lot about him. I could understand his respect and feelings for this mighty animal. He lets him free after work for long time in forest to feed. Gautam loved this. Kuttappan always let him have his freedom. He wandered around in forest feeding on grass and tender branches. He used to stroll far away while feeding. It was difficult for Kuttappan to locate him in the morning. Their routine was set. Kuttappan never allows tourist to get friendly with his elephant. Elephants are temperamental. He says, any friendly gesture on the part of a tourist may be taken as aggression by elephants.
After the safari and elephant rides, all tourists disperse to their respective hotels to rest and breakfast. But it is not so with mahouts. They have to take their respective elephant to the nearest water source to bathe them and clean all the mud they spray on their body to keep away ticks and insects.
Bandhavgadh has three water sources. First one is Amba Nala which also has a forest camp, second is Charanganaga River which flows from Shesh Shaiya and third is Damnar Nadi in the center of the forest. These water sources are the prime spots for elephant bathing.

Elephants are well known for their intelligence remarks Kuttappan. Ha said, he hardly had to do to locate Sita. Gautam almost immediately used to sniff her out. It was a trio union and they met daily. This was a treat for the tourists who flocked Bandhavgadh. Kuttappan used his rough- funny voice and Gautam using his snuffling breath assured Sita. Kuttappan recollects a documentary film shot by Chandola Sahib for Survival Anglia showing Sita as in main role.
How Sita trusted both Gautan and Kuttappam was narrated by Kutappan himself. In the documentary, it was recorded that Sita sat not more than 100 meter from her cubs. Her two cubs were sick and thin. They needed medical assistance. But it was very difficult to use the tranquiliser as it was very difficult to measure the dose. It could prove fatal if used wrongly. The only solution was to approach cubs personally and inject them with medicinal drugs for recovery.
Field Director K.K. Singh planned a strategy to accomplish the plan. Every one knew relation between the trio and they used it to their purpose. They reached the site where Sita sat with her cubs far from them, Kuttappam calmly got off Gautam accompanied by Mr. B, K. Singh to administer an injection to the cubs. Sita seeing Kuttappam did not object them nearing her cubs. They completed the task and returned to Gautam without being harmed.
Later, one of the cubs died but the other survived.

Kuttappan was not always available in the evening as normally every one does after work. His job was to be present on duty 24 hours depending upon the area and kind work he was assigned to. But whenever I met him during my visits Bandhavgadh, he related those tiger sightings that normally rarely someone gets during safari. His long time association with Bandhavgadh always made him touchy about future of this forest..
Gautam meant lot to Kutappan. He talked lot about him. I could understand his respect and feelings for this mighty animal. He lets him free after work for long time in forest to feed. Gautam loved this. Kuttappan always let him have his freedom. He wandered around in forest feeding on grass and tender branches. He used to stroll far away while feeding. It was difficult for Kuttappan to locate him in the morning. Their routine was set. Kuttappan never allows tourist to get friendly with his elephant. Elephants are temperamental. He says, any friendly gesture on the part of a tourist may be taken as aggression by elephants.
After the safari and elephant rides, all tourists disperse to their respective hotels to rest and breakfast. But it is not so with mahouts. They have to take their respective elephant to the nearest water source to bathe them and clean all the mud they spray on their body to keep away ticks and insects.
Bandhavgadh has three water sources. First one is Amba Nala which also has a forest camp, second is Charanganaga River which flows from Shesh Shaiya and third is Damnar Nadi in the center of the forest. These water sources are the prime spots for elephant bathing.

Kuttappan for some time took part in ‘Tiger Shows” that presently being conducted in Kanha and Bandhavgadh in Madhya Pradesh from middle of 1980. It was banned few years ago but due to political pressure it was reintroduced. It is pathetic some time to see a tiger being cornered from all sides to show as decorative piece to few spectators. His freedom is deprived.
Kuttappan is an experienced mahout. Over years he has understood elephants as much as elephants have understood him. His ability to control them and make them to do precisely what he intended was amazing. His care and love for elephants also made elephants trust him. Kuttappan had watched tigers in different pockets of Bandhavgadh in various acts. His encounters with tigers being on elephant made him understand their every behavior. He remained close to tigers with elephant for long time so that tigers would learn to ignore elephants as days passed.
He recollects. In 1980 and prior to introduction of “Tiger Shows”, authorities used tie live bait to draw tigers into tourist zone. Tiger sighting was guaranteed. The authorities charged Rs.25/ for an hour of elephant ride for the group of four tourists. This practice developed a tigress with four cub habit to feed on the live bait.
According to Kuttappan this was much ruthless and dangerous practice as compared to “Tiger Show’. Soon the news of live bait being used for drawing tigers to tourist zone reached Prime Minister’s office and Mrs. Indira Gandhi took an immediate decision to stop live bait practice. This gave birth to “Tiger Shows”.
Soon quiet Tala village turned into tourist busy complex as hotels and resorts began to mushroom all over.

aramati acted quickly. She pulled an over hanging branch and dragged it between herself and the tiger averting tigers final charge or leap over them. Having been distracted by the quick action, before he could recover Taramati moved away swiftly away from the tiger for safety. This particular tiger later killed eight people in six months. He was shot dead by Mr. Hasan DFO in Gadhpuri village of Khitauli range.
Postmortem later revealed that the tiger had been shot at with country made gun. It had broken his canine. This resulted into forming puss and maggots in his face and skull. After this incident, Kuttappan yet stressed upon tigers not being dangerous to humans until people violets his territory and disable him to live in peace. Poaching in Bandhavgadh during late1970 and early1980 was at the peak. Wildlife traders lured local villagers to lay traps, poisoned waterholes and lastly kill wildlife.
It is amusing to hear people describing their meeting or seeing tiger to other. They cherish it for the life time. Kuttappan says he could write a book with daily sightings and events. He looked at me amusingly and said such topic has become daily soap for him when I asked him to describe any event that he had faced.
Sita-the tigress was his favorite tigress. In 1986, he remembers having seen Sita with her first litter. They were three cubs and three months old when he saw them first. Kuttappan saw her sitting in the same place for next 10 days or so without her cubs. Sita looked thin and weak. This worried him. There was something wrong. This required to be found out at quicker pace before the cubs could die.
He recollects, he and Rajesh Gopal, the Field Director of Bandhavgadh went out in search of cubs. While searching, they often had to enter dark caves where danger always lurked in the form of tiger or leopard sudden attacks. After searching for hours, they were about to call off due to defeat when they spotted three very thin and weak tiger cubs in a dark corner of cave.

Kuttappan and Mr.Gopal the Field Director Bandhavgadh placed a dead goat closed to Sita so that she could feed and recover quickly. Sita readily accepted the dead goat and began to feed. It was difficult to understand why Sita did not indulge in killing wildlife having three cubs of three months old to feed. By this age mother feeds the cub soft meat to digest. It is the beginning of their change in diet.
Two days later, Sita was seen once again with her two thin cubs at a kill she had made. The third cub was dead probably due to starvation. Seeing the life in the remaining cubs and their re-union with Sita was celebrated by Bandhavgadh Forest Department. That was the last time Sita had to be fed. She reared five more families after that and never required further outside help to rear her cubs to adulthood.
This was an incident Kuttappan says when every person working in Bandhavgadh forest department helped Sita to recover, help feed her cubs and rear. Nobody and perhaps it is very rare that a person or entire forest department is given credit for their marathon help in helping survival of wildlife. They go un-noticed. Kuttappan became famous he says not for his courageous acts or for his uncanny knowledge of wildlife or for his dedicated work. He became famous due to his excellence in tracking wildlife particularly tigers for important people and for his excellent wildlife photography.

Having seen his excellent photography with an ordinary Agfa Click III camera, Kuttappan was presented a sophisticated Olympus camera by a Japanese tourist in 1985. Kuttappan began his photography with renewed vigor. Some of his photographed were used by other promising Kuttappan that they would publish them in a publication. They were never published. Later he learn't to process of getting positives at home. Thus his work later found true ownership and they were highly appreciated by some of the best wildlife photographers.
He also helped Mr. Chandola, India’s best known cinematographer to shoot Survival Anglia’s film on Bandhavgadh. Many publications were after Kuttappan for his images. Some of his photographs were very rare ones. They were of tigers hunting, stalking, mating, tigress with cubs and many more. Later he bought a Nikon F-100 camera. But, he still prefers the old Agfa click III.
Some of the highly influential people Kuttappan associated with were Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh Mr. Digvijay Singh, Late Prime Minister Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, Salim Ali and other dignitaries. He boasts truly and also renowned wildlife photographers give due respect to Kuttappan for setting up the entire tiger scene with his uncanny knowledge for them just to click the shutter of their camera. This he says was between 1984 and year 2000.

Upon asking, if his two sons E.D. Joseph and E.D. Raju will take on his job as Mahout, their answer was negative.
Hence, He took loan to buy five Gypsy for them to hire out to visitors Joseph and Raju now take rounds of forest and Kuttappan too continues to patrol the forest to report fire, illegal cattle graze and illegal poaching through snares and traps to report to management.
In 2004, Kuttappan was transferred to Panchamarhi a hill station in Madhya Pradesh. It was a case of jealousy and Kuttappan refused to go on medical ground. In mean while two mahouts appointed in his place were killed by elephant handled by Kuttappan. Such is the strong emotional tie is between Mahout and an elephant.
A case was lodged in the court which he won. Court stopped his transferred and he was re-appointed as mahout in Bandhavgadh. But his salary for nearly 14 months was yet to be handed over to him. Kuttappan neither complained and nor ask for favors.
A reporter from Bhopal came over to Bandhavgadh to report about Charger asked Kuttappan out of curiosity that how many aged tigers like Charger he had seen during his service in Bandhavgadh. Kuttappan aptly replied ‘just one and that is Charger’. Confused reporter asked Kuttappan once again what about other tigers. Kuttappan being straight forward replied, ‘all died during their prime age.’
Kuttappan was honored by ABN Amro Bank and Sanctuary Magazine with Rs.25,000/ and certificate for best Mahout of year 2007. Kuttappan dispersed the received amount among co-workers. Kuttappan did not care for money. He cared for wildlife and forest. He had no other aim in his life. The dream and goal he achieved fulfilled his life before he could be consumed like rest of us into oblivion.

By

Prakash

Indian Birds and Wildlife