My earliest memories of elephants are thankfully not in zoos, but in the forests of Nagarahole. During a childhood trip to this beautiful national park with my extended family, I remember our open jeep coming face-to-face with a herd of wild elephants. Engine turned off, we sat still with bated breaths as the herd too stood frozen in their tracks, sizing us up. A few heart-stopping minutes later, the elephants crossed the jungle path and quietly vanished into the thicket. My fascination grew over the years and the few interactions since then have only deepened my regard for them.

A recent trip to the Sakrebyle Aaney Bidaara (Kannada for elephant camp), on the banks of the Tunga River, provided ample time in the company of these enchanting giants. Located 14 km from the town of Shimoga in the Western Ghats, Sakrebyle means ‘fields of sugar’ in Kannada. The camp—on the fringes of Shettihalli Wildlife Sanctuary—houses elephants of varying sizes and ages from across Karnataka. Sakrebyle serves as a refuge for these graceful creatures, many of them victims of abuse or human-animal conflict owing to shrinking forest habitat, vanishing migratory corridors, and dwindling food sources. For several years now, the camp has been running a popular elephant interaction programme every morning.

The entrance to the elephant camp.

A typical day at the camp begins with the mahouts going into the forest to bring back their wards. The elephants are taken to the river for a good scrub. Visitors are allowed to bathe the elephants under the watchful eyes of their mahouts. After a nutritious meal, the elephants make their way back to the forest and roam freely until the next morning.

Elephants returning to the camp from the forest.

Mahouts bathing their elephants.

We stayed overnight at the comfortable and self-contained Jungle Lodges property across the highway from the camp. After lunch, naughty Sharada, a baby elephant, and her mahout, came by for a drink of water from the camp kitchen. Her deft little trunk sought out pockets and hands around her for treats. Sharada was born in the wild but was separated from her herd when they were chased out of a coffee estate in Sakleshpur.

Cottages at the Jungle Lodges property.

Baby elephant Sharada.

Later in the evening, Suresh from the camp took us to meet more rescued elephants in various stages of training and rehabilitation. Three captured wild tuskers that had caused much havoc and loss of property and life were being rehabilitated at the camp. Who is in whose territory, and whose loss is greater, I wondered. Yet another elephant, cared for poorly in private custody, was recuperating from his injuries. The grand-looking fellow could not bend his forelegs from having been chained in cramped conditions for prolonged periods. He finally seemed at peace, resting under the shade of a tree and chomping on tender shoots in the loving care of his mahout.

Parvathi, a youngster born in captivity, was being readied to be transferred to Uttar Pradesh for a breeding programme. Her mahout, Manjunath, proudly stated that the mahouts in Karnataka were amongst the most seasoned elephant handlers in the country. His family lives in H.D. Kote near Mysore, while he cares for Parvathi full-time. The little elephant was pleased and petulant in turns, depending on whether Manjunath was scratching her back or not; she reminded me of a frisky human child. An indulgent Manjunath told us with a tinge of sadness that he would miss her after she was gone. He will accompany Parvathi to Uttar Pradesh and stay with her for a month or more while handing the charge to her new mahout. Elephants and their mahouts share deep bonds that usually last a lifetime. Over the years, the elephants get protective of their mahouts and guard them with their lives.

Parvathi with Manjunath.

Elephants aside, many little things add to the charm of the Sakrebyle Jungle Lodges campsite. Patches of white cotton fluff from the many Red Silk-cotton trees adorn the ground. Clusters of cotton stainer bug nymphs gathered on many of the fluff patches. We also saw several termite mounds in the camp, a large one standing guard right outside our pinewood cottage. The legendary industriousness of termites was on display, when a broken tip of the mound was neatly sealed off by the next day.

Sunlight peeps through a Red Silk-cotton tree.

Bright red cotton stainer bug nymphs.

Before and after: termites in their broken (left) and repaired (right) mound.

A pair of bird baths in a corner of the campsite—complete with a hide equipped with chairs—provided for long hours of blissful bird-watching. I was oblivious to the passage of time as I sat behind the hide late in the afternoon, with the camp cat for company, while a dazzling array of avian species put up an enthralling display. The line-up constituted Yellow-browed, Red-vented and Black-headed Bulbuls, a Golden-fronted Leaf Bird, an Oriental White-Eye pair, Brahminy Starlings, a Blythe Starling, and many more winged beauties. A Blue-bearded Bee-eater was my prized sighting during this trip.

The hide near the bird bath.

Early next morning, we ventured into the Shettihalli forest with Dinesh, the camp naturalist. Malabar Giant Squirrels capering on treetops were a common sight throughout our walk. A Malabar Grey Hornbill rested on one of the trees. We crossed paths with a kaavadi (mahout’s assistant), a mahout, their 9-foot charge, and a calf, returning from the forest for the camp’s morning bathing and feeding ritual. Dinesh suddenly gestured to his right. As we took a few steps forward, Raghavendra, a large tusker, came into view behind the bushes to our right. An erstwhile temple elephant, Raghavendra’s mahout had kept him secured in the forest to wait out his period of musth. We quietly made our way along the forest path.

A trail in Shettihalli Wildlife Sanctuary.

Raghavendra, waiting out his musth.

A pretty carpet of pale pink Pongamia or Honge blossoms covered the forest floor. The distinct hammering of an invisible woodpecker reverberated through the forest. We soon reached the elephant camp and hurried to the river. A large crowd had gathered already. The elephants sat in the shallow water in varying states of bliss and seemed to enjoy all the attention and massages, like at a spa. Their mahouts kept a watchful eye and cautiously guided people around the bulk of the pachyderms.

A carpet of Honge blossoms.

It was time to leave behind elephant country. I walked back from the river with a multitude of thoughts swimming in my head. I fall into a state of unease each time I watch these powerful, sensitive and intelligent animals being commanded by men. The irrevocable damage to their habitat has possibly made it unviable for either elephants or humans to have their absolute way.

The Sakrebyle Aanay Bidaara brings to mind a quote by Sir David Attenborough: “No one will protect what they don’t care about and no one will care about what they have never experienced.” The mahouts and the elephants at Sakrebyle do a commendable job demystifying elephants to visitors, and instilling love and respect in people for these magnificent animals. Camps like Sakrebyle are perhaps the middle ground where elephants and humans meet, learn each other’s ways, grow a bond, and strive for that elusive balance.

I return grateful for the time spent with my spirit animal.