Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass!
Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
And sings a melancholy strain;
O listen! for the Vale profound
Is overflowing with the sound……
The Solitary Reaper, William Wordsworth
All along my initial days on field at the Anamalai (Elephant hills in vernacular language), I have been hearing about her, and what people here had till then known was that she’s an individual who splits from the herd once in a while, and roams around alone. She could be easily identified; her solitary nature, torn right ear and her movements close to human habitations. As 164 hours had passed since the penultimate month of 2013 had started, she had marked her presence by moving close to small housing colonies feasting on the few plantains in the backyards and from entrepots. That night we had a glimpse of her in one of her nocturnal hangouts. My first exposure to her peculiar behaviour!
Having read multiple stories as a kid, and multiple papers as a postgraduate student in Wildlife Biology and Conservation about sociality and matriarchy in elephants, I was always curious about solitariness in females. As I read Moss, Poole, O’Connell-Rodwell and Gobush, I was slowly finding my ways into the scientific sides of social disruption in one of the most complex social animals.
The curious case of our Solitary Reaper was first noticed nine years ago, in 2005, when she made her debut. Her appearance in patienthood back then, shook the toughest of hearts, and she was attended by the locals. After her recovery, every now and then she would make her presence felt by occasionally feeding from granaries or domestic storehouses. Unfortunately, being a three and half tonne animal, even the slightest of her efforts to find forage in these areas, caused damages to buildings, kindling fear amongst locals. However, hoi polloi in these areas, never developed a vengeance for her.
During the field season of 2013-14, I used to bump at the Solitary Reaper quite often, either when she’s sleeping in Lantana dominated patches during the day or while she’s busy feeding at the backyards of houses in the nights. By then, everybody could recognise her; thanks to her frequent visits and her id marks, she never managed to maintain a low profile. During the fieldwork for my Masters thesis, where I was looking at stress responses in elephants, I observed her movements closely, tried understanding her behavioural repertoire close to human habitations and her stress hormone levels, besides observing other herds. She remained one of the most docile animals, despite people’s attempts to get as close to her as possible. My later analyses interestingly showed that although she was calm she was one of the most stressed individual, as explained by her physiological stress levels/cortisol hormone levels. This was indeed surprising, because, having known her for a short while, and from what I heard from the scientists here, locals and the forest department officials, she was the most adapted individual, living literally outside the protected area in a completely human-dominated landscape.
After I got back to field, fighting with R and MS Office for two months, writing my thesis, I was hoping to see her very soon. Two days before the 68th anniversary of Indian independence, the tathastu: moment happened, when I saw her deprived of her freedom amidst hundred odd people right in the middle of a housing colony. As I walked past houses and people, I overheard talks about the kizhincha kaathu (torn ear), Otthai (single female) and so on… all synonyms of the Solitary Reaper. Gobbling on jackfruits one by one, she stood, undaunted by loud cackles, crackers and tractors.
As she was being driven off the dwellings, after hours of persistent efforts, she turned around, looked at all once, stood motionless and still, her eyes seemingly throwing questions at all. And all I wondered was whether we have answers for that. Because, at that moment, having known her for a while, I recalled what one of my supervisors told, perhaps she’s one of those, who’s trying to be calm outside, but fighting a battle within…