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
In my initial days of fieldwork in the Anamalais (elephant hills), I heard much about her. People here knew she split from her herd once in a while, and roamed alone. She could be easily identified. Solitary, with a tear in her right ear and always close to human habitations. It was the first week of November 2013 when she made her presence known for the first time that season, in the housing colonies by feasting on banana plants in the backyards and from pantries. That same week we caught a glimpse of her in one of her nocturnal hangouts — an abandoned grocery storehouse. That was my first exposure to her peculiar behaviour.
Having read several stories as a kid and multiple research papers and books as a student about sociality and matriarchy in elephants, I was always curious about solitariness in female elephants. That such complex and social beings seemed to “opt” to be solitary intrigued me. As I read Cynthia Moss, Joyce Poole, Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell and Kathleen Gobush, I slowly found my way to the scientific aspects of social disruption in one of the most intelligent social animals.
The curious case of Solitary Reaper, as she came to be known, was first noticed eleven years ago, in 2005 by Anand, Divya (my colleagues) and others. Until then, she had only been seen with a herd. When her solitariness was first observed, she seemed to be ailing, and her weak/sickly appearance moved the toughest of hearts. Local people attended to her (despite having to bear the brunt of the occasional elephant attack). She recovered eventually, delighting all concerned. After her recovery, she made her presence felt every now and then by raiding granaries or domestic storehouses. Unfortunately, being a 3.5 tonne animal, even the mildest of her efforts to find food in such places caused damage to buildings, and fear amongst locals. However, they never developed a grudge against her.
During the field season of 2013-14, I encountered Solitary Reaper quite often, either when she was sleeping during the day in the Lantana understorey of Eucalyptus patches or when she was busy, raiding backyards of homes at night. By then everybody could recognise her, thanks to her frequent visits and her identifying marks; she never managed to maintain a low profile.
I was studying stress responses in elephants for which I observed her movements closely, trying to understand her range of behaviours when she was close to human habitation, and monitoring her stress hormone levels (from her dung!). She was one of the many individuals I observed and monitored. She remained docile, despite people’s attempts to get as close to her as possible. Surprisingly, my hormone analyses later showed that although she was calm behaviourally, she was one of the most stressed individuals (in terms of stress hormone levels). This was unexpected not only because of what I had seen of her behaviour but also based on what local people and forest department officials said of her: she was a highly adapted individual, living largely outside the protected area, in a completely human-dominated landscape.
After submitting my thesis, I returned to field in late July. After two months of grappling with data and statistics, I longed to see her soon.
Two days before the 68th anniversary of Indian independence I saw her again, surrounded by tens of people right in the middle of a housing colony, her freedom in this matrix landscape of forests and settlements being threatened by loud cackles, fire crackers and tractors. Yet she stood alone undaunted, devouring jackfruits. When she was driven off the colony after hours of persistent efforts, she turned around, looked at the gathering, and delivered an inexplicable stare. She seemed to ask multiple questions of us. I wondered if we had answers for her. And in that moment, I recalled what Rana, one of my supervisors had said about her, that she is one who is calm outside, but fighting a battle within.
Postscript: She continues to amuse and intrigue me with her behaviour even today, and has motivated me to investigate behavioural modifications and adaptations in elephants. Her stress hormone metabolite levels continue to remain high even while she continues to appear unperturbed. She has, more recently, also started to associate more often with the bachelor herd in the landscape, seemingly enjoying their company, says Ganesh, my colleague.
Note: This article was also published in Nature Conversations, an anthology of Nature Writings, published by the Nature Conservation Foundation as part of its twentieth year celebrations in 2016. Thanks to Pavithra Sankaran for comments on the draft.