Video of ‘Smoking’ Elephant captured in Karnataka Baffles Scientists Worldwide

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Video of ‘Smoking’ Elephant captured in Karnataka Baffles Scientists Worldwide

Bengaluru: On behalf of Wildlife Conservation Society, India Program, we are excited to share with you some unique video-documentation captured by our colleague, that provides new insights into wild elephant behaviour. The following video was taken while he, his colleague Srikanth Rao and our field staff were checking in on our installed camera-traps in the park as a part of WCS India’s long term monitoring of tiger and prey populations in Nagarahole National Park, Karnataka.

Our colleague, Vinay Kumar, Assistant Director, has captured a video of a wild Asian elephant seemingly ‘smoking’, as it appears to be ingesting charcoal and blowing out the ashes. The video was taken at Nagarahole National Park, Karnataka in April 2016. The video has gone viral and has been shared extensively by multiple international publications. It has baffled scientists worldwide as this is the first such photographic or video documentation of this kind.

Kumar recalls the experience below:

A cool breeze engulfed me as I peeped out to a misty morning from our field station. Srikanth, my colleague greeted me and over tea we planned for the day’s 70-90 km drive – the plan was to visit and check 20-23 camera-trap locations in Nagarahole National Park, Karnataka, as part of a long-term project of studying tiger and prey populations. At each camera-trap location, we had deployed a pair of cameras facing each other on either side of a forest road or trail, mounted inside a protective iron shell and triggered automatically by the motion of passing wildlife, including the elusive tiger! I was excited at the thought of what the camera traps might have in store for us from the night before.

But first things first, we needed to fuel up! Breakfast, which was pulao (rice laced with sweet n sour masala) and a small pouring of heated sambar (concoction of lentil and mixed vegetables) from last night’s dinner, tasted like manna from heaven in the serene and romantic surroundings of our isolated field station. We followed that with another round of freshly made hot black tea, after which we were set to hit the road. Srikanth, three field assistants and I boarded our sturdy Mahindra 4-wheel-drive Jeep and set out on our pre-determined route through the forest.

Srikanth Rao (left) and Vinay Kumar

As we drove through Nagarahole, five pairs of eyes strained to catch any possible glimpse of wildlife that we were passing by. While Srikanth focused on driving slowly on these forest roads, all my senses were on full alert. We had just entered a partially burnt patch of the moist deciduous forests when we suddenly came face to face with a female elephant standing calmly on the side of the road. This was not an unusual sighting, but what we saw her doing was something that I had never witnessed before, and it has probably not been commonly captured on film earlier either. As cameras clicked, I switched on to the video mode and filmed what would be an amazing sight to behold and a behaviour that has had experts trying to decipher the exact nature of the action.

What we saw that day almost appeared as though the elephant was smoking – she would draw up a trunk full of ash close to her mouth and blow it out in a puff of smoke! I quizzed my colleague and elephant biologist, Dr Varun R. Goswami, on what was going on. In all likelihood, he concluded, the elephant was trying to eat wood charcoal. That made sense as the elephant appeared to be picking up something from the burnt forest floor, blowing away the ash that came along with it in her trunk, and consuming the rest. Charcoal has well recognised toxin-binding properties, and although it may not have much nutritional content, wild animals may be attracted to it for this medicinal value. Charcoal can also serve as a laxative, thereby doubling its utility for animals that consume it after forest fires, lightning strikes, or controlled burns of the type we saw in Nagarahole that day.

This was a unique experience for me, and I am excited to share it with all of you.

You may view the video here

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