L'éléphant d'Asie

The Andaman elephants

by Prajna Chowta, based on details told by Mrs. Jemmy Ganapathy and the notes by Adrika Swaminathan.

Originally, the Andaman Islands did not have elephants. The elephants that can be seen today in the Indian archipelago of about 200 islands, located in the Bay of Bengal, south of Burma (today Myanmar), were brought from India during the British time for the exploitation of timber. In the course of time, the elephants reproduced themselves, some turned feral and are said to be wild. They are known to swim between islands and this unusual behavior allowed the most stunning footage of swimming elephants to have been filmed. All these facts are well known, but the circumstances in which the Andaman elephants reached the islands seemed forgotten and I thought, scarcely documented.

However, I recently received a phone call and was invited to meet Mrs. Jemmy Ganapathy at her Madikeri house, in Kodagu District of Karnataka. Mrs. Ganapathy wanted to share with me a series of black and white photographs which were taken by her father, she explained, who was an elephant vet in charge of the Andaman elephants.

In the early 40's, she told me, Dr. Kandrathanda Ganapathy had studied veterinary sciences in Madras Veterinary College with a specialization in elephants. After obtaining his degree, he served as an Assistant Veterinary Surgeon in Kodagu (Coorg) for a few years before he was selected by the Central Government to serve in the Andaman Islands as Chief Veterinary Officer. His grand-daughter, Adrika Swaminathan noted down family memories on how her grand-father first supervised the process of marching the elephants from the khedda* site in Mysore towards the port of Madras (today Chennai). Apparently, elephants were also taken from the Sonepur mela in Bihar, and in that case, the port must have been Calcutta (today Kolkata). Dr. Ganapathy was then responsible for their safe passage between mainland India and the islands. The elephants had to be harnessed, lifted by cranes and loaded into ships bound for the Andamans before their five-day journey began. In Port Blair, the ships could not go too close to the shore, so the elephants were lifted out and left in the shallow waters to swim across to the beach. In the Andamans, he supervised the training of the elephants for the purpose of ‘logging’, or timber dragging. ‘Being the only vet who had the authority to shoot a wayward elephant, remembers his grand daughter, he took enormous pride in the fact that he never once exercised this authority.

In 1942, the Japanese army invaded Burma and the Andaman islands. Before leaving, Dr. Ganapathy set the elephants loose from the camps and into the forests, hoping that the Japanese would not be able to catch them and use them for war purposes or to cut their tusks, as they did in Burma with the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation elephants (see ‘Elephant Bill’ by J.H. Williams, 1953). Once the Japanese retreated, Dr. Ganapathy decided to return to Port Blair. “Much to the anguish of my great grandfather, concludes Adrika, most of the elephants he had worked with for as long as a decade were either badly injured or dead.” Dr. Ganapathy remained in the Andamans until retirement in 1956.

See the Photo Gallery about the Andaman elephants Retour