Mystery of the elephants of Bardia

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 November, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 November, 1995, 12:00am

TWO huge elephants living in Nepal have lumbered out of the primordial mists to give the scientific community an extraordinary glimpse of the evolutionary links between the Asian elephant and its prehistoric ancestors.

The giant bull Raja Gaj, Nepali for king elephant, stands 3.7 metres - higher than the tallest Asian elephant on record - and weighs up to seven tonnes.

But his size is not the only attribute that has gained him and his companion, Kancha, mythical status in western Nepal. Nor is it their unusual sloping backs and almost reptilian tails.

It is the twisted head - like part of a mythical beast - with the forehead swept up, checked by a deep depression and crowned by a large dome-shaped bump.

These features evoke awe among the villagers of the Terai, the Himalayan lowlands where the two bulls roam.

They also happen to be characteristics of the woolly mammoth, a shaggy predecessor of the two surviving species of elephant, the African and Asian.

But the scientific community is still debating the significance of the two beasts and has been careful not to come to hasty conclusions.

This is partly the reason why Dr Adrian Lister, a paleontologist from University College London (UCL), and Colonel John Blashford-Snell, the veteran explorer, embark on a quest to Nepal in January.

The two men will monitor and photograph the strange pachyderms for more clues to their ancestry. They also want to determine the reasons for a mysterious influx of about 40 elephants to the two elephant's home, the Royal Bardia Wildlife Reserve, a largely untouched patch of forest, swamp and savanna on the western Nepalese border with India.

Among the new arrivals, say villagers, are one or more giants like Raja Gaj and Kancha. Next year's expedition will include experts, guides, trackers and paying members of the public.

Dr Lister, who co-wrote the book Mammoth, insists DNA extracted from the dung of Raja Gaj and Kancha has shown they are Asian elephants with no specific scientific links to the woolly mammoth.

This might seem hard to grasp considering their uncanny likeness to ancient drawings of mammoths found in a labyrinth of caves in the Dordogne in southwest France.

On the walls are hundreds of drawings and markings that date back 10,000 to 30,000 years.

Dr Lister insists mammoths belonged to a separate evolutionary branch to Asian elephants and their African cousins, although he concedes that of the two species alive today, the genetic makeup of the Bardia pair suggests a closer resemblance to the prehistoric creatures.

Ten thousand years ago during the Ice Age, woolly mammoths and Asian elephants co-existed. Mammoths roamed the tundra-steppe of the northern continents while Asian elephants lived in the tropical forest and grassland to the south.

So what has caused the curious bumps on the elephants of Bardia? 'Their double hump is reminiscent, although more in the extreme, of fossilised remains of Elephas hysudricus, two million to three million years old and found in rocks in India, Pakistan and Nepal,' said Dr Lister.

'This species is probably the ancestor of Elephas maximus, the Asian elephant, to which Raja Gaj and Kancha belong,' he said.

The double dome is an attribute of the Asian elephant, but is manifested to an extraordinary degree in the Nepali pair, believed to be unrelated.

Does this mean they are mutants? What is perceived as a deformity might be the result of a genetic hiccup induced by a lack of breeding partners.

Colonel Blashford-Snell said that the rapid growth in the human population in India was forcing elephants into more isolated pockets, where inbreeding could have occurred, making it possible for prehistoric attributes to resurface.

'If you consider the population of India is increasing rapidly, it is easy to imagine the pressure on the elephants,' said Colonel Blashford-Snell, who leads the expedition to Nepal for Discovery Expeditions, a non-profit company linked to the Scientific Exploration Society.

'This is part of the mystery we want to solve; an explanation for the arrival of more than 40 elephants in the Bardia reserve, which is surrounded by hostile people and cultivated land.' The elephants could have been driven north from India and were seeking the remote valleys of the reserve, which nestles in the foothills of the Himalayas, as a last refuge from man.

'At least two of the newcomers to Bardia appear to be like Raja Gaj,' he said.

The two original elephants were first discovered in late 1989 when news began to spread of two unusually big pachyderms wreaking havoc on crops.

Colonel Blashford-Snell embarked on two trips to find out what the fuss was all about. The first expedition, conducted on a small scale in 1991 and without elephant experts, yielded no sign of the mythical beasts, apart from huge footprints, which led him to estimate one was well over three metres high, a giant among Asian elephants.

On his second trip, the pair were sighted and proved as extraordinary as villagers had said. He sent photographs to Dr Lister at UCL, who was intrigued. The paleontologist joined the colonel on his next trip to Nepal at the end of 1993, returning to Bardia at the end of 1994. To reiterate his theory that they are Asian elephants, Dr Lister relates how one night, Raja Gaj 'broke into our camp and stole one of our female domestic elephants for a few hours'.

'According to the biological definition, if a male shows sexual interest in a female it means they belong to the same species.' Whatever the origins of the Bardia elephants, their discovery has highlighted the problems of conserving the Asian elephant and has underscored several ironies.

If it were not for the destruction wrought by man - unchecked logging and ill-planned development decimating elephant habitat and forcing them into isolated herds - these strange beasts may not have come into existence.

Furthermore, if it were not for the interest of the scientific community, the plight of elephants in India and Nepal may have worsened considerably before any action was taken to save them.

Asian elephants are besieged to such an extent that, according to World Wildlife Fund elephant expert Shanthin Dawson, displaced elephants searching for food kill up to 300 people a year in India.

Without expeditions to promote and protect the cause of conservation, the rapid decline of the animal kingdom would pass unchecked.