The great conservationist Mark Shand once told me a story about elephants. It involved a mahout who was always bad tempered and because of the stressful nature of a life handling elephants he was more often than not drunk. As a result of this he frequently took out his bad temper on his elephant, poking and beating it with with his ankus or making it carry or pull things that were too heavy. This went on for many years. Each night the mahout would lay on the floor close to his elephant to sleep off his hangover. He was always careful not to sleep too close to the animal because he knew only too well, stories of other mahouts that had been attacked and killed by their elephants. The elephant bided it's time, year in year out, all the while watching the mahout. He knew to the nearest millimetre the exact distance that the sleeping man needed to be safe out of reach. He knew exactly how long a stick he would need to reach the man. He knew this because he had tried with many sticks on many nights.
One day when the drunk mahout was drunk enough to lay down and sleep just that little bit too close, the elephant picked up a stick which he had previously hidden, hooked it through the man's clothing and dragged him closer, close enough to stamp him to a bloody pulp. Elephants have very long memories.
I've worked with Indian elephants for many years. It's the only animal I've ever met that you can look into its eyes and see into its soul. An elephant, whether subjugated by man or free in the wild demands respect and woe betide those who don't give it.
In Aranachal Pradesh in the North East of India I photographed this mahout who had taken care of his elephant since it was snatched from it's mother as a calf over 30 years before. What I realized when I looked at them was that this man deeply loves and respects his elephant. Not only that, the feelings are clearly reciprocated. You can see it in their eyes and their body language. Their worlds are utterly entwined and neither one of them can survive without the other. They are soulmates in the truest sense of the word.
The Trench Digger