top of page
  • yorkgum

Rogue elephants: the beasts of the bush



The archetypal rogue elephant: male, solitary, old, and dangerously and unpredictably violent



I have never worked with elephants and have had virtually no “up close and personal” contact with them at all during my life and my working career as a forester ... excluding of course the gentle old Jumbo who gave rides to children at the Perth Zoo when I was a kid in the 1940s. I thought he always looked at me with a kindly eye.


Nevertheless, they have always fascinated me, a fascination intensified through my reading of the wonderful book Elephant Bill and many editions of The Indian Forester from the latter years of the 19th century. Back in those days, elephants played a big part in the lives of foresters in India and Burma. Forest officers often found themselves responsible for catching wild elephants, training them for domestic duties and supervising their work and welfare. There was also the occasional need for a forest officer, often the only official, or at least the only armed official in a remote district, to deal with a rogue elephant that was causing havoc to a local community.


I knew about this latter role from my high school days when I first read George Orwell’s famous story “Shooting an Elephant”, a story I have since re-read many times. Orwell was not a forestry officer but was working in Burma in the early 1920s as a member of the Colonial Police (a force of British police officers stationed in overseas counties in the days of the British Empire).



George Orwell (third from left, rear) with fellow-officers in the Colonial Police in Burma in 1923


Orwell’s story concerns the occasion he was called out by local villagers to shoot a rampaging elephant. However, this was not a wild or rogue elephant. It was a domestic animal in its musth season. It had not been properly chained up, had escaped, ravaged the bazaar and killed a “coolie”. The locals were frightened and demanded of their local police officer that it be killed.


The story is a poignant one. Orwell did not want to shoot the elephant (by now calmed down and browsing quietly in a field) but in the end he did so because of the weight of expectation on him from the watching populace. The episode is also allegorical, as Orwell was by then already finding his job and the whole concept of imperialism distasteful. The story concludes:


 Afterwards, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting of the elephant. The owner was furious but he was only an Indian and could do nothing. Besides, I had legally done the right thing, for a mad elephant must be killed, like a mad dog, if the owner fails to control it. Among the Europeans, opinion was divided. The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a damned shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, for an elephant was worth more than any damn Cooringhee coolie. Afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.


I have read many stories about elephants in India and Africa, none of them as bitter as Orwell’s. On the contrary, the stories reveal both an admiration and a respect for elephants, especially for the Asian elephant - the African species is not domesticated, at least not in modern times, although the Romans and Hannibal had perhaps managed it [Endnote 1]. Foresters in India, Burma and Ceylon (Sri Lanka today) once used elephants for transport through difficult country, to provide a safe platform when hunting tigers and leopards, as beasts of burden to haul logs, or for heavy work on engineering projects. The training, care and nutrition of domestic elephants were all matters of intense concern. The whole economy depended upon them.


This was also at a time when domestic elephants were an important feature of the pomp and panoply of the Indian aristocracy. Gorgeously decorated beasts were part of the scenery of every Maharaja’s palace. The photograph below is taken from Volume V of Countries of the World (1898) and the caption reads:


“From the royal stables within the palace of the Maharaja of Jaipur come stately elephant with solemn tread”.



Across history, an old (1896) encyclopaedia tells me:


… from time immemorial the art of capturing wild elephants has been practised and is still continuing today in India. Formerly elephants were employed as engines of war, and turrets bearing armed men were fastened on their backs; they were taught the executioner’s dreadful trade; they were adorned with trappings and were paraded to swell the estate of Princes; they bore the sportsmen in the great hunting matches; they were educated as combatants in the arena, being matched against each other and against the tiger; and at all times they were beasts of burden …


The domestic, trained elephant was one thing. The relationship between humans and wild elephants on the other hand, was an ambiguous one. Setting aside the issue of the deliberate hunting of wild elephants for ivory or trophy, in general, the two parties avoided each other, the elephants being happy to live in the forest doing their own thing, and the villagers happy to keep their distance. Wild elephants live in herds of 30-50, comprising females and calves, joined briefly by male tuskers during the courting and mating season. To the herd, the bush is home. They roam and feed wherever they like, always on the move and covering great distances. Humans and their assets, when they come across them, are treated with casual disrespect. They tear the bark off trees with their tusks, trample through gardens, crops, plantations and orchards and pull down fences and telegraph posts. It was a common occurrence for a herd of wild elephants to wander through the villagers’ fields, pulling things up, knocking things down, and eating anything that looked tasty. When they did so, the villagers kept well out of their way.


But occasionally elephants became extremely dangerous. In discussing this, I need to distinguish between a dangerous male elephant in musth, and a dangerous wild elephant of the bush which has gone rogue.


All mature healthy male elephants go into season, called musth, about once a year. Musth is caused by a spike in male hormones, urging the bull elephant to find and mate with a female. During musth they frequently become aggressive and are nearly always extremely dangerous.  Apart from anything else, the animal’s tear ducts malfunction, affecting his sight and increasing his frustration and anger.


As ‘Elephant Bill’ Williams describes it:


A male elephant will mate when he is not on musth, in fact he usually does. But when he is on musth all the savage lust and combative instincts of his huge body come out … his brain goes wild, as though nothing will satisfy him, and nothing does.


Elephant handlers can spot the onset of musth, and the elephant is immediately locked up and its legs chained. But occasionally a bull in musth escapes and causes mayhem – as was the case with the animal shot by George Orwell – and will even kill other elephants or the mahout or oozie with whom he has been loyal friends for decades. But it is a temporary phase, lasting normally only about two weeks, and occurring only once a year, and is manageable by an experienced handler.


A rogue elephant, on the other hand, always meant trouble, and at any time of the year. “Rogue” is the term applied to a wild bush elephant that has become enraged and is exceedingly unpredictable and dangerous. 'Roguedom' (if you like), is not related to musth. Rogues operate alone and have no contact with a herd, sometimes having been bested by a younger, fitter male or injured in a fight or by accident. Whatever the reason, having become old, solitary and bad-tempered, the elephant turns nasty. A rogue will charge out of the bush and destroy a village and kill ruthlessly. He will attack and attempt to kill any fellow-elephants he comes across, both domestic and wild, and has a particular hatred for dogs and horses. I have read accounts of a rogue elephant snatching up a man with his trunk, dashing him to the ground and then trampling him remorselessly. My late friend George Silberbauer worked as a District Officer in Africa many years ago and, in his capacity as the local Coroner, had occasion once to investigate a death due to trampling by a rogue elephant. “The only feature of the victim that I could identify were his shirt buttons”, George told me.


Reading through early volumes of The Indian Forester one story about a rogue elephant caught my attention. It was written by B.B.Osmaston, published in 1892 and entitled Accident during the Garhwal Kheddas: the end of a Rogue Elephant. It is a horrible but gripping story, and I will refer back to it in a moment.


But first, a quick explanation of the Khedda.


British officials of the Raj, watching a 19th Century khedda in India



Khedda is the Hindi word describing the mustering and capture of wild elephants for later domestication and training. The mustering is done by riders on trained elephants, who surround and then funnel a wild herd into stockades, or sometimes a wild elephant will be captured on the run by a mahoot [Endnote 2] on a domesticated elephant riding up alongside the wild beast, lassooing it, and dragging it into captivity. Once captured, the elephants are then subjected to a stern regime of training, the first step of which is to break their wild spirit.


To the modern reader, the khedda comes across as a fearsome business with elements of cruelty and extreme disrespect to native wildlife, but to 19th century Indians and members of the Raj, the annual khedda was a thrilling occasion, something well-worth coming to watch. The capture and domestication of wild elephants is scarcely imaginable these days, but it has to be remembered that the domestic elephant was as essential to life in those days as is the motor vehicle and tractor today, and because the working life of an elephant was only about 50 years, the supply of working elephants always needed replenishment.


Fortunately, the need for the khedda declined and then disappeared over the years, because it was found that once a population of domestic elephants reached a certain point it became self-sustaining, with new calves replacing the old elephants that were retired or who died. The training of calves born from and raised by domesticated mothers was always far easier than the training of wild elephants captured from the bush.


A tusker on the charge. Elephants cannot gallop, but can “pace”, and with this gait, they can easily overtake a running human.


Returning to rogue elephants and the story by B.B. Osmaston about the Garhwal khedda of 1892. He begins by setting the scene:


An account of the melancholy circumstances attending the death of the late Mrs. Anson, wife of Major Anson, which took place during the recent Khedda operations in British Garhwal, may be of interest.


Sir Auckland Colvin, the Lieutenant-Governor and party arrived [at Major Anson’s estate] on the 30th January with a view of seeing something of the elephant catching operations. Major and Mrs. Anson did the honours of host and hostess, and all the camp arrangements were faultless.


He then goes on to recount the day’s events:


At daybreak on the 1st February, the trackers were abroad, finding the exact position of the herd of elephants which had been for some days in the neighbourhood. At about 9:am. a Sowar galloped up to the bungalow where we were  all assembled … with the re-assuring news that the wild herd was feeding at a spot about three miles to the east of our camp, upon a small ridge separating two branches of a Sot or hill stream. The plan of operations consists in placing men armed with guns and blank ammunition at intervals of about 30 yards along the spurs encircling the area containing the herd. When this has been done a few shots are fired at the head of the Sot as an alarm, upon which the wild elephants try and effect their escape but are met on all sides by blank fire and are finally obliged to run down the Sot itself. Here they are met at a conveniently narrow spot by the serried ranks of the Khedda elephants, previously drawn up in more or less crescent form.


Upon this all is confusion, every mahout trying to bring his elephant alongside of a wild one and to get the rope noose over its head. This is, however, not very easy of accomplishment, and it often results in a long chase in which the wild elephant has a fair chance of escaping altogether …


In the present instance, however, the above campaign did not take place, on account of an unforeseen interruption which occurred as follows. The men with guns, some 200 altogether, having been posted out upon the ridges surrounding the herd, the Khedda elephants were got ready and started for the scene of action. It was a curious sight to see some 96 elephants moving along the forest road, single file, with their quaint-looking riders and Khedda gear, the whole procession extending over more than a quarter of a mile.


Everyone was in high spirits, as a big catch was anticipated. An elevated spot had been previously selected (near the point where the Khedda elephants were to be drawn up) to be occupied by the Lieutenant-Governor and party, which would command a fine view of the whole “tamasha.”


The fist elephant in the line was ridden by a tracker to show the way, the second by Major and Mrs. Anson, the third by Sir Auckland Colvin and Colonel Ershine, and the rest in no particular order. On approaching the base of the hills, a couple of shots were heard up in the valley in the direction of the herd, leading everyone to suppose that the wild elephants had in some way got alarmed and were trying to make their escape. Accordingly the line of elephants pushed forward as quickly as possible. The first portion of the line had just emerged from a narrow defile in the hills when a large rogue elephant charged down without any warning … upon the line of elephants, from the right front, at a point where they were about to cross a small nulla. The first elephant in the line avoided his charge, but the second [ridden by Major Hansen and his wife] was caught in the flank and overthrown with great force, the rogue then proceeding to gore it viciously with his tusks.


All this took place in a few moments, and before anyone could come to their help the rogue had turned and fled, scared no doubt, at the general shouting and the appearance of so many elephants. Major Anson, who was not apparently much hurt, extricated his wife from her dangerous position, half-crushed by the fallen elephant, and carried her to a place of safety. She had evidently received a very severe shock, but no one thought things were quite so bad as they afterwards turned out, so having carefully placed her on another elephant, Major Arnson, accompanied by two of the party and a large tusker, returned with her to the camp.


We stopped a short time, at Major Anson’s request, to see if the herd would come down the valley, but they had in the meantime broken through the guns and made their escape, having been frightened no doubt, by the noise and shouting at the time the rogue charged.


We all returned, therefore, to the camp, there to learn the sad news that Mrs. Anson had died ten minutes before our arrival. It appears that after they had left us to bring Mrs. Anson back to camp, they were again met and persistently followed this time out in the open, by the same rogue, and matters became so serious that Major Anson was obliged to take his wife off the elephant again and climb up a bank with her to a place of safely. [Major Anson’s] tusker was of little or no use in the hands of a cowardly mahout who lost his nerve so completely on seeing the approaching rogue that he refused to make his elephant face about and prevent its approach. Fortunately, however, the rogue did not again charge, but turned off into a neighbouring forest ravine. The injured elephant was terribly gored and had to be shot soon after.


The whole party dispersed on the following day and Mrs. Anson’s funeral took place at Roorkee on the 3rd February. In this way, a meeting which should have proved most enjoyable to all was brought to an abrupt and melancholy conclusion.


It turned out that this particular rogue elephant was already well-known in the neighbourhood, and that Mrs Anson was not his first victim. He had a reputation for giving chase to any human he came across and he killed them if he caught them. Osmaston noted that he himself had been “chased for a considerable distance up a hill by this same animal some three weeks ago, when I inadvertently approached him too closely”.


On the present occasion, however, Osmaston had the last word.


He has now, however, paid the penalty for all his misdeeds as, after several days of ineffectual tracking, I had the good fortune to come across him this afternoon and having approached to within about twenty-five yards, dropped him with a 12 bore bullet propelled by 6 drams of powder. The bullet struck him in the middle of his forehead but did not apparently quite reach his brain as he rose again to his feet in a few minutes, and I was obliged to fire four more shots into the side of his head before he sank, to rise no more.


I suppose it is easy for a modern urban Australian to be reproachful about this sort of reprisal killing, given that the elephant was operating according to its own natural way and that it was the humans who were the interlopers into his affairs. The situation is similar to the way these days there is always an outcry from those who want capital punishment for a shark or a crocodile after an attack on a surfer or bushwalker. My (mostly unpopular) view is that if you swim in an ocean or river in which man-eater sharks or crocodiles are known to occur, you are entering their territory, and an attack is on the cards. The rogue elephant situation is not an exact analogy, but you will see my point.


Before leaving, I would love to share a final and delightful story about a dangerous elephant. This was told to me by my friend and fellow-forester Oliver Raymond, who was born and raised in Sri Lanka. I was chatting to him about elephants one day and he recalled:


As teenagers, my brother, Nigel, and I were sent to boarding school in Perth but returned to visit our family for the long Christmas holidays. On my last visit in 1959 when I was about 17, our family visited a national park called Yala. On entering the park, we were warned about a solitary bull elephant who rejoiced in the name of Buttawa Bill. Apparently, he was on Musth, which meant he was looking for a willing female and in the process was not to be disturbed, in fact was to be absolutely avoided.


Sure enough, as we drove through the low, thorny trees in my father’s Humber Hawk, we suddenly came out into a clearing in which Buttawa Bill was grazing. It was obvious he was on Musth, as a long and dripping appendage hung down between his rear legs, swaying gently with his movements. He was ominously large. 


My brother managed to take this photograph: 




Buttawa Bill (photo by Nigel Raymond) 


The track we were on was narrow and we knew the Humber howled like a banshee in reverse gear. Luckily, the elephant was upwind and moving gradually away from us as he grazed. Perhaps his eyesight was poor due to his musth because, at first, he did not spot us. My father switched off the engine and we all sat there, sweating. Finally, Dad judged the elephant was far enough away for us to cross the clearing before he could reach us. Putting the car in gear Dad started up and shot forward, changing up at top revs in each gear. 


Buttawa Bill heard and saw us immediately. He swung around, trumpeted, and charged full-pelt towards the car.  


I was huddled in the rear seat as the monster bore down on us. Gazing out of the back window I saw the huge bull tearing through our dust. Dad swerved the car, and Bill charged by, missing us by metres. 


Driving on to the hut in which we were to spend the night, we were a much-relieved carload of humans, I can tell you. 


But Buttawa Bill had not finished with us. At about 1 a.m. our mother shook us gently awake with her finger across her lips. We snuck out of bed and followed her to the front of the hut. There in the moonlight, was Buttawa Bill swaying gently as if he was making up his mind as to his next move. Our hut was flimsy, the walls being made of woven coconut palm leaves. It would not have been much of an obstacle to a domestic cat, let alone a large bull elephant. 


My father had the presence of mind to bring out a hand of bananas, and these he threw, one by one towards the tusker. This proved to be a popular move, and each banana was picked up and eaten. There was another moment of concern when Dad ran out of bananas, but at that point Bill seemed to lose interest in us. He suddenly wheeled around and strode off into the bush. 


Next morning, we found out that he had visited the hut keeper’s vegetable garden in the rear of the hut and had torn up and eaten all the poor man’s crop of nearly ripe tomatoes. He had managed to do this so silently that no one was woken up. 


Later we tallied the score: elephant: 1, humans 0.  But we were grateful to be physically unmolested, indeed, to have survived what could have been a pretty messy situation. 


Attacks on humans by wild elephants continue as we speak, especially in game parks in Africa where tourists sometimes behave with stupid naivety [Endnote 3], but killings also still occur in remote African jungle villages attacked by a rogue. One report I read spoke of 200 people killed by elephants in Kenya alone in recent years. The problem is less severe in India, where the population of wild elephants is declining to vanishing point.


I suppose it is easy for me to think of elephants the way I remember gentle old Jumbo at the Perth Zoo. I need to remind myself not to overlook the fact that the interaction between man and wild elephants in the wilds of Africa and India in the 19th century was a two-way affair. Elephants were captured and domesticated, but humans often came out on the losing side of a contest with a bull elephant in musth, or with a rogue elephant then, just as they still do today.





1.       There is conjecture among elephant experts as to whether or not the Romans and Hannabal had domesticated the African elephant or had somehow managed to bring domesticated elephants from India. Contemporary illustrations suggest that they were indeed Indian elephants, but it is not clear how they had been transported to the Mediterranean region.

2.       Elephant riders/handlers were called ‘mahoots’ in India and Ceylon, and ‘oozies’ in Burma. The elephant and his mahout/oozie would be introduced when both were teenagers, and a lifetime association would follow, with an extraordinary capacity for communication and affection between the man and his animal.

3.       Have a look at this video:, but only if you want your hair raised.




Osmaston, BB (1892): Accident during the Garwhal Khedda: the end of the Rogue Elephant. Indian Forester XVIII 1892.


Williams, JH (1950): Elephant Bill. The Long Riders Guild Press

215 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment

Feb 09

further to your elephant liking bananas..... there's an impressive story about their intelligence coming from a forested area where the domesticated elephants were allowed to roam. Because they're so difficult to find in their natural element they were given a bell around their neck which signalled their presence. In order to graze the banana plantations without sending any warning chimes out they learned to stuff the bells full of mud to prevent the clapper hitting the bell.

There's also a video somewhere of an elephant peeling a banana faster than a human.

Wonderful creatures.

Roger P

Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page