The Teknaf Peninsula is ruggedly beautiful. With the rise of the rocky range that divides the land strip between the Naf River and the Bay of Bengal it's impossible not to feel elated, to know that Teknaf is quite the destination.
It's an environment unique in coastal Bangladesh for hosting wild elephants. It's really something to consider how the bulky beasts negotiate such uneven terrain. A significant section of the range has been declared a game reserve.
To search for the elephants, one could do worse than enlist the assistance of 18-year-old Jahangir Alam, a local and youngest of eleven siblings, who works as a guide at Teknaf Wildlife Sanctuary.
Although Alam has no training, the sanctuary is his backyard. He's been guiding tourists since he was 8 years old. Along with income from a brother who went to Malaysia by trawler, income from guiding helps the family.
“People arrive nearly every day,” he says, “Many ask for me.”
By Alam's estimate there are 30 elephants in the reserve and he commonly sees a family of ten, though pachyderms offer no guarantees. The best season to see them is winter when they are more active of a daytime.
I ask if the animals are dangerous and he mentions three villagers were trampled to death recently while defending paddy. “Elephants are 'heavy' dangerous!” he says.
Yet Alam insists there's no risk: elephants are by temperament gentle. He's often been within five metres. “They don't harm us if we don't disturb them.”
It's quite a trek: into scrubby parched forest following valley contours where small bridges ford thirsty streams.The day is hot, the humidity burdensome. I'm wishing I'd brought water.
We're hardly the first to search for elephants. Once there were commonly tenders for elephant catching, for domestication.
Offering royalties of up to 750 rupees per elephant, according to the Chittagong District Gazetteer, the so-called “kheda” operations, named after the corral in which wild elephants were trapped, were commonly slated for Teknafwinters.
“Elephants are not like cattle that can be goaded down to a desired place. No force can be applied; they move on their track at their own whims.”
A kheda operation could involve 100 people including 50 skilled labourers to build the camouflaged forest stockade in 8 – 12 days. They could wait weeks for elephants to appear.
Fire lines and loud sounds like gunshots would make the elephants “blindly and senselessly” proceed into the trap. Care had to be taken because “once scared no earthly force can control the herd.”
Once trapped the elephants would routinely turn against and kill their leader, who was blamed for their fate. But if the leader was strong others might die while fighting. In the panic baby elephants could be trampled dead.
The trapped elephants were starved and given no water for 24 hours to weaken them. Then, using mahouts on trained female elephants called “kunkis” the wild elephants would be noosed, legs tied.
“The leader of the trained brigade is always a strong, healthy, powerful and skilled tusker,” reads the Gazetteer. This male elephant would fight captured individuals, eventually establishing his claim as new group leader.
A kheda operation in 1965 in UkhiaUpazila netted ten elephants; in the 19th century up to 150 elephants were caught annually.
As we negotiate uncarved slopes slippery with leaf litter, from heat exhaustion I'm ready to collapse.
Bangladeshis, according to Alam, rarely reach the hilltops. “Bengalis can't climb,” he says, “They walk a short distance. When foreigners come, they always go to the top.”
Our situation is reversed. Gasping for air, I'm struggling while Alam climbs the hills as readily as an escalator at a shopping mall. “We are forest people,” he says, “We live here.”
Alam's regret is he has difficulty communicating with foreigners. “I want to speak more to them but can't.” He completed study only to class 2.
From the summit the view is impressive. In front the range continues with higher, more artistically-shaped rocky peaks. There's little evidence the Bay of Bengal is beyond. On the Naf side are sweeping views across salt fields to Myanmar's mountains.
Along the ridgeline the path is narrow. On a hot day the elephants will not climb the hills. “They'll be at the waterfall,” says Alam. Without drinking water I decide not to go further. We head back.
When I ask Alam how much he wants for guiding, he suggests a paltry sum. Greed is not among his faults.“It's fun to see them,” he says, describing how when elephants take dust baths and are lying on the ground it's sometimes hard to imagine they're even there.