On In People & Politics

Meet The Girl With An Elephant Heart Who Even Lived In Jungle For Two Years

In today's world, where our generation is driven by urbanization and technology, meet a lady whose love for elephants took her far away from civilization and elite jobs.Let me introduce you, Seema Lokhandwala from India whose unconditional love towards elephants landed her in Kaziranga National Park. Here she shares with us, the story of a girl from being an engineer to an elephant biologist.

EQ stands elephant intelligence, or that’s what she thought

"I was lucky to be raised in a neighborhood in Surat, Gujarat which was surrounded by nature. Down the street, there was an NGO named Nature Club, which hosted various species of snakes and turtles which got me interested in wildlife. On one of my usual family vacations, I visited "The Royal Chitwan National Park" in Nepal. I was about 12 years old then and I was captivated by the immense size and beauty of the elephants."Picture credit: THE FISHY PROJECT

Concrete jungle to the real jungle

She studied Software engineering at SRM University, Chennai. She got hooked onto elephants, from the first documentary she watched of "Echo and the Elephants of Amboseli", her curiosity increased with each passing day. She started her first basic research back in 2010.She worked at Ernst and Young, Bangalore. But she soon she realized that her roots belong in the jungle.

Opportunities knock at the door when you least expect them

She volunteered at Dr. Raman Sukumar's lab at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore to get hands on experience on elephant ecology and behavior. She worked in Kodagu landscape, Karnataka, India to collect data for socioeconomic surveys, where she used to develop forms on smartphones/tablets with Open Data Kit of Google for collecting field data.She recalls her special opportunity: “During that time, Dr.Sukumar one day asked me if I was interested in going to Kaziranga National Park for a GPS-elephant collaring project coming up in Assam, I jumped at the opportunity and in a couple of months I landed in Kaziranga."She used to look at population structure of elephants, including the identification of individual elephants that move between Kaziranga National Park and Karbi Anglong to understand elephant migration through the corridors.

A mystic land called Kaziranga National Park where she spent almost two years. 

She shares as clichéd as it sounds Kaziranga National Park is magical: "It is the place which will be always close to my heart. The elephants in the park are gentle giants; the rhinos are everywhere and you patiently wait to see a tiger. The animal orchestra made the sound scape soothing; you hear the birds chirping, elephants trumpeting, crickets stridulating and rhinos grunting. I love the way my senses would get heightened whenever I was in the park."

Secret sense of Elephants – Infrasonic sound

Seema so kindly answered to all my queries and said: "On a foggy winter morning we saw two elephants feeding in dense cane vegetation along the side of the road. We parked our vehicle nearby and waited for the elephants to come out in the open or on the road. One of the adult female rumbled and it wasn't the usual one, but it was a long pulsating rumbles. I heard nothing except "Grrrrrrrrrrrrr" but my bones could feel it and goose bumps tickled my arms and shoulders. Have you ever been listening to a great piece of music and felt a chill run up your spine? It was something like that.”

A bag full of Experiences and Memories!

“Kaziranga National Park is famous for Rhinos and whosoever visits it, cannot forget seeming them up close. There were days where my complete day was revolving around chasing rhinos or getting chased by them. One fine rainy day, we were looking for elephants. At one sharp turn, we got chased by an adult female rhino with a calf; our vehicle got stuck as it was a muddy road. The rhino hit the rear of the gypsy with such power that she lifted the vehicle about few inches from the ground. Luckily our vehicle started but we got a long chase by the Rhino. I was lucky to make it out with just a scratch.”

She feels blessed to study elephants

“Elephants communicate in different forms such as seismic, acoustics, visual, tactile and chemical. What fascinates me is acoustic communication. They communicate with one another in a low-frequency sound which is inaudible to humans. Also, the low-frequency sound travels a long distance. The diversity of an elephant sound and the ranging frequency from a low of 5 Hz to a high of over 10,000 Hz makes them an ideal species to study.”

Seema is now pursuing PhD at Centre for Linguistic Science and Technology, IIT Guwahati, India.

She plans to study the individual identification of elephant calls and speaker verification of them. She is also interested in looking at vocal ontogeny of elephants.  

Every achievement comes with challenges.

There were times when Seema had to face difficulties. She shares: "From a non-wildlife background, I had to learn a lot about wildlife, local customs, and forests in my first few months. The social isolation was tough. It takes practice to learn how to behave around the elephants and predict whether he/she will attack or retreat. Most of the time the elephants mock charges at you, but to hold your ground when you see such a big animal running towards you or the vehicle needs practice. But when a Rhino charges at you; you don't hold ground or do anything stupid, all you do is run for your life or climb a tree. One major challenge was to learn to climb trees but after two years I am still not good at that.The funny part is after two years of living in the jungle, I am still cooping up with civilization and social media."