Mammoth Hunt: The Giant Elephants of Nepal

Back in Blather 1.52, mention was made of having seen and heard retired Royal Engineer Colonel John Blashford-Snell at UnCon98, speaking about his ‘Mammoth Hunt’ to Nepal. Back then, Blather promised to bring you a discussion of the book Mammoth Hunt — In Search of the Giant Elephants of Nepal, co-written by Blashford-Snell with actress Rula Lenska. Well, finally perused, and finally closed a matter of hours ago, Mammoth Hunt is one of those rare books that can only be described as a Damned Good Read.

Around 1987, Blashford-Snell (hitherto referred to as JBS) was made aware of rumours concerning ‘giant mammoths’ which were pillaging villages in remote areas of Nepal. JBS, who has been leading expeditions to remote regions for many years — with Operation Raleigh, Discovery Expeditions and the Scientific Exploration Society — decided that Nepal was a good place to bring the *clients* of Discovery Expeditions. In all, some seven separate expeditions were executed between 1991 and 1997, the first team containing many tired and listless executives in need of a good shaking up, as well as one Mark O’Shea, described as being a ‘mad Irish snake expert’.
While Mammoth Hunt isn’t the kind of book usually discussed in Blather, i.e. it doesn’t deal with phenomenalism, at least not in any deliberate sense, Mammoth Hunt would be of definite interest to everyone from the armchair-adventurer, those interested in travelling to more *exotic* locations, and to readers with even just a passing interest in cryptozoology. Not that these expeditions were of a consciously cryptozoological nature — the word doesn’t appear in the book — but it does illustrate how rumours of apparently impossibly animals, such as live mammoths, rubbished by many, did in fact have some element of ‘truth’ to them.
The entire seven year adventure holds tales of rafting down the Karnali river, drives along precarious cliff-top roads and horrendous bus crashes, remote tribes who shun agriculture, army anti-poaching squads who live in the woods, lost Babylonic citadels in the jungle, whitewater rafting, encounters with tigers, rhino, leeches and savage sloths. . . and the elephants, both wild and domesticated.
When scouting for the ‘Beasts of Bardia’ — Bardia being the forest where the giant elephants had been seen — JBS and his teams of Europeans, Nepalese naturalists, rafters, mahouts and phanits (both classes of elephant drivers), quite rightly decided to travel on tame elephants. And so we are introduced to these intelligent animals and their engaging personalities. Most of us are unaware that some elephants can respond to between thirty and sixty different verbal commands, or that, in Lenska’s words ‘they can be mischievous and cheeky, sad and depressed, volatile and bad tempered, lazy and frisky, sulky and cuddly and happy. They also cry with fear and pain and emotional hurt.’
After much searching. the expeditions found two large temperamental and peculiar-looking bull elephants wandering about the woods, the larger one becoming known as *Raja Gaj* – meaning King Elephant, while the smaller was known as *Kancha* — Youngest. The elephants were much larger than the average Indian elephant, with a shoulder height of over 11ft (3.35m) for Raja Gaj, and they had a strange sloping back, protuberant forehead, and a thick tail.
Finding such huge volatile playboys lolling about the jungle seems to have brought its own problems, as these elephants were possibly exiles from a herd, led by a *bigger* bull. One particular encounter with Raja Gaj was even more hair-raising than normal, as he was in musth – male heat, with irritating yellow fluid seeping from behind his eye. Not only was the King in search of lurve, he was angry too, and I’m sure that even sitting in a *howdah* (seat on an elephants back) of even the fiercest of matriarchal elephants can’t have felt too safe. In fact, Madu Mala Kali (Honey Blossom), the aforementioned matriarch saw fit, in the middle of night, to briefly elope with Raja Gaj — he snapped her chains effortlessly, but she was reclaimed (the word ‘recapture’ seems inappropriate here) without too much effort.
DNA of these huge wild creatures was recovered, from their dung, and while they don’t seem to be ‘mammoths’ as such, they are certainly in a class of their own. Dr Adrian Lister, a palaeontologist who was on three trips to Bardia with JBS, gave the following statement in October 1995:
‘Within the Asian elephants we have to compare the Nepalese beasts with populations in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Burma, to see if the Nepalese animals are genetically distinct, maybe forming grouping with nearby populations from northern India. It would not surprise me to find that the Nepalese population has genetic variability, due to a phenomenon we call “bottlenecking”, a result of isolation and the small numbers in the area. This might in turn account for the unusual anatomy of the Bardia elephants.’
In this writer’s opinion, and even though JBS found this news ‘somewhat disappointing’, these finding are no less magical than finding a prehistoric survivor. It’s always intriguing to consider many of the allegations of mysterious animals, while respecting the 1938 discovery of a living coelacanth, previously only known from fossil records. But there are others — and *Nessie* is no exception — that seem to be continuously interpreted as living prehistoric animals, with the intimation that any other possibility, e.g. a new mammal, is somehow less interesting.
By the time you read this issue of Blather its author will be at Lake Seljord in Norway, help to ascertain facts about the existence of an alleged mysterious water animal. While we would be thrilled to find a new species, it doesn’t have to be a *dinosaur*.
*Mammoth Hunt — In Search of the Giant Elephants of Nepal*
John Blashford-Snell and Rula Lenska
Harper Collins 1997
(ISBN 0-00-638741-1)
‘All profits from the sale of this book will be used by the Scientific Exploration Society for the protection of and preservation of endangered wildlife, and the Asian elephant in particular’
Dave (daev) Walsh
Written on July 23rd, 1998

Chief Bottle Washer at Blather
Writer, photographer, environmental campaigner and "known troublemaker" Dave Walsh is the founder of, described both as "possibly the most arrogant and depraved website to be found either side of the majestic Shannon River", and "the nicest website circulating in Ireland". Half Irishman, half-bicycle. He lives in southern Irish city of Barcelona.


  1. Mammoth Hunt was an exhilarating ride which took me back to the time when I was a child and would visit Bardia. During one of my many trips we were driving down a jungle route deep in bardia, and suddenly the guide shouted “Stop”!! We stopped and jumped out wondering what was going on and he pointed and on the other side of the river we saw two amazing sights. Raja Gaj and Kancha Gaj taking an evening strol!!
    I hope to go back to Bardia soon, specially since Raja Gaj has been sighted again!!

  2. Raja Gaj: There was a TV documentary made about this elephant about 1994. At the time it was compared to the supposedly 100,000 years extinct stegodons found in the fossil record. The expert comment was something like: “…maybe the gene has recurred in a modern elephant.” I remember thinking at that time, maybe it just never became extinct.

Comments are closed.