Down a Deep Well

An Indian bison gets into a scrape in Kodaikanal

By / March 2018

One evening in Kodaikanal, a large male Indian bison, known locally as a gaur, entered a walled garden and began gorging himself on carrots and cabbage. At the outset, there was nothing particularly surprising about the incident. The bison that roam freely about the forests in India’s Western Ghats are infamous for making nocturnal forays into mountain villages.

These are not always peaceful intrusions. Indian bison are the biggest bovine species on earth. They can weigh up to 3,000 pounds and often stand seven feet tall at the shoulder. They plow through walls, topple huts, destroy crops, and occasionally take human lives before retreating back into the trees.

But on this night in Kodai, before the robber bison could return to the forest, he lost his bearings. Perhaps he was slightly punch-drunk on vegetables. Perhaps he had been spooked by a peal of laughter from a cracked window. Whatever the case, en route to tree cover, he tumbled hoof-first into a large, open well and there he stayed, wedged inside of the stone shaft about thirty feet down until the following morning, when villagers arose to the sound of snorts and bellows and trailed the commotion to the hole in the ground.

One after the other, the villagers peered into the well, their mouths agape at the sight of a bison trapped in the place where only a day before they had come to draw water. No one knew what to do, a couple of witnesses explained as they recounted the story to me on a recent trip into Kodai. The men said they had tried to hook ropes around the gaur’s horns and pull him out. Later, they tried to pry him loose using long wooden poles.

After several hours of failed rescue attempts, a sense of helplessness settled over the crowd. The bison was still alive, but there was the general feeling that time was running out. And then an idea dawned on someone: What about the fire truck?

The fire truck, one of the few things that outweighed the bison, had a wench on the back that could handle the strain. The only problem was that there was only one fire truck in the region, and it would take three days for it to get there.

The townsfolk were undaunted. They made a harried phone call and waited expectantly for the truck’s arrival. In the meantime, they took turns attending to the bison. Day and night, they pelted his face with vegetables and branches. They poured water from buckets, aiming for his mouth. Occasionally the beast would let out a moan, and the people would cheer at this subtle yet certain evidence of life.

The animal was still breathing but growing ever more restless by the time the fire engine rumbled onto the dirt road on the edge of Kodai three days later. The crowd parted to make way. The villagers had become personally invested in the plight of the gaur and though other responsibilities called they were not about to leave the scene until the creature was safe.

The truck backed up to the hole and idled. In the well, the bison began to writhe. While a fireman readied the straps and ropes, the veterinarian who had accompanied him to the scene injected the bison with a tranquilizer fired from a pistol.

The sedative relaxed the bison enough for the fireman to get the ropes in place. The crowd grew silent as the man shifted the truck into drive and, inch by unhurried inch, began pulling the gaur from the well.

Nearly an hour later, when the bison’s body, first the head and shortly thereafter the haunches, emerged in one piece from the hole, the villagers erupted in applause. Their pluck, persistence, and ingenuity had saved a clumsy animal from a nasty bind.

The people laughed, good-heartedly, as the gaur, groggy from the sedative, clambered onto all fours. Then they gasped in horror as he lumbered right off of the nearby bluff.

Stunned, they hurried to the edge. The bison lay dead on the rocks below. The villagers looked at one another in disbelief. They kneaded their brows, threw up their hands. Then, the witnesses told me, pausing at this point for dramatic effect, they cut up the bison. It took all day. They ate on the meat for a month.


Chris Watts is a contributing writer for EthnoTraveler.