Darting an elephant, with the wrong aim (Kalpetta, India)


E. M. Manoj, The Hindu

Date Published

See link for photos.

‘Bharathan SI’ can neither be held nor released as relocation is not seen as a solution to human-elephant conflict

A lone elephant lumbering up the wooded paths of hamlets like Thottamoola, Kottanod, Golur, Edathara and Mamadhanmoola, which nestle by the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary (WWS), would normally be cause for alarm. But ‘Bharathan SI’ (for Sub Inspector), named so because his trunk rises rather like that of a saluting policeman, was a guest often welcomed with palm leaves and plantain fruits, albeit from a safe distance.

Bharathan, in turn, politely waited on the outskirts of human settlements till he was called and served. But when nothing was forthcoming, he raided paddy fields and plantain crop on farmlands in the buffer zone. Bharathan SI was not to know that this was only the beginning of his troubles.

After one raid too many, villagers complained to forest officials, who tranquilised Bharathan, fixed a radio collar, and released him in mid-February 2016. He lost the collar in a fight, so the process was repeated in November 2016. Each time, he was enfeebled with two doses of tranquilisers.

“Repeated incidences of tranquilisation on an elephant may adversely affect its health and immunity, and may cause liver and kidney toxicity,” Dr. T.P. Sethumadhavan, Director-Entrepreneurship at the Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, who is associated with research on human-elephant conflict, told The Hindu.

Later, forest officials tried to drive the 27-year-old back into forest with the help of kumki (trained) elephants, but he proved unwilling to leave. On November 20, 2016, while he was raiding a paddy field in Kallur, a group of villagers tried to drive him back to the forest by pelting stones at him. He hit a farmer as he ran and villagers staged a protest demanding protection from wildlife attacks.

The very next day, a significant contingent of forest officials, veterinary doctors, trackers and kumki elephants from the adjacent Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR) in Tamil Nadu gathered at Thottamoola to capture Bharathan SI, tranquilisers at the ready, following a directive from Kerala’s Minister of Forests K. Raju.

Dart dosage

“Though the permitted dosage of Xylazine, which is usually used for the purpose in India, is 150 mg per kg, the dosage may often not be accurate. The effect of darting may vary with variables like the season, body weight, age, climate, dosage of medicine and the health of the animal,” says Dr. Sethumadhavan, who is also Visiting Scientist with the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

The team located the truant jumbo in the Arupathiyezhu forest near Kallur at 5.30 a.m. on November 21. Soon after, he was administered the first dose of a tranquiliser dart, followed by a milder dose after a while. About three hours later, kumki elephants led the sluggish animal to a mobile ambulance parked near the forest.

Overnight, Bharathan SI went from being a wild fugitive in one of India’s major elephant habitats to a captive in a temporary kraal for set up for him at Muthanga.

“The elephant was allegedly tranquilised around nine times in a couple of years for attaching radio collars, capturing and translocation,” says V.K. Venkitachalam, secretary of the Thrissur-based Heritage Animal Task Force. “The unscientific administration of tranquilisers on an elephant in captivity is unheard of in recent history.”

The State Forest Department faced a shortage of trained kumki elephants, and Bharathan SI appeared destined to become one. Till, that is, a group of environmentalists opposed the move to keep him in a kraal, which is typically an enclosure for cattle or sheep. “The condition of the elephant at the kraal is pathetic,” agrees Mr. Venkitachalam.

Next ordeal

Thus did Bharathan’s next ordeal begin on February 11, 2017. State Additional Chief Secretary (Forest) P. Marapandyan directed the authorities to release Bharathan SI into the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve (PTR), nearly 320 km away in the Palakkad district on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. Forest officials feared that releasing him inside the Wayanad sanctuary would lead to another public outcry. Two kumkis were deployed to ensure Bharathan, tranquilised yet again, embarked on his journey in a specially designed ambulance, radio collar back in place.

“The impact of darting may be comparatively high in captive elephants,” says Dr. Sethumadhavan. Although such studies are thin on the ground in Asian countries, research on African elephants in American and European zoological parks has revealed repeated darting would adversely affect the lifespan and immunity of the animals.

‘Irrational and cruel’

But the translocation operation was called off when the people in Parambikulam protested against it. This fiasco, and earlier abortive attempts to shift three tigers to different zoos in the State, led wildlife lovers to demand an exclusive enclosure for ‘unruly’ elephants and captured tigers inside the WWS.

Translocation has had unhappy consequences. Three years ago, when forest authorities translocated an elephant from the Wayanad sanctuary to the PTR, it was found dead with serious wounds all over its body after nine months of its release, says Mr. Venkitachalam. He termed the decision to tranquilise and transport Bharathan far away without ensuring his admission there irrational and cruel.

Concurs N. Badusha, president of the Wayanad Prakruthi Samrakshana Samiti, “Elephants are highly social animals with complex family structures. To hold an elephant captive alone is tantamount to solitary confinement, which would be considered torture if arbitrarily enforced on a human.”

Mr. Venkitachalam recommends that 60 acres of degraded forestland in the Kurichiyad forest range, with ample vegetation and water for the pachyderms, be set aside as a sanctuary within the sanctuary for captive elephants.

An online campaign is also underway to have Bharathan SI released into the wild. Zoologist and mahout Nibha Namboodhiri has filed a case in the Kerala High Court demanding his release. Bharathan SI’s fate, however, is less than clear.