Elephant whisperers get another 4-month-old orphan to take care of

There are poignant similarities between the efforts now to save the unnamed calf and the successful rescue of Raghu in the past as depicted in the documentary

The Elephant Whisperers, Theppakadu elephant Camp, Nilgris, elephants, elephant calves, orphaned elephants, survival, foster care, human intervention
Tribal caretakers Bomman and Bellie in a still from 'The Elephant Whisperers'. The two will be foster parents for the unnamed calf brought to the Theppakadu Elephant Camp recently

The Theppakadu Elephant Camp in the Nilgiris, made famous by the Oscar-winning documentary The Elephant Whisperers, has got a new orphan to foster. A four-month-old elephant calf, rescued from a well in Dharmapuri district, has reached the camp. There are poignant similarities between the efforts now to save the unnamed calf and the successful rescue of Raghu in the past as depicted in the documentary. Tribal caretakers Bomman and Bellie, the lives of whom were documented in the award-winning film, are the foster parents for this unnamed calf, too.

While the mother of Raghu, who had a lot of injuries due to dog bites, was electrocuted to death in an agricultural field in Krishnagiri district, the unnamed calf was separated from its herd and fell into a well frightened by a pack of dogs chasing it.

Struggle for survival

An elephant calf needs the mother’s milk to survive. “Mother’s milk is vital for the survival for elephant calves who are less than 1-year-old,” said Dr K Ashokan, former Veterinary Doctor of Sathyamangalam Reserve Forest, who has been involved in many such rescue missions.


Also read: ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ trumpets humane element in wildlife conservation

Closest to the breast milk is considered to be Lactogen-1, which in case of orphan calves is their lifeline.

“In the first six months, the young ones have to be fed with 15 litres of Lactogen-1 each day, before moving on to Lactogen-2. Calves that are not mother-fed will have issues with immunity. We provide calcium and other supplements and give them daily walks,” Dr Ashokan told The Federal, adding, “But more than the milk, affection, care and hygiene are important. The young ones have to be given a bath every day. They need to be taken care and monitored 24 hours round. The calf will sleep with us as it sleeps with its mom.”

As of now, the four-month-old calf is undergoing a cooling off period at the Theppakadu camp. The calf has to accept the new place as its own, point out sources from the forest department. Every moment is important as deaths of rescued elephant calves have been reported in camps too, despite the best efforts of the Tamil Nadu forest department.

“Tamil Nadu has a high number of manmade deaths of elephants, leading to a scenario where more and more calves are left motherless,” said environmentalist N Sadiq Ali, Founder-Managing Trustee of Wildlife and Nature Conservation Trust, Ooty.

Elephants in the wild

India has more than 29,000 wild elephants as per 2017 census, out of which 44 per cent are found in the contiguous forests of Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The elephant population in these forests has increased by more than 20-30 per cent in the last five years as per estimates, Ali told The Federal.

Watch: Munnar tourists have chilling encounter with Padayappa the tusker

“Hunting has been controlled, conservation is working, animal reproduction is also good. This leads to a rise in the population of wildlife. But lack of enough food and water is forcing the jumbos to venture out,” he said.

This leads to deaths of elephants due to electrocution, accidents on rail tracks, or due to food poisoning from eating pesticide-laden foodgrain. For the orphaned calves, survival becomes a struggle, whether in the forest or in captivity.

The tragic deaths of elephants continue to rock Dharmapuri. A tusker, about 20-25 years of age, was electrocuted to death today (March 18) in Kambainallur village in the district, when the pachyderm came in contact with an overhead power cable. This comes 12 days after three elephants were electrocuted to death in the district by an illegal electric fence, leaving two calves orphaned.

Surviving without mother

If a calf loses its mother and the herd as well, it is a double blow, said Dr Ashokan. “The calf has to follow another herd up to 15 days to get acceptance. If it makes a wrong move, it can be trampled to death by other wild elephants or left to die in the wilderness. On the other hand, if they don’t find good caretakers in captivity, they can succumb to infections,” he said.

Wildlife activists point out that unless there is a feeding mother in the herd, the life of a calf gets extremely tough.

Also read: Elephants are like our children, says Belli of Oscar-winner ‘The Elephant Whisperers’

The story of Bommi, the other calf taken care of by Bellie and Bomman, shows how pathetic the life of an orphaned calf could be. The three-month-old calf, which had many bruises and was near death, was rescued from Sathyamangalam Reserve Forest and saved by veterinary doctors.

“Elephant calves cannot eat on their own. The unfortunate calf had roamed around the forest and consumed stones. We were shocked when we found them in its poop,” said Dr Ashokan, who was part of the team which attended to Bommi first.

Till the rescued calves adapt to human beings, their survival is a struggle. Looking after them demands a lot of care and attention. They can succumb to diarrhea if the utensils for preparing their feed aren’t cleaned properly, say the veterinarians. Their milk has to be made each time and should be fed warm, they point out.

The fate of the four-month-old calf from Dharmapuri also hangs on these parameters.

Issues at stake

Wildlife conservationists want the stakeholders, especially the government, to have a serious look at issues at stake. The increasing human population is leading to an increase in infrastructure and agriculture. “Today elephants live in islands of different habitats. They need to walk long distances in search of food. But between these islands of habitats are human farmlands and habitations. We have to build paths under railway tracks and flyovers to help wild animals cross highways. If wild animals get used to these, such pathetic scenes could be avoided,” Sadiq Ali told The Federal.

Also read: Meet the ‘Indiana Jones of conservation’ who wrote The Elephant Whisperer

Environmentalists like Sadiq Ali underscore the importance of coexisting with wildlife to avoid such incidents where poor elephant calves lose their mother and the herd.

“We have been telling farmers in and around forests to shift to crops which don’t attract elephants, like turmeric or garlic. But without having an understanding that elephants also do have rights on this planet, this won’t happen. In the shorter run, governments should ease the process to make crop insurance claims smooth. The lack of it is forcing many to erect electric fences,” he said.

Wildlife conservationist S Theodore Baskaran points out at the need to work closely with the world’s best institutes for saving the calves. “More than six international centres have documented best methods to save elephant calves. It’s a call away to get their expertise,” said Baskaran. “But the concern is that the forest department doesn’t even approach experts available in India like Raman Sukumaran. They treat wildlife conservation and protection like their fiefdom,” said Baskaran.

The Theppakadu elephant camp, which provides asylum to 5,000-odd rescued elephants, is an ideal example on how things could evolve over the period. It was originally used by timber traders till 1910 before becoming a haven for orphaned wild elephants.