Dharmapuri elephant calves, electrocuted
Three elephants, including the calves' mother, died when they came into contact with an illegal electric fence powered by an overhead line instead of the legal solar-powered ones | Pic: Twitter/ANI

TN: Orphaned jumbo calves revive debate on man-animal conflict again

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In yet another case of human-animal conflict, three elephants have been electrocuted in Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district, leaving two calves orphaned. The calves’ mother and two other elephants died when they tried to enter a ragi (finger millet) field. Now, foresters are trying their best to help the calves survive with minimal intervention so that they can be rehabilitated with another herd.

The calves are aged one and two-and-a-half years, respectively. At their age, they might find it difficult to survive on their own in the forest. In such cases, forest officials usually try to get the calves accepted by a nearby herd or relocate them to elephant camps.

“We must keep in mind that elephants can depend on their mother’s milk for up to two years. Also, other herds won’t easily accept them, more so if they get the scent of humans,” said Dr K Ashokan, former senior veterinary doctor of Sathyamangalam Reserve Forest. For the record, he rescued 25 elephants in the past.

A mammoth task

By Thursday (March 9), the calves had already spent three days surviving on their own.

Foresters are doing their best to ensure that the jumbos do not go hungry. They are placing fruits nearby to ensure the duo gets enough nutrition. But such rescue missions can continue for days. “Dedication and passion are important to rescue such calves,” said wildlife conservationist S Theodore Baskaran.

Also read: Jumbo kills 16 people in 12 days in Jharkhand amid spike in man-elephant conflict

“In places like Nairobi, they have been able to save young calves. Finding an equivalent to elephant milk is not impossible. But it needs dedication. It is vital to set up a laboratory and document the best practices to save an elephant calf,” he told The Federal.

Veterinarians who work on saving rescued calves agreed with him. It is also of paramount importance to maintain hygiene, as infections can be deadly for elephant calves under human care, they said.

Farmers trying to save crops

The farmers of Dharmapuri and Krishnagiri, who find it difficult to save their crops from marauding elephants, have become the villains in public eye as the poignant story of the orphaned calves has come to the fore. The Madras High Court, acting on a petition filed by a wildlife activist, has sought a report on the rescue mission within four weeks besides the standard operating procedure (SOP) followed.

K Murugesan (67), the farmer accused of setting up the illegal fence which led to the death of the jumbos, has been now booked under the non-bailable Goondas Act. But wildlife conservationists say such illegal activities happen all the time. “The farmer accused of installing the illegal fence might also be let loose when public memory fades,” said Theodore Baskaran.

The farmers, who would earlier let the pachyderms hunt for food and accept compensation from the government, are now turning to new ways of controlling them, said Arvind Adhi, president, Kenneth Anderson Nature Society, Hosur. The organisation works on human-elephant conflict.

“In the Dharmapuri incident, too, it came to the fore. Unlike the solar-powered fences erected with government permission which deliver a mild shock, the one that killed the three elephants was an illegal fence directly linked to an overhead power line,” he said.

Also read: PM Modi praises Karnataka tiger reserve staff for saving injured elephant

More than 89 elephants were killed in the past 10 years because of electric fences, reported The New Indian Express, quoting an RTI petition document. Veterinarians who conduct autopsies on elephants told The Federal that the animals are also poisoned.

“In some cases, it is chronic poisoning, when elephants feed on crops laden with fertilizers. In some cases, the elephants die after drinking poisoned water, which is a deliberate act (to poison them),” said Ashokan, who has conducted 700 post-mortems on jumbos to date.

The “national curse”

Wildlife conservationists also point out the lack of collaboration between various agencies, which leads to such crises. Instances of law violation, like illegal electric fencing, come to the public domain only after such a tragic incident occurs.

“It’s India’s national curse. A coordinated effort can be useful in rescuing calves too. Experts must be roped into such missions. One agency cannot do it,” said Theodore Baskaran. “In countries like Australia, I see public-private partnerships, which India lacks. Specialists trained in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, like the Dehradun Wildlife Institute of India, should be involved in such missions,” he added.

Incidents of elephant calves separating from the herd, falling into a pit, or getting washed away in flash floods have hit the headlines in Tamil Nadu in the past too. Forest officials either move them to elephant camps or ensure they are reunited with the herd. But Ashokan said it is easier said than done.

“No other herd will easily accept a calf. The calf must follow the herd from a distance for some time. It could take up to two weeks for the new herd to accept it. Meanwhile, if humans get too close to the calf, the wild herd can easily smell them. Wild elephants have been known to trample orphaned calves to death. Or, the calf may be abandoned forever, forcing foresters to take them to camps in Anaikatti or Mudhumalai. That is why forest officials always follow such calves from a distance despite monitoring them constantly,” he explained.

Also read: Chhattisgarh: Elephant found dead in Raigarh; 6th fatality in 4 months

Factors to blame

The Dharmapuri farmer has been accused of directly connecting the electric fence to the overhead power line, which is shocking, said Baskaran. “More than focusing on the calves, we should focus on why these young ones are in this predicament. This incident should make us think of how we can protect wildlife habitats. The animal count is increasing, thanks to wildlife protection from 1972 onwards. But their habitat remains the same. The animals are forced to come out of their habitat. We have to address this issue,” he said.

The crop pattern of farmers in areas adjoining wildlife habitats worsens matters. The farmers grow crops which the elephants like, and the animals tend to venture out and steal food, leading to such unfortunate incidents. Asian elephants eat 22 types of grass, many of which are not available in their habitat now, said Ashokan.

“Elephants have a special liking for the barks of certain trees. Most of them have been cut down or are not grown any more. Elephants eat 80% plants and 20% barks of trees, and drink 200 litres of water every day. When they don’t get their feed in their habitat and agricultural lands nearby entice them, they come out and raid the farmland,” he said.

Some estimates say there are more than 200 elephants in the Dharmapuri and Krishnagiri forest range this season. Forest officials hope they will be able to push the orphaned calves into a herd soon. Elephants, which usually walk 2 km a day, would earlier migrate from the Western Ghats to the Eastern Ghats. From Wayanad in Kerala, they would go into Bannerghatta in Karnataka and enter Tamil Nadu via Krishnagiri district, crossing the Cauvery river. From there on, they were known to enter Andhra Pradesh forests, touching Eastern Ghats.

“There are records showing elephants used to travel from Wayanad in Kerala to as far as Tirupati forests. Urban development is blocking their migratory routes, leading to such incidents,” said Arvind Adhi.

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