- Elephant calves are sometimes the casualties in the tussle for space between humans and elephants. While some orphaned calves are accepted back into their herds, many young ones find it difficult to survive in the wild without their mothers who died from electrocution or other accidents.
- In cases of separation from herds, the immediate response of the forest department in Tamil Nadu, is to unite the calf with its herd.
- The carers at Theppakadu Elephant Camp provide milk replacers or formula at different stages, for the orphaned calves or the calves that get abandoned.
- The Tamil Nadu state government is working on short-term solutions such as tracking elephants and introducing stringent rules for electric fences to curb electrocution, and long-term solutions such as securing continuous migratory paths for elephants.
It’s been about two months since The Elephant Whisperers won the best documentary short film award at the Oscars and Theppakadu Elephant Camp at Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, where the film was shot, is teeming with visitors. Elephants were the main attraction before the film, but now it’s Bomman and Bellie, the central characters of the movie, who are the big draw. Everybody wants a selfie with the couple belonging to the Kattunayakan tribe, and they politely oblige.
“I’m very proud of all the accolades that the film is receiving. I’m grateful to the forest department for giving me the opportunity to serve the elephants and I’m glad the department received recognition through this movie,” a humble Bomman told Mongabay-India. Fame is not lost on the two elephant calves, Raghu and Bommi (Baby Ammu), who bask in the limelight, reaching out merrily for the extra bananas being extended to them.
While the film spotlights the sacred bond elephants share with their human carers, there are also incredible stories of survival of the calves separated from their mothers.
Raghu’s is one such. After his mother’s death from accidental electrocution on an agricultural farm in the Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu, Raghu, barely a year old then, was in a precarious state. “His tail was damaged by wild animal attack; he was bony, sluggish and hadn’t eaten anything for days,” said Sanjeev Kumar of Kenneth Anderson Nature Society (KANS), a non-profit that works on human-elephant conflict mitigation in the Melagiris of Eastern Ghats.
Elephants harmed while farmers protect their fields
Negative interactions between elephants and humans have been reported from the Eastern Ghats region for many years now. Between 2016 and 2023, unofficial records put elephant deaths by way of electrocution and gunshots in Hosur forest division in Tamil Nadu, at 14. Elephant calves are sometimes the casualties in this tussle for space between humans and elephants. Not all orphaned calves are lucky to be accepted back into their herds or survive in the wild without their mothers. “In my 15 years of work in this location, I have witnessed five cases of separation including Raghu’s,” Sanjeev Kumar said.
The Tamil Nadu government has come up with stricter measures to curb electrocution incidents of wildlife. Additional Chief Secretary to Tamil Nadu Government, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Forests, Supriya Sahu informed Mongabay-India that illegal tapping from the electricity board (EB) poles is a criminal act that warrants stringent action by the government. She shared that Tamil Nadu is framing comprehensive rules to address all energised fences with battery-operated electric sources and solar energy. According to government data, both human casualties and elephant deaths by electrocution have seen a decreasing trend in Tamil Nadu, from 2019-20 to 2021-22.
In cases of separation from herds, the immediate response of the forest department is to find opportunities to unite the calf with its herd. “If the mother is alive and the calf is left behind the herd, it is easier. The mother will come and find the calf. We just have to keep a close watch until that happens,” said Dr N.S. Manoharan, retired additional director of Tamil Nadu Animal Husbandry Department and Veterinary Sciences, who has overseen operations to rescue or reunite calves with herds.
“Calves younger than two years are heavily dependent on their mothers. They are breastfed 12-14 times a day which makes the separation equally painful for both the mother and the calf. In one case we waited two to three days for a mother to come back for a calf, and she did,” he said.
In March 2023, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) released 14 guidelines for human-wildlife conflict mitigation to promote harmonious coexistence between humans and wildlife with a section on managing orphaned/stray elephant calves-in-conflict, covering aspects such as the stress, immunity and hygiene of the calves.
Orphaned elephant calves struggle to adapt to new environments
Raghu’s mother died when he was just a few months old. “He took to the bottle immediately and that saved his life,” recalled Dr Rajesh Kumar, veterinarian at Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. Baby elephants younger than two years are given milk replacers or formula for different stages. “It’s difficult for the calf to get used to this but the very young ones survive only if they do,” he said.
Early this year, a forest department team including Rajesh and Bomman rescued a four-month-old abandoned calf from Dharmapuri and brought it to Mudumalai. The calf did not survive the separation from its mother. “We don’t know why the herd abandoned the calf,” said Rajesh Kumar. The calf had come towards the village and had fallen into a well. “It was stressed from abandonment, the accident and the long journey (of over 250 km) to Mudumalai,” he added.
The reason for the abandonment is not known but Rajesh Kumar suspects some genetic disorder that may have made it unfit to stay with the herd. “The mother might have sensed it and abandoned the calf since there were no external injuries when we got the calf,” he said, adding that animals are wired to follow the rules of the wild.
According to official records from the Tamil Nadu forest department, 10 calves below the age of one were rescued since 1971 of which seven have survived and are lodged at Theppekadu elephant camp.
The cost of taking care of these calves is borne by the forest department. “Care takers, calf rearing shed, medicines, milk replacers/ feed are the major expenses. In the camps set up by the forest department, caretakers and sheds are already there. So, the feeding cost and medicine are the extra expenses needed. This is also covered by existing regular medicine and feed funds. The only additional cost is for the milk replacer given to calves below two years,” said Rajesh Kumar.
In other cases when the mother elephant dies, the herd or the clan may accept the calf. Families of elephants form a herd and multiple herds form a clan. Rajesh and Bomman said they were called to the Hosur division after two female elephants and a male elephant from a herd of five were electrocuted on the same day. “What was left of the herd were two young ones who were about four and two years old,” he said. Both the calves did not move from the spot where their family was killed and looked lost and were crying. “We observed them for a few days, anticipating another herd of the clan could come forward to accept them,” Rajesh said. They were grazing and fending for themselves which was a good sign. “A few days later, a tusker was seen interacting with them. Later it took them into the forest,” he said.
“Elephants are extremely intelligent and complex animals,” said Ganesh Raghunathan of Nature Conservation Foundation in Valparai. Not all incidents involving a calf call for human intervention. Sometimes you just have to let nature decide what’s best for the animal. He recollects an incident where a calf had sustained leg injuries. The herd had moved on, leaving the mother with her calf. “Unlike other animals, an injury to the leg of the elephant is a bad sign,” he said. “The department had the option to chase the mother away and take a chance at rescuing the calf. But we waited for nature to take its course. Mother seemed agitated in the initial days. We observed them and provided the mother with food and supplements until the calf died. The mother left the scene soon after,” said Raghunathan.
Strengthening forests and securing migratory paths to mitigate conflicts
With the absence of proper plans and policy frameworks, rescue and reuniting operations become very chaotic and stressful for the animal, explained Raghunathan. “At least 20 people are engaged in these operations and many are not trained to do it. They are just executing orders from the top. We need better strategies than that. Human-animal conflict management here is people management 98 percent of the time,” he said.
With cases of negative interaction between humans and elephants reported in different parts of Tamil Nadu, there is a need to find sustainable long-term and short-term solutions. Since the elephant habitats are fragmented and degraded, the government is working on securing continuous migratory paths for elephants so that interactions with humans can be minimised. Sahu informed that the government has notified Cauvery South Wildlife Sanctuary, Agasthyamalai Elephant Reserve and Thanthai Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary in an attempt to achieve that.
As a short-term measure to tackle conflicts, Sahu said that the forest department is constantly monitoring elephant movements for which command centres have been established. “Problem elephants are radio-collared and translocated and are under watch. We are also looking at AI-enabled solutions to mitigate conflicts,” she said.
In the long term, the goal is to strengthen the forests by preserving biodiversity. “The forest department is working on creating water bodies and food diversity in the core areas of the forests. Work has already started on removing invasive species and planting fruit trees in these spaces. Slowly, we will encourage farmers living in the peripheries of the forests to switch to crops that do not attract elephants,” Sahu told Mongabay-India.
Nevertheless, Sanjeev Kumar believes that in high-conflict areas like Dharmapuri, people and animals should coexist but not in the same space. “We need to have clear areas where there is minimum or no human exploitative dependence on forests (like grazing) to enable elephant (and other wildlife) conservation and at the same time, people should be able to go about their lives without worrying about wildlife attacks,” he said.
Banner image: An orphaned elephant calf at Theppakadu Elephant Camp. Photo by Abhishek N. Chinnappa.