Chennai-based wildlife biologist C. Arivazhagan, who has been tracking elephants for 15 years, talks about his close encounters with these gentle giants.

If an elephant spots C. Arivazhagan in the Satyamangalam landscape, it's quite likely it will raise its trunk in salute. For the last 15 years, this Chennai-based wildlife biologist has traversed the thick, hilly jungles and grassy plains of South India studying the gentle giant and making his observations part of forest policy.

He started as a cat man. Post a BSc in Zoology, he went for a masters in Wildlife Biology, and wrote a dissertation on the leopard-human conflict in Thengumarahada, a village enclosed by forests on the Erode-Nilgiris border. At the Centre for Ecological Sciences “my boss was Professor Sukumar, an expert on elephants. It didn't take him long to make me switch to elephants. My PhD thesis was on the population dynamics of the pachyderm across the country, done season-wise, area-wise. I continued to monitor them.” He has great news. With strict action, poaching has been reduced to a minimum. Elephant sightings have become common.

The problem is elsewhere, he says. After being in a closely related clan for 10-12 years, the bull is given marching orders to prevent in-breeding. Pushed-out males from different clans form a fraternity, move around a 700-800 sq km area looking for food. Elephants are long-ranging species, clans are already operating in 5 sq km domains and migratory patterns change when food is in short supply. Bull herds have to find their own territories and when forests are unavailable, they raid banana plantations.

Habitat loss is the worry. Privately owned lands, which formed part of the elephant home-range have been “developed” for schools/colleges, roads, railways and resorts. Corridors — small stretches — that connect larger forest stretches have been used up. With expanding villages, elephants are left with depleted food stocks. What about droughts? “There is natural regulation,” he clarifies. “When food is less, the calving interval increases.” Mmm, food for thought.

Eyes lit up, hands animated, he describes his “close encounters”. “A herd of elephants on a particular stretch of forest on a particular date this year will likely be present at the same spot next year. This is known as fidelity.” So that's how they recognise him. “The oldest cow leads a herd in this matriarchal society,” he says, illustrating it with a heart-warming incident. “In Masinagudi, I watched a herd wading into a flume channel. The cow tested the water several times, but was hesitant to allow the baby in. She then called a sub-adult, a sibling maybe that had crossed over. Standing on either side, the two older elephants took the baby safely across. When they reached the other side, the baby began gambolling in the water. The calf sister gave it a gentle kick and steered it to the dry bank. I watched enthralled, it was so wonderfully human.”

Elephants are keystone species, he says. The footpaths they make are used by other animals. Butterflies and dung beetles forage in their dung; mongoose and birds eat the seeds (elephants have poor digestion) in the spoor causing seed dispersal, creating natural habitats. Elephants can find water sources, dig for them and help other animals. When they browse during the monsoons, they pull out grass, and bite off the muddy root to eat the green top. In summer, when the grass is unpalatable, they beat mud off the tufts and chomp the nutritious root. At all times they protect their molars, their lifeline. In old age, their molars fall off, and the elephants die.

As a consultant to the Forest Department, Arivazhagan helps officials in their programmes — whether counting elephants in the transact method, tracking recalcitrant males or constructing age structures of Asian-elephant populations. “Conservation is not confined to one state,” he insists. “It is landscape conservation. Animals see no borders.” When one species is cared for, others get the benefit, he says. “When rhinos are protected from poachers in Kaziranga, elephants survive. When the Kalakkadu-Mundanthurai Reserve guards its tigers, elephants are saved.”

If corridors are designated as animal crossings, tribal people are informed of animal presence, students are taught about the importance of habitats, and villagers are given alternatives to firewood and prevented from burning forests for fresh grass growth, habitats will stay, and elephants will trumpet.

All for conversation

- Arivazhagan runs the NGO Indo-American Wildlife Society with friends who have moved to the U.S.

- They meet annually for birding, trekking.

- They visit schools to conduct programmes on wildlife conservation.

- They help appoint teachers in tribal schools, arrange scholarships, provide low-cost housing.

Tusker truths

- Clans use infra-sonic communication to pass information.

- Elephants are intelligent, have a keen sense of smell and good memory.

- Have poor eyesight and digestion.

- They thump their feet to warn others; do a mock charge when protecting young ones.

- They flap their ears, splash mud on themselves to keep their body cool, and drive away flies.

- The tusk is used for protection, and attracting females.

- They spend 18-20 hours feeding alone. They need to eat 100-150 kg of food.

- Their age is determined by shoulder height and colours that appear on the skin.

- They keep swinging their trunk to move objects out of their way. What if there's a snake in the grass?