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Reuniting a lost elephant calf with its clan: the why and how

In Mudumalai area an elephant calf was washed away by a river in spate and found its clan three days later

September 01, 2022 01:58 pm | Updated September 02, 2022 02:12 am IST

The elephant calf which was found in the buffer zone of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve.

The elephant calf which was found in the buffer zone of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. | Photo Credit: Sathyamoorthy M

After a three-day-long search, the forest department officials in the Nilgiris have managed to track down the mother of an elephant calf that got separated from its herd last week. The two-month-old elephant calf was swept away by river Sigurhalla which was in spate, and was found in the buffer zone of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR).

D. Venkatesh, Field Director of MTR said in the news report that they had spotted a herd with a lactating adult elephant on Monday, late evening. Suspecting that the calf might be hers, the officials released the calf in the vicinity. But after some time, it was once again found abandoned near a stream. 

On Wednesday evening, forest department officials took the elephant to Congress Mattam and spotted a lactating mother by the side of the road. Then, the calf was slowly guided towards the female elephant, while another male elephant rushed towards the calf and guided it back to the herd.

Female elephants and their calves move around in clans. These clans can number up to hundred or so elephants and consist of loosely-knit groups of one or two females with their young ones. Though there are male calves, adult male elephants do not form part of these clans. So the young calf that got separated from its clan must have been left behind by a lactating mother who would be part of a clan that was roaming upstream of the river in spate. Hence the forest department officials went searching for a lactating elephant in a group. 

Prof. T.N.C. Vidya from the Evolutionary and Integrative Biology Unit of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), Bengaluru, who has studied elephants in the Nagarhole-Bandipur region for over 20 years, remarked on the difficulty of this project. According to her, even if the right group is found, and the mother is brought in the proximity of the calf, it is possible that she may not accept it as it will now be smeared with different kinds of smell, including that of humans. . 

“Some things to be kept in mind would be the smell of humans on that calf, because now the calf has been handled. One would also need to get that smell off, or at least mask it with elephant dung or something, so that the elephants are not rejecting the calf. Not because it’s not theirs, but because it has some other scent on it,” she said.

Adoption by a different group is also a possibility. “I would say it’s not a high probability that they will accept it, however, as elephants are social animals, it may be possible that there is another elephant who has lost her calf, and hence, is still lactating, and that she would accept this calf and feed it,” she adds.

She recalls a case in which an elephant calf showed up from somewhere and became a part of the group. She explains, “So we know it does happen. Often calves also get taken care of by others. But of course, if it is the same clan, other clan members will take care . But occasionally adoptions do happen.”

Prof. Vidya has also witnessed an unsuccessful attempt at reuniting a lost calf earlier. She described how in that case, the calf was found wandering alone and the forest department officials located a nearby herd and took the calf to its proximity . However, the herd did not accept the calf. The story took a sad turn, as the calf, which was perhaps not of sound health to start with, took ill. “That calf started having fits and then we were, rubbing it legs with oil, keeping it warm, and so on the whole night, and then it died,” describes Prof. Vidya.

“Maybe they [the herd] already knew it was not well, and maybe it couldn’t keep up... ,” she said, adding “But then in this case, since the calf is fine, probably it it might be able to manage.”

The mortality rate of calves is also not encouraging. From her experience, Prof. Vidya estimates that in the wild, one in four calves may die, mainly of disease. In captivity, because they are treated with medication and provided good food, she guesses that the figure might be lower and more encouraging.

The other ways of reuniting the calf with its mother would be genetic profile matching—which would be difficult, time consuming and also expensive—or looking at camera traps to see if the animals had been photographed. 

. In cases where the elephant is eventually brought to a camp, it has to be reared on elephant milk, “One cannot use directly cow’s milk or something like that, which has a very different fat composition,” she explained. 

And though the word captivity brings to mind heavy chains and curtailed movement, elephant camps are not like that. In most camps apart from getting extra food , the elephants are left to roam free most of the time. They have a chain on one leg and the mahouts follow their mark and bring them back if they roam too far. “Mudumalai Theppakadu camp has a very good record of rearing elephants. The Theppakkadu camp in Mudumalai and  Kozhikumuti camp in Anamalai are perhaps the most famous camps for a very long time,” Prof. Vidya said.

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