THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Podichi, Raja, Ammu and Arjun have formed a gang. They now graze in abandon in the sprawling two-acre land in the Kottoor elephant rehabilitation centre. In another open enclosure, 46-year-old Jayasree and 18-year-old Minna graze. After several years, these pachyderms now get to graze in the open enclosures. Every time Ammu and Minna are let out, they raise their trunk and make a resounding sound of gratitude, says Satheesan N V, deputy warden at the Agasthyavanam Biological Park (ABP).
“Ammu and Minna have been raised here. The elephants were mostly tethered and were never taken out. Now, we let them out in the open enclosures, which is showing great results. Their stress levels have reduced and a rare bonding is developing among them,” says Satheesan. At the elephant rehabilitation centre in Kottoor, one among the few elephant rehabilitation centres in the state, a major shift to creating a more pachyderm-friendly space is being spearheaded by Satheesan. A special practical training programme which was facilitated by environmentalist Sangita Iyer was also instrumental in bringing this change. Major changes are seen with the introduction of positive reinforcement training for the pachyderms.
The rehabilitation centre has over 16 elephants, the oldest one being 80-year-old Soman, who is currently in musth. “Earlier the elephants were tethered to their spots and would stand on concrete platforms. All this has changed. Now we release them in open enclosures. Theirs is a female-dominated society. So the female dominates the tusker. We knew it would eventually work out,” says Satheesan. The elephants are being released in groups of two. They have been grouped according to the suggestion of a doctor. “We aim to create a big group so they won’t have any frustrations of being alone. It becomes easy for us to manage and their stress also decreases,” he says.
To the forest
The elephants are now taken into the reserve forest under the ABP twice a week, where they get to experience the wild. They are taken out at 11am, given training in the woods, and brought back at 3pm. “At the centre, only three types of fodder such as creeping fodder, tree fodder and plantation grass are given. If they are in the forests, they get over 50 varieties of fodder,
including reeds and bamboo, their favourite. Fibrous food makes them healthy. Further, they get to experience the wild and a sense of freedom as well,” says Satheesan. Twice a week, as many as 10 elephants are being taken out to the forests. “After the training is complete, we hope to take them four times a week into the forest,” he says.
Special foot care
Restrainers in the leg have been replaced with two-wheeler tubes, which will prevent injuries. “Foot care is mandatory for elephants. It wouldn’t be a matter of concern if they’re in the wild as it gets filed naturally. Here, it has to be cut frequently,” says Satheesan.
Treats while training
“We give them treats when they obey commands. Instead of beating, such positive enforcement training is more successful,” says Satheesan.
Major plans in the offing
The rehab is witnessing a major change. Plans are also afoot to set up 10 open spots for elephants. Once set up, the animals can settle in mud, where they can be tethered and allowed to rest on a natural platform.
Other developmental activities by the Forest Department include the setting up of an elephant museum, education and research centre, and a special enclosure for elephants in musth and babies. The rehab will be split into two, a human area and an elephant area. After bathing and feeding, elephants will be left to roam about in their area.