The one before whom tusker Arikomban surrenders feebly

However, he was inspired to take on a different path, one that presented both unique opportunities and profound challenges, working with wild animals in the Theppakadu forest.
Rather than a veterinarian, Dr N Kalaivanan is a specialist in capturing and/or tranquilising wild animals, especially elephants |  kk sundar
Rather than a veterinarian, Dr N Kalaivanan is a specialist in capturing and/or tranquilising wild animals, especially elephants | kk sundar

MADURAI: Arikomban is as wild as a musth elephant can get. Barely does N Kalaivanan cast his spellwork, the wild jumbo drops tantrums and surrenders feebly.

Apart from Arikomban, Kalaivanan’s journey has brought him face to face with 30 other elephants, 15 leopards, 10 gaurs, six tigers, and a host of other creatures, including mouse deer, spotted deer, samba deer, barking deer, sloth bears, flying squirrels, pythons, king cobras, primates, and various wild birds.

His exceptional skill in capturing and/or tranquilising musth elephants is particularly renowned.

The 46-year-old veterinary assistant surgeon at the Forest Veterinary Dispensary in Madurai, has been in this not-so-chosen field for the past two decades. Hailing from Kavarpannai village in Salem district, Kalaivanan’s passion for agriculture and animal husbandry spurred in childhood.

The journey led him to take a bachelor’s degree in Veterinary Sciences at the Veterinary College and Research Institute in Namakkal, TANUVAS, where he graduated in the year 2000. While pursuing his MVSc in pathology at the Bombay Veterinary College, he received an offer to work as a Forest Veterinary Assistant Surgeon in Tamil Nadu. Without hesitation, he abandoned his postgraduate studies and embraced the role as a Forest Veterinary Assistant Surgeon at the Forest Veterinary Dispensary, Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, Theppakadu, Nilgiris in February 2002.

Kalaivanan’s commitment to wildlife preservation has earned him numerous awards, including the prestigious “Best Emerging Wildlife Veterinarian” award. This recognition came during the International Conference on “Wildlife Conservation, Health, and Disease Management - A Post-Millennium Approach” in February 2010 at the Madras Veterinary College, Chennai. He also boasts a list of national and international publications, showcasing his expertise.

Sharing his journey with The New Indian Express, Kalaivanan explained that like many veterinary doctors in urban and rural areas, he could have chosen a path with specific working hours and the option for private practice. However, he was inspired to take on a different path, one that presented both unique opportunities and profound challenges, working with wild animals in the Theppakadu forest.

Despite his solid theoretical knowledge, Kalaivanan found himself with a steep learning curve when it came to practical experience and hands-on training. His very first encounter was with an elephant — Moorthy — which had killed 23 people across Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka. Guided by his senior mentors, Dr Krishnamoorthy and Dr Shanmuga Sundaram, through a landline phone, Kalaivanan managed to treat Moorthy’s wounds and administer the necessary medication.

“Usually, injured animals do not like the smell of medicines and injections, and would attack the doctor to defend themselves. But, Moorthy was amazingly intelligent, cooperative, and understood that I was there to help him. He allowed us to administer injections and treat injuries in his trunk. Elephants need a higher quantity of food, all of which was provided in the camp. He then began obeying the mahouts and having established a trust with humans, it became easier to train him as a camp elephant,” recalls the veterinarian.

On the subject of taming elephants, Kalaivanan says, “Elephants are social animals and can’t live in isolation. If a mahout takes proper care of it by feeding it properly, it will slowly begin to express affection by taking the sugarcane from him. It is usually the first sign of acceptance from an elephant. An adult elephant can be trained within three months, while a baby elephant can be trained within 15 days. People have the awareness to preserve wild animals but lack scientific knowledge. Elephants become intrusive to the local community only if their pathway is disturbed. But here, people start attacking the elephant. The forest department keeps spreading awareness among the people,” he said.

Kalaivanan’s service involves multiple challenges but his unwavering commitment shines through all of those. He vividly recalled the first time he had to tranquilize an elephant named ‘Anna’ during its dangerous musth period. Male elephants in musth display erratic behaviours due to elevated serum testosterone levels. Anna, with a mahout’s son perched on his neck, had gone rogue, chasing another elephant and entering the forest. Kalaivanan faced a race against time to tranquillize Anna and save the young boy’s life. However, his courage prevailed, and he managed to rescue the boy.

Kalaivanan’s journey is a testament to his extraordinary dedication to wildlife preservation, where compassion and courage are the keys to nurturing both the wild animals under his care and the communities that surround them.

(Edited by Nikhil Jayakrishnan)

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