Orphaned and abandoned

Elephant calves find new lease of life in the Mudumalai camp
Orphaned and abandoned

In March 5, a two-month-old orphan female elephant calf in a fragile condition was rescued by Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve (STR) officials in Arepalayam forest. After her mother died, repeated attempts to help the calf join the herd failed as she was malnourished and physically unfit to keep up with the demands of the herd.  

In April, a three-month-old male elephant calf was found abandoned in Periyanaicken Palayam forest range in Coimbatore. The whereabouts of the mother was not known. Again, attempts were made to unite the calf with another herd, but turned futile.  

In the wild, elephant calves depend on mother’s milk entirely for at least the first year for nutrition until they are slowly introduced to solid foods like grasses etc. They remain in herd protection for an initial few years before being weaned off. These two orphan and abandoned calves had zero chances of survival in the wild since they would have become easy prey for predators without herd protection. This is where the role of Theppakadu Elephant Camp inside Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR) becomes pivotal, where these babies find critical nursing care, bond and a new lease of life.

Last year, the Theppakadu camp had hit global headlines with The Elephant Whisperers winning the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Film, which was based on a journey of a couple, Bomman and Bellie and an orphaned baby elephant named Raghu.

Raghu was not the first orphaned baby elephant to have been raised at Theppakadu. Many of the current adult elephants in the camp are either orphaned or abandoned. C Vidhya, Deputy Director of MTR (Core Area) said the camp still now nurtured nine orphan and abandoned calves, of which seven survived.

TNIE had visited the Theppakadu elephant camp to understand what it takes to nurture a baby elephant. “It’s not easy,” says MTR wildlife veterinarian K Rajesh Kumar. He said the survival chances of an abandoned or orphaned baby elephant, especially those under six months, hangs by a thread.

“In fact, we don’t actually name the elephant till it crosses one year because we ourselves are not sure whether the animal will survive. Usually, they will be immunocompromised or have underlying conditions. For instance, the female calf from STR is still fragile. The mother was just skin and bones which meant she was nursing ailments even when this calf was in her womb. We must appreciate the amount of dedication and care shown by elephant caretakers - mahouts and kavadis - at the camp. They are the real differentiators,” Rajesh said. 

Special care

The camp authorities have built an all-weather proof special shelter with wooden flooring attached with an open yard. The shelter has good ventilation and a perimeter is created, which can be crossed only by the five elephant caretakers who were assigned with the job of raising the calves.

These caretakers have the previous experience of handling calves. Authorities have given an exclusive set of clean clothing and vessels, which are sterilised daily before cooking. Every day, the shelter is cleaned with disinfectants. On diet, Rajesh said every two hours the calves are fed with 1.5 litres of milk replacer, besides calcium and vitamin supplements. “Everything we give is foreign for the calves so monitoring whether their bodies are accepting the food is crucial. The STR calf was down with diarrhea a couple of days back and we had to stop the supplements and alter the diet,” he said. To keep them hydrated, especially during summer, daily bathing is given and coconut oil is applied on their bodies. Rajesh and the caretakers told the TNIE both the calves are doing good, but the next six months are going to be crucial. “Once they shift to solid food like grasses, rice and grams, they will be fine.”

Supriya Sahu, Additional Chief Secretary, Environment, Forests and Climate Change Department, who regularly visits the Theppakadu elephant camp and closely interacts with mahouts and kavadis, said the government had taken several measures for elephant conservation in the state and also recognise the important role of elephant caretakers.

Chief Minister M K Stalin had, in fact recognising their services, announced houses to be built at a cost of Rs 9.10 crore for mahouts and kavadis who work at the MTR and ATR, besides giving them a payment of Rs 1 lakh each. While the government has taken a conscious decision not to capture and take any wild elephant into captivity, “it is important to provide necessary care to the distressed animals like orphaned and abandoned calves, which Theppakadu camp has been doing for years. Again, on each instance, we try all possible means to reunite the calf with the mother or the herd and we tasted success in some cases,” she said.

1910 - since 1910, 85 elephants have been maintained in theppakadu camp (49 male and 36 female)

51 calves the camp has facilitated birth of around 51 calves

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