Capturing ‘problem’ elephants, the Tamil Nadu way

December 11, 2022 08:17 pm | Updated December 12, 2022 01:49 am IST – UDHAGAMANDALAM

A makhna elephant in Pandalur. File
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

From meticulous planning to execution, a recently concluded successful operation to capture an elephant called Pandalur Makhna-2 or PM2 in the picturesque Nilgiris has turned the spotlight on the Tamil Nadu Forest Department’s excellent recent track record in safely capturing “problem” elephants from the wild and relocating them to areas with where they will have fewer conflicts with with human beings.

No doubt the long drawn-out operation to capture PM2 in Gudalur was criticised by some local residents frustrated with the time it took for the Forest Department to deal with the elephant. However, officials explain that a number of factors, centered around ensuring the safety of the elephant as well as that of the Forest Department staff and local residents, is factored in before an elephant is tranquilised.

“Gudalur and Pandalur are extremely challenging environments for an operation to be undertaken due to the topography of the landscape. The safety of the animal is of paramount importance, while post-darting procedures to reach the animal quickly and get it ready for transportation means that the darting procedure can only be done in a few pre-determined locations,” explained a senior Forest Department official, who was involved in the operation.

Over the last century, methods to capture elephants have evolved from “crude” traps to the present systems, said N. Kalaivanan, former wildlife veterinarian, who is now a veterinary assistant surgeon in the State. Around 50 years ago, pits would be dug at “choke points” where the elephant would have to pass through and chased into, while in other States, stockades would be set up and elephants corralled into them. “These methods were all employed to capture elephants for commercial purposes, while presently, only ‘problem’ elephants are captured,” he said.

Explaining the challenges associated with capturing PM2, Conservator of Forests, D. Venkatesh, said the animal, which is alleged to have damaged around 78 mud houses in the last two years, had become extremely attuned to humans and the workings of the Forest Department. “The moment the animal hears the sounds of approaching forest vehicles and staff, it moves away into the forests. This is because it has become aware of the staff, who were driving away the animal from human settlements over the last few years,” he explained.

The operation to capture an elephant requires meticulous planning and coordination to pull off, with the animal having to be identified and its behaviour studied. “It’s home range, health condition, the ideal locations where it can be darted safely, the approach to the animal post-darting, are all factored in during an operation,” Dr. Kalaivanan said. “This is why kumki elephants and elephant camps are so crucial, as without them or the elephant men, the only solution to deal with ‘problem’ elephants like PM2 would be to cull them,” he added.

The biggest hazard during an operation would be to ensure that the sedated elephant does not injure itself while trying to flee from the Forest Department, officials said, which is the reason why suitable locations are identified before any operation is started. “Many problem elephants also steer clear of humans during the day, and rest deep inside the forest, coming out only during the night to raid crops or look for food in human habitations, which is when tranquilising becomes an option and further complicates operations,” pointed out a Forest Department staff member who has worked on multiple elephant capture operations.

Once an elephant is darted, kumki elephants are brought in to coax the sedated animal into a specially fabricated vehicle that can transport it to an elephant camp or to the location identified for its relocation. Tracking teams, darting teams, management teams and release teams all have a crucial role to play during an operation and its success is dependent on how well coordinated each of these teams is. The Forest Department also used drones to track PM2 and hone in on his location.

“Each operation is different, and the time period varies depending on the animal. For instance, in Coimbatore, the order to capture two elephants, Vinayaga and Chinna Thambi, was passed together, and while it took only a day to capture Vinayaga, it took 48 days to capture the latter,” Mr. Venkatesh said. 

During the operation to tranquilise PM2, at one point, the Forest Department had stopped using vehicles and instead used  kumki elephants to get closer to the animal. Eventually, the efforts paid off last week.

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