When The Baby Is Too Big

Joshil Maliyekkal lives in the state of Kerala, India. Joshil received a masters in zoology, and began working for the Forest Department in 2006. He currently is stationed at Kannavam range, Kannur, Kerala. Joshil is a passionate traveler, writer and nature photographer. He was the former Assistant Wildlife Warden at The Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. The Sanctuary in northern Kerala is a premier habitat for tigers and elephants. The sanctuary has well developed ecotourism facilities and programs.

I was on my regular inspection at Sairandhri, the gate way to Silent Valley National Park, Kerala, India. Sairandhri is such a beautiful and calm place, 23 kilometres away from my office and I have to inspect this place regularly. The remoteness of the place was an added attraction to me in carrying out this responsibility. Inaccessibility over mobile phone may be a nightmare for a crowd lover, but I consider this a blessing. Wildernesses all around, cool whether at this altitude of more than 1,000 metres above MSL, the beautiful Kunthi river flowing with a wild song, beautiful frames of life everywhere and the company of some dedicated people working at the grass-roots level for conservation –all these were incentives for me to come here whenever possible. Unfortunately there are a few places like the top of the 30 metres watch tower where your mobile phone will find some network when the weather is fine.

Silent Valley National Park in the Palakkad District of Kerala, is not simply any National Park, but was the defining milestone in the history of conservation in the nation. 3,400 hectares of Evergreen Forests in the Western Ghats were saved from being submerged by the reservoir of a dam proposed to be built across the Kunthi River, after public protest by people from various corners. The protest resulted not only in abandoning the project but it succeeded in enacting a national law for the conservation of forests. The Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 with a few sections of law saved a lot of forests and related ecosystems from being diverted and destructed for various projects and from that perspective silent valley was the Makah of conservation efforts in India. As every forester, I also dreamt of serving in the valley and the department gave me the opportunity to be with her for more than three years as the Assistant Wildlife Warden. 89 Square kilometres of core area and 154 Square kilometres of Bu er Zone of the park is adjacent to Mukkuruthi National Park of Tamil Nadu State and the new Amarambalam Reserved Forests. The park is home for the highly endangered Lion Tailed Macaques and many other rare forms of life. Biologists working in the park even now discover new species of life. In my point of view rather than the check list of animals and plants, it is the check list of habitats that make the Silent Valley National Park so special. There is everything from low land moist deciduous forests to high altitude rolling grass lands. I will refer to it as ‘the privilege of a forester’ to visit these and many other beautiful forests, as most of these area are not open for public, even to those who are involved in conservation initiatives.

It was a fine evening of February 2014 and I was at the watch tower. To my surprise, my phone rang and my colleague at the other end informed me that there was an elephant calf spotted at the foothills where the National Park shared boundary with a rubber plantation. As per the information received it was seen abandoned by the herd and was less than one month old. I instructed him to keep away from the scene and to let the mother come back and rescue the calf back to the warmth of the herd. I also told him to monitor the situation and to avoid leaking the issue to the media which would lead to a crowd gathering for the spectacle. We all slept that night but the tapping laborers staying in the rubber plantation reported hearing the elephant baby crying all through the night. Next day morning I reached the place and saw the calf looking very tired and somehow mangaing to stand with the help of support of the reeds growing there. It was a female, she was only few weeks of age, showing symptoms of starvation and dehydration and she stared at me hopelessly. I could quite understand her fear as we humans have done nothing fair to her kind.

Prior to reaching the spot, I had had a long phone call with Dr Arun Zacharia, a senior veterinarian and on his advice we had carried some tender coconut and glucose powder. We mixed the tender coconut water with glucose and forcefully made her drink, after initial refusal she began to drink, sweet liquid wasted from her mouth but even then she drank few liters. We poured cool water collected from a nearby stream over her and after a few hours she managed to get enough strength to stand steady. She hugged me with her trunk and I felt the warmth of that in my soul. I was confused on what to do next, neither I nor my colleagues were familiar with the situation, I sought permission over the phone from the Chief Wildlife Warden to relocate her to some other location and he granted this. Meanwhile the news spread and people started reaching the spot, so we decided to act quickly.

Even though only two weeks of age she was too big for us. She refused to walk and we had to make a sac structure which we slipped under her belly and slowly brought her near the vehicle which was almost a kilometre away. With the baby on board the jeep drove slowly towards our headquarters which was 40 kilometres away. It was her first voyage with members of strange species and around midway she showed symptoms of severe tiredness which made us take a break. Our team along with the veterinary surgeon who joined us on the way, started feeding her with the tender coconut and meanwhile I called the Chief Wildlife Warden once again.

Normally in Kerala rescued elephants were shifted to Muthanga, Kodanad, Konni or Neyyar where the department has good facilities. But only less than fifty percentages of the elephants survive and even if they survive they will have to remain captive elephants throughout their life. I was and still am of the  rm belief that an elephant born in the wild deserve to be free. My thoughts were very much influenced by the experience I had read in the book ‘Born Free’ by Joy Adamson and so I explained to my superior that the baby being very weak is not able to travel even 20 kilometres and so will not survive the long journey to the nearest elephant rescue centers. I requested for permission to keep the baby in one of the buildings we have inside the forest from where we will try to return her to the wild and permission was granted. She was shifted to an anti- poaching Camp at Keerippara which was only five kilometres away from my headquarters and is well inside the forest. At Keerippara we had a small watch tower inside an elephant proof trench and I thought it will make an ideal cradle for the baby. After reaching there she also seemed more relaxed and I showed her the way to her new home, she walked with me, which gave confidence to both of us.

The decision was taken and now I had to implement it. My God, what a task! I had never studied anything about this, neither from colleges nor from training institutes. I decided to call everybody who could help me. Again I called my friend, veterinary surgeon Dr Arun Zacharia who he told me that an elephant calf of this age has very less chances of survival and she requires a person completely dedicated to take care of her. He had seen few mahouts in Muthumalai Tiger Reserve who succeeded in fostering a baby elephant by sleeping besides the the cradle so that the baby can keep its trunk across the barriers to feel its foster parent, wow! Secondly he warned me not to feed her with cow’s milk as it leads to many problems and advised to feed only with milk powder. Feeding was not to be done using feeding bottle, instead tubes were to be used. Everything had to be sterile and I had to ensure that there is a strict check on visitors. On the other hand few of my friends criticized me for stealing the elephant from the warmth of its herd as they didn’t believe that the herd had moved away leaving the baby behind.

Shaji and Santhosh came forward and volunteered to be foster parents, a temporary cradle was made using locally collected poles. A small tub of water was made available for playing and regular supply of tender coconut was ensured. Even high profile visitors were banned and my superior officers including the Wildlife Warden Mr. Cheriyankunju supported me in all aspect. Meanwhile Dr Saseendradev, the official Veterinary officer came there travelling more than 350 kilometres. He prescribed some supplements to be added along with the milk powder and showed us how to feed her with the tube, he also gave a chart to monitor the quantity and time of feeding and urination. After all these I felt more comfortable and on the following days all went to schedule and the elephant calf named ‘Neeli’ became a family member to us. She was named after the Forest Neelikkal from where she was rescued.

By now it became a regular practice to buy Lactogen and Supplements regularly from a medical shop and the pharmacist there was aware of the story too. One day there were some others present in the store who wondered at the quantity of my purchase and one among them asked whether I am having twins. I replied that I am having three children and this is only for the third one who is ever so hungry! While I was leaving the store I heard the store keeper explaining to the stranger that I am taking care of a baby elephant. It wasn’t easy, every day there were some issues to sort,  nding substitute for Shaji and Santhosh when they had some personal affairs, getting veterinary support from the local hospital, ensuring the hygiene of the place and so on. But I was so fascinated by the experience of being with Neeli, the feeling was amazing when she sniffs me with the tip of her trunk when I went near.

Fifteen days passed and we were still not in any position to be sure about the future of Neeli. Things were not looking great, she seemed little hesitant to drink and the quantity of urine had also reduced. I had made arrangements for the forest veterinary officer to visit her the next day, before I started by train overnight to the state capital to attend a meeting. By three o clock in the early morning my phone rang to inform me that Neeli had just left us. I decided to go back and got down at the next railway station and travelled back. On reaching Keerippara I saw her lying in a corner with the ants having started sucking the liquid dripping from her mouth.

I had to arrange postmortem for the body. I had assisted and witnessed postmortems many times before, but this was something personal. When the veterinary doctor cut open the carcass and we examined various parts of the carcass looking for anything unusual, I couldn’t shake of the feeling that blood was so thicker than water.




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