PT 7(Elephant tranquilised in Dhoni), Dr Arun Zachariah | Photo: Arun Krishnankutti, PP Ratheesh
Human-wildlife conflicts have been on the rise in Kerala in recent times. A wild elephant that was spreading fear in Palakkad's Dhoni for the past few years was captured a week ago. Dr Arun Zachariah, chief forest veterinary surgeon, who headed the mission in Palakkad shares his experiences with Mathrubhumi.com.
You were recently on a similar mission in Wayanad. Was the one in Wayanad different from Palakkad?
Indeed, it was. There are several differences between these wild animals. The individual is different. Their habits are different. The terrain is different.
The mission in Dhoni was smoother compared to the one in Wayanad. The elephant in Wayanad was more aggressive. In the case of the one in Dhoni, we got the elephant at the right time and the right moment. The methods used in both cases were not much different. We tranquilise these elephants. For this, we have to get them in the standing position as they have to be taken to the transportation vehicle.
A cocktail of drugs is used to tranquilise the animal. The combination of drugs changes according to the individual and its temperament. We sedate the elephant and prepare a ramp for it to walk on. We then get a lorry and then the elephant is transferred to the kraal.
Every mission that you go on might be a different experience. Can you tell us more about the mission in Palakkad?
Officials had been tracing the elephant for the past two years in Palakkad. The movement pattern, the conflict mapping, and every detail of the elephant were recorded. In the case of the elephant in Wayanad, not much data was available. But in Dhoni, data including the elephant's movements and the timing of its entry into the residential areas were available. There was also information about the behaviour of the animal.
We studied the animal prior to the mission. With the available data, we held discussions and formed teams accordingly.
There were five teams for the mission. A tracking team, a darting team (to fire the tranquiliser), one support team, a kumki team and a transport team. Every team completed their work precisely.
What is the condition of 'Dhoni' and how long will it take to train the elephant?
The elephant is currently in its musth period. We cannot approach the animal before the period gets over. There are several factors involved in the process, including the animal's behaviour, climate and the ability of the mahout. Analysing the current circumstances, I think it will take three months to train the elephant.
We use the 'positive reinforcement' technique to train them. Using this technique, we try to create a bond between the elephant and the mahout. After this, we give the kumki training.
The government has stated that the number of wild animals is increasing and this is the reason for the increase in human-wildlife conflicts. What in your opinion is the reason for the increase in such incidents?
One reason for the increase in these incidents is the increasing number of tigers. I do not think it is the reason in the case of elephants though.
This is a multifactorial issue. The human-wildlife conflict has been around for ages. However, people's approaches and tolerance towards these conflicts are changing. Ecology is also changing. Also, there are behavioural changes in these animals.
You suffered an injury to your leg during the mission in Wayanad. What went wrong?
When we give the antidote to the elephant, they tend to have a sudden reaction. While the elephant in Wayanad was given the antidote, it got hold of my leg and tried to throw me inside the kraal. It also chewed on my leg. Nothing severe happened as I was wearing a shoe. But there is soft tissue damage and the nerves have been stretched.
You are dealing with wild animals during these missions. There is a risk element. Do you feel any fear while dealing with them?
It is not about fear. This process is a teamwork. If we are going on a mission to capture a tiger, we have to keep a safe distance. When you get near a tiger, it may directly charge at you. However, when you go in as a team, the animal will show a bit of reluctance to approach. We study the behaviour of wild animals before going on such missions. So there will be a prediction as to how it is going to behave. But sometimes these predictions go wrong. If the prediction goes wrong, we could get attacked. Several forest department staff have lost their lives to such attacks. There is always a risk factor involved in this process.
What was the reason to select such a risky profession? Also, what excites you most about this job?
The main reason for choosing this profession is my love for wildlife. I joined this profession wishing to become a wildlife veterinarian.
What excites me most about this profession is that this work never gets monotonous. Every challenge has its uniqueness. We modify the methods accordingly. We may have to improvise on the go, on matters like the drugs that are used or the methodology that we follow. This is a challenge that keeps you moving.