Category: General

My wild dog diary

My wild dog diary

In the ten months I spent in Biligiriranga Hills, working with Gorukana, I hardly got good opportunities to watch wild dogs. Although I was in a location surrounded by forest, most of my wild dog sightings lasted only a few seconds. Only once, I considered myself very lucky when I got to watch a pack of wild dogs along the road with the pups playing for a few minutes before they ran back to the cover of the forest. This was around my last month at Gorukana.

pups at biligiriranga hills

The pups at Biligiriranga hills (March 2011)

Many guests I interacted with at Gorukana, felt wild dogs were somehow terrifying. They did not know how amazing the wild dogs were in their hunting strategy, behavior and natural history. We would screen Wild Dog Diaries for the guests and after that, their perception about them changed greatly. Instead of associating wild dogs with something crude and nasty, it changed to admiration.

In the Anamalai hills, I had few opportunities to observe wild dogs. The landscape was very different here. A mix of tea and coffee plantations and forest fragments. Spotting wild dogs was not easy except for a few fleeting glimpses once in a few months. It was nearly a year after I began work here that I got to watch them and as a bonus got some camera trap images as well.

Camera trap-Asiatic Wild Dog

Wild dogs feeding on gaur

Until the recent past I did not have much luck with wild dogs. I would hear stories of friends who watched them hunt and I felt jealous wishing I would get to see it someday too. Only recently my luck with wild dogs seems to have changed. Last week, I witnessed something very special. On 12 September 2013, thanks to Divya’s friend who informed her about a pack of wild dogs that had cornered a young sambar deer in the water in an estate nearby. Divya, Kalyan and Jegan decided to go see the wild dogs. I had reached office at the right time and joined them as they left.

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Stream flowing through the coffee plantation

The wild dogs were at the far end of the stream, where it curved away into the coffee estate. We drove up to a point some distance away to watch them. One wild dog sat on a grassy patch, others were a little distance away.

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We backed up to the bridge to make space for a small truck to pass. It was from here that Divya spotted the sambar yearling standing in the water, alert, tail up, close to nearly vertical river bank, impossible to climb. The deer was scared, all escape routes cut off by the wall behind and the ring of wild dogs in front. The odds were against the deer today. What we had not realized till then was that we had positioned ourselves on the road watching the wild dogs, while the sambar was standing right below us.

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First glimpse

There was absolute silence for a while. The sambar started to stomp the water with its forefeet. Suddenly, a wild dog jumped in. The attack had begun. There was a mix of yelps, yowls and squeals from the yearling and the wild dogs. It seemed like the wild dogs were really excited.

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The deer tried to get away from the dog only to head towards the waiting pack with the dog in the water after it. Few more wild dogs joined in the attack, leaping in the water from the left bank.

By now, the wild dogs and the deer had moved out of sight, but we knew they were there. We could hear the deer screaming and the wild dogs whistling. Just then, we heard a loud bhauunkkk behind us. An adult sambar, probably the mother of the fawn, had emerged from the coffee bushes of the estate and was calling out in alarm. She saw us, gave out another alarm call and disappeared into the coffee from where the other sounds still emerged.Sambar_Running_Adult_Ganesh Raghunathan_GAN3822

The adult

The excited whistles continued. We knew it was all over for the yearling. We were tempted to get to a place from where we could watch it all. But we did not want to spook the wild dogs and spoil their meal. We waited for a while and then moved to a different spot from where we could watch them from a distance.

Three wild dogs were sitting, like sentries, a little distance away from the kill. They kept a sharp lookout for trouble while the rest of the family was busy feeding. The sentries took turns to feed. It seemed like there was a rule that a dog must keep watch at all times. Within minutes, the carcass was ripped apart. The whistles continued as the sentries kept vigil. The dogs took short breaks to drink water from the stream and returned to feed. By now, it had been an hour. We watched the wild dogs take pieces away and settle down a little distance away from the kill to enjoy their portion.

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Sentries keeping watch

Now, a group of people came by and someone spotted the wild dogs, calling out excitedly to a few children who were a little distance away. Their repeated shouts seemed to disturb the wild dogs, as the pack split up and the animals dashed away into the cover of the coffee. We could see a few individuals far away.

What made the day very special for me is the amazing opportunity to watch a wild prey and predator and that too in a place where people and the wild dogs share the same space. The hunt had occurred in a coffee plantation by the side of a road that is used extensively by heavy vehicles.

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Relaxing some distance away

The wild dogs knew exactly when they had to leave the place to avoid being disturbed. They had dashed off in different directions and then quickly reassembled at a place where they were at peace. It was an amazing day and I was glad that I had cancelled my plan to go to Coimbatore that afternoon and stayed back to see the wild dogs.

The next morning, I set off by bike to Coimbatore. My luck had not yet faded. I saw a pack of wild dogs again! This time the pack was crossing the road at the foothills. On my way back the next day, I was hoping for another sighting, but I was out of luck. Instead, I found a jackal that lay dead by the roadside, killed by a speeding vehicle. I would have been extremely thrilled had I seen one alive. The sight of the dead jackal brought me back to the sad reality. Many animals die on the roads to speeding vehicles. I am not saying it was anybody’s fault. Still, just as a precaution, it would be great if people driving the vehicles maintained a slow speed when they are in or near a forest area. Our journey would take a bit longer otherwise in our haste the animals journey would end right there.

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Out of sight, but Not out of mind

Out of sight, but Not out of mind

February 2013 wasn’t pleasant. It was filled with departure and demise of dear ones. It started with the death of an elephant. She was found in a stream after many days of her death. Fishes in that stream and maggots on her body were having a feast. We couldn’t really tell which herd she belonged to. Several speculations were made—she could have been unwell, or that she probably slipped while crossing the stream, and so on. In the government records her passing on was registered as a “natural death”. May be it was.

'Natural death'
‘Natural death’:Photo: Ganesh Raghunathan

This was followed by the death of a leopard. A very young leopard was found dead amidst tea bushes. Again, the reason for her death was not clear. It was presumed that she was killed in a territorial fight with another adult leopard. Traces of blood and drag-marks were all over the place. She was half eaten. She was taken away for a postmortem.

Yet another 'natural death'
Yet another ‘natural death’

Individuals like these will continue to live in the government records, in a researcher’s field notebook, technical reports, and as photographs or newspaper articles. But there are certain deaths that will go unnoticed, even by us, and no one may even be aware that it happened—like the roadkill of a mouse deer that I saw in mid February. The driver of the vehicle might be aware of that or he/she may simply have heard some noise, a thud, or a squelch and moved on. Or the driver may not have even known that he/she had killed a living being. Few passers-by like me, in the middle of that night, probably noticed that dead mouse deer, or probably did not.

Incidents like these make us feel sad for a few minutes, hours or sometimes may even last for a few days. We may or may not remember these again. Even if we do remember, we may not feel the same way as we did when we first saw it. But if we know the individuals, if we are attached to someone or something or some place, if we feel the connection even if it is only one-way, then, when we lose any of them, the sense of loss will haunt us forever. Because, we are not just losing them, we are also losing the connections we once had with them. This will be painful, like how we feel at the demise of a friendship or a relationship; much more painful than the physical death of a friend.

Few years ago, while passing through Kavarkal, Divya said,”I am missing that guy ya”. Across the valley on a hill, in a degraded grassland patch, near the electric pylon, we used to often see a tusker grazing peacefully. She was referring to him. Some months after that, somewhere near that place a tusker was found dead. Anand went and looked at the decaying body but was unable to recognize that individual. He doesn’t want to conclude that it was that guy we used to see there. Before that death, even if “our guy” wasn’t seen there, we knew that he would be have been roaming elsewhere. But after that death, that hope slowly faded away. Even now, whenever I happen to pass through that place my eyes involuntarily look in that direction, scanning, searching for him, and remember Divya’s sentiment.

Our guy - The tusker
Our guy – The tusker: Photo Divya Mudappa

Similarly, usually while heading back to Valparai from Coimbatore, we stop at Nalumukku Sungam for a cup of tea. Nearly a year ago, on one such occasion I noticed that something was missing there. Sridhar said in a shocked tone, ”Damn, they cut that tree”. There used to be a large tamarind tree in one of the corners of Nalumuku Sungam. On the ground, no trace of that tree can be seen now. I never paid much attention to that tree until it was cut and removed from that place. There is a large void now. That tree would have been planted at least several decades if not a century ago. I miss that tree now. Sridhar has been commuting through this route for over a decade and he would certainly miss seeing this tree more than me. I wonder if (and hope) there is someone who lives in that town, who went and stood under the tree for its shade, or grew up along with that tree, or harvested the fruits from that tree, feels the same way or fondly remembers that tree. Those people probably miss that tamarind tree more than any of us do.

Pollachi-Valparai SH78 road near Vedasandur from 2003-2012: Imagery courtesy Google Earth

Then, there used to be a huge log near the Selaliparai club. Two years ago, just before the NCF annual meeting in Valparai, I remember Divya mentioning in a sad tone that a huge Calophyllum tree has fallen. This was a large tree, one of those identified as a heritage tree by us in this landscape. I only vaguely remember seeing that tree when it was alive and standing majestically. But I am more familiar with that only as a Calophyllum log, with its deeply fissured bark and heavily laden with epiphytes—just as majestic and alive horizontal as it was when vertical. In late February, while driving past that place we saw a crane about to lift that log and take it away. Now without that log, that place wears a desolate look. In coming days or months or years, when we go that way, we are sure to tell this story to others with us or sigh with sadness amongst ourselves.

There used to be a Calophyllum log...
This is that Calophyllum log…

I feel personally connected to that tusker, the tamarind tree and the Calophyllum log because I liked them. I knew that the connection was one-way, but I still feel bad when I don’t see them in their spots. But what if someone reciprocated the affection which we gave but suddenly vanished from our lives? Obviously, the magnitude of loss will be immeasurable, and drive us to despair. I realized this when Baby disappeared.

Baby
Baby

Baby was Anand’s cat. When he moved to a different house, although close by, Baby moved to Divya & Sridhar’s place. She also made our office her home. I am not a cat person. To be honest I was not fond of pets at all, until I met Baby. She was an exceptionally friendly cat. I often felt that she was a talking cat. I loved the way she greeted me when she saw me for the first time everyday. It was not just me. She was friendly with everyone over here. She captivated us with her sheer friendliness. It was a great feeling when she came to me and mewed in the middle of the night or gently tapped me with her soft forepaw to signal that she was hungry or wanted to play. She always liked to be with people, among people. I had not taken care of her all her life. Only on a few occasions or few days when the others were away. But she had had a deep impact on me. I can imagine how the true cat lovers and caretakers—Anand and Divya—would have felt when she suddenly disappeared one night. Soon after she was missing, for many days they would call-out for her, with hope and prayers. It was unbearable to hear their voices. She never turned up. It was unlike her not to respond or stay away from home. Although Divya kind of knew the minute she had disappeared since she had heard some scuffling noise outside. Divya had the feeling after hearing the noise outside that our neighbourhood leopard had paid a visit to our doorstep. It is nice to know that he is still around, but wish the evidence had been something else. Or maybe not. We do not know exactly what happened to Baby, but I hate to think that she has passed on.

Baby’s disappearance made me think of certain other things which went out of my sight and my life. But they will be etched in my memory for a long time to come.

The library with no members

The library with no members

An edited version of this article appeared in The Hindu on 10 January 2013 and also online here.

In his classic novel, Fahrenheit 451, American author Ray Bradbury writes about a future society, a complacent and troubled world, where the possession of books is illegal. Firemen in this dystopian world are tasked not with putting out fires, but with burning down people’s homes if they contain books. In a world besieged by television and on the brink of war, Bradbury brings home a deep appreciation of books, of literature, whose greater purpose is best served when there is texture and quality of content, the leisure to digest and absorb it, and the capability to act on what one learns. And what better place is there for a citizen to find books to read, to absorb, to act on, than in a well-stocked public library?

The value of a good public library should scarcely need emphasis in any city that values cultural and intellectual life. Yet, in Chennai, in this bustling metropolis on the shores of India’s cultural sea, there is now a world-class public library that faces the spectre of being shut down, shunted out, subverted. The Anna Centenary Library, established in 2010, has since been threatened by closure, by conversion to a hospital, and by use of its public space and auditorium for unrelated activities such as a wedding reception, a result of what is apparently a political and administrative tussle. A public interest litigation has brought temporary reprieve through a stay order issued by the High Court.

That events have come to such a pass in Tamil Nadu is ironic, for it was here that the first Public Libraries Act of independent India was enacted in 1948. Today, more than two years since its establishment, the Anna library still does not issue books and has no members. No books leave its doors to grace the favourite reading corners in the homes of its citizens. The value of libraries thus seems to need re-emphasis. To see why, you only need to walk in and spend some time in this library yourself.

The nine-storey building is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and holds a collection of over 500,000 books and subscriptions to dozens of newspapers and periodicals from all over the world. On a recent visit, I found at least a couple of hundred people using the library that day. In the lower floors, there was a small group reading quietly in the Braille section, a smattering of adults with children engrossed in novels, comics, and other books in the colourful children’s section, and people absorbed in current events in the newspapers and periodicals room. In every room, from the second to the seventh floor, there were students and other visitors browsing or reading in earnest or taking notes sitting at the tables.

The library is air-conditioned and well lit, with large rooms and spacious shelves, seating and writing spaces in each room, and comfortable sofas along the tall windows overlooking the city and gardens. The Anna library may lack the stately charm of Chennai’s Connemara library, yet it offers an inviting ambience to anyone looking for dedicated reading time as to anyone on a short visit for quick reference. The library carries a gold rating in the LEED green building certification system, becoming apparently the first such library in Asia, and currently employs 96 professional librarians and over 100 staff for security and housekeeping.

The Tamil section on the second floor has over 25,000 titles with four copies of most books: clearly the library is prepared for lending, despite this not being implemented yet. A selection of books from other languages—Hindi, Urdu, Telugu, and Kannada—also caught my eye. I drifted through the other rooms and floors, scanning categories and titles, exhilarated at the spectrum of choice. The English literature section alone would bring me here again, besides the sprinkling of translated works from Indian and foreign languages. As a scientist, I was also impressed by the collection in specialised fields of science and medicine, including my own field of wildlife ecology along with traditional subject areas of botany, zoology, and life sciences.

Clearly, this is a library with the potential to provide an energising public space to revitalise cultural and intellectual life in Chennai and an even wider role to play as an asset to civil society in the country. Yet, there is an urgent need for additional attention and impetus for the library to achieve its full potential. On my visit, I could not find some recent titles from 2012 and wondered whether procurement of books has stopped while only subscription to periodicals continues. If so, not only should book procurement be renewed, but the list of periodicals should expand to include international editions of major newspapers and other national and international magazines. One wishes that the Anna Centenary Library is also included as a national depository library mandated to receive copies of books and newspapers published in India under the Delivery of Books and Newspapers (Public Libraries) Act, 1954 (amended 1956). Currently only the National Library, Kolkata, Asiatic Society Library, Mumbai, Delhi Public Library, New Delhi, and the Connemara Library in Chennai are depositories.

Citizens can be involved more closely by opening up membership (including issue of books for which the infrastructure and systems are already available in the library), starting book clubs, readings by authors, and volunteer programmes, accepting donations of books and subscriptions, making the catalogue of publications available online, and implementing book loan and exchange arrangements with other public libraries. Bringing access to e-books and online membership will also allow the library to cater to citizens anywhere in India, besides opening a revenue stream. The auditorium, amphitheatre, and seminar hall could host literary and other cultural events related to the library. And not to be overlooked, the library must develop the food court for lunch, snacks, and beverages; the space is already available but is yet to be made fully operational.

Whatever be the reasons the extraordinary potential of this library is currently stymied, one hopes that the administration, politicians, and civil society will rally round to rise above the present stalemate. With the case in court, one hopes the wisdom of judges will rescue the library from its current crisis and return it, entire and enhanced, into the domain of the reading, thinking, and feeling public.

Before I reluctantly left the library, I spent two hours sitting by the large windows reading from two books—Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought and Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory—knowing full well that, as I could not borrow them, to read both books, each around 700 pages long, I would have to make far more visits to the library than my work would allow. I then felt like the little boy in the children’s section who I had overheard earlier exclaiming to his mother, “But I want to take this book home to read, Amma!”

Elephant Rules

Elephant Rules

A new herd had been spotted and I got news that the herd was out in the open. I rushed to the spot as soon as I could and found the herd in a swamp surrounded by tea. It was 5 pm and the sun was going down casting a blanket of gold on everything it touched. The elephants were aware of our presence but seemed relaxed. This herd had 3 calves. The male calf seemed to be the oldest and was full of life.

The herd in a small swamp amidst Tea.

An adult elephant scratches herself behind the ear.

An adult female with the smallest calf in the herd following her closely.

Elephants are social animals and have strong bonds. The adult female watches calves play.

The young male calf got a little too excited and tried to mount the smaller calf. I was surprised to see the adult who was looking away, suddenly kick the calf with her hind leg. How did she know what he was upto?

The adult female kicks out at the young male calf.

 The calf does not give up and tries his luck again.

His antics caught the attention of the few other family members who were close by.

 He tried his luck again.

This time a calf that was close by lunged towards him. It reacted much before the adults did. Are the elephants communicating to split them up?

 The adults reacted soon and pushed him away from the little calf.

Play mounting is common among young ones and is a process of learning adult behavior during their course of development. Sometimes, when calves are harassed by older ones, adults will try to safe guard the young ones.

 This young elephant did not participate in the disciplining session. He was happy stripping away the bark.

The calves bonding again. This time the adults kept an extra eye on him.

The sun was going down and the elephants decided to leave. A large adult female took the lead and checked the air. They knew people were around. They slowly walked away  with the calves between their legs. They went around a hillock and went out of sight. It is amazing to see how the elephants have a strict code of conduct.

That ended another fascinating evening today at Valparai.

Survival

Survival

After the NCF annual meet I returned to Valparai. It was the 31st of July and I was to leave for Bangalore that evening. I got a call saying that one of the herds that we have been following is out in the open and a female had given birth that morning!

Elephant herd in a tea estate

Anand (assistant) and I rushed to the see the herd, but by then, they had moved off with the new born into the coffee plantation, which is much denser in vegetation. So, we climbed a hillock to get a view of the elephants. My hands began to tremble with excitement when I saw the little calf emerge for the first time, partially hidden safely, from under the belly of its mother. Its pink eyes looked BIG compared to its body and its tiny trunk was wriggling around. The mother was a young elephant and an older one stayed by her side the entire time.

First glimpse of the new born

When the wind changed direction, the older female caught our scent. She showed her irritation by uprooting a plant and throwing some mud over herself. Then they slowly moved deeper into the coffee plantation. Since we did not want to disturb them, we did not follow them and returned to the office. I headed back to Bangalore that evening.

 Elephants relaxing in a swamp adjacent to a tea plantation

I was at the SCCS in Bangalore when I got a call that startled me. I heard that when this herd had gone to the river, the newborn had slipped and had been washed away by the strong current.

 

The fragmented landscape

To my relief, a few hours later, I heard that a few plantation workers who had seen this happen, jumped in to the river and helped it to safety on land. The Forest Department and media persons contacted us for advice on how to best handle the situation–whether to just look after it or to release it with the herd? We suggested to keep as few people as possible with the calf (to reduce trauma because of human presence & to reduce the possibility of the herd rejecting the calf due to human smell on it) to start with.

After consulting with other biologists at SCCS, we suggested the calf be fed with a mix of baby gripe water, electral & mineral water but only if it would not take long for it to be reunited with it’s family. Importantly, fresh elephant dung rubbed over the calf to mask the smell of humans. Later in the evening the calf was taken to the place where the herd was and left at some distance from the herd.

Apparently, a little later, amidst a lot of trumpeting by the herd, the mother stepped forward, went to the calf, smelt it and immediately let the calf suckle! From what I heard it seemed like the elephants were celebrating! It was really nice that the forest department and the locals took so much interest and care in wanting to rescue and re-unite the new born calf with its family.

I returned to Valparai a couple of days later and started following the herd that had split into two hoping to get a glimpse of the new born. Early next morning, the anti-poaching watchers called to inform me that there was a herd of elephants in the tea fields and they were behaving in a strange manner, looking disturbed and aggressive. We requested the tea workers who were working close by to move elsewhere and not to get too close to the elephants since they seemed already stressed by something.

Elephants stressed and huddled together with the calf on the ground

By the time I reached the site, there were only a few elephants around. A few tea bushes had been pulled out and the five elephants seemed tense. The watchers said they had heard the call of an elephant calf a little earlier. With some effort, to our horror, we saw a calf and realized that it was the same calf which had fallen into the river, now lying down motionless. The old female was trying hard for about two hours to get the calf up on its feet. Many times, the large female would walk some 100 m away, then turn around and rush back towards the calf trumpeting. Clearly, she did not want to abandon it or us to get any closer to the calf. Finally, even she gave up and started moving away. They may have moved away due to our presence as well, although we were about a 100 m away. We will never know.

 

The adult stands guard unwilling to leave the calf (on ground) behind.

Finally after all the elephants had left the place, we approached the calf. It was raining heavily and the track leading to it was very slippery. We found the calf lying at the edge of the tea bushes covered in a thick layer of slush. It seemed to be gasping for air, and its breath was sounding labored. Things did not look good.

First look of the calf

I called Divya and Sridhar (NCF colleagues) to inform them about what we had just found. The Forest Range Officer instructed his team to assist us with everything we needed as there was no resident veterinarian in Valparai. Once Divya and Sridhar arrived, we tried to administer some basic medication to help the calf gain some energy by consulting our veterinarian friends over the phone.

Medication being administered

Its body temperature was very low and we had a hard time in administering the medications. We were then required to find a shelter where we could bring up the body temperature and then help the calf as much as possible. The Bombay Burma Trading Company General Manager Mr Suresh Menon and the Manager Mr Tarun helped us in moving the calf to a near-by bus stop, a make-shift dispensary, with power, hot water, doctors and other arrangements required to nurse the calf.

After a few hours of heating up the place, feeding it little by little a mix of things as advised by the vets, holding it up to be able to breath more easily, it looked a lot more comfortable than the time when we had found it. Our hopes of its survival were raised. The forest department staff and the local people worked very hard to ensure that the calf would survive.

But by the evening, the news had got around and lots of people began to gather, both out of curiosity and concern. Crowd management was becoming tough. However, the calf also seemed to have regained some of its strength. And it was time for the next step – release.

Scouting elephants to re-unite the calf

In the mean while, our assistants had kept track of the natal herd, which, by evening had started to move towards the larger patch of forest near by. There was little time to re-unite the calf with its family. After dark, the calf was taken to the herd in a canter and set down on a path that the elephants were headed towards. Everyone left the area so as to not disrupt the movement of the elephants. We left hoping for a miracle, and hoping to see the calf reunited with his mother and herd the next morning.

 

However, it was not to be. The calf was found dead in the same spot.

 

Despite our best intentions and efforts, the calf had not pulled through. It was just 10 days old. The forest department staff were very disheartened. They had developed a special liking to this calf. They were not fully convinced of the need to try to reunite it with the herd. They felt that sending in into captivity might have probably saved his life.

We felt that the herd probably knew that the calf would not make it. They stood with the calf for as long as they could and their grief at abandoning it had been evident. We had thought that we could save it. But we were far from being able to ….. we just did not know enough – about its condition or even the basic technique of how to handle a situation like this.

We were also in a dilemma as to whether we should intervene in this play of nature or not? Do we know enough to do it – both in terms of technical expertise as well as nature? Had the mother been too young? Was the calf therefore quite weak and no so healthy? Had the earlier drowning caused some other internal damage? Aren’t deaths such as these, as long as not directly mediated by us humans (electrocution, poisoning, etc.), a natural process?

From an ethical angle, since it seemed like a natural death to us, it seemed acceptable. We felt quite strongly that a ‘graceful‘ death in the wild is better than a ‘disgraceful‘ life in a camp. Is it always only about survival? Is it not about how the life is lived? Would we even be aware of the on-goings in herds that are mostly in the forests? How many calves are born and how many even make it to adulthood? Would the elephants have managed to pull him up had the place been somewhere else where there were no people? Should we not restrain ourselves and not intervene in most cases when we find young ones abandoned or dying? Unless, we are sure that the life we are going to give it after ‘rescue’ is better than death itself. I am certain we could have addressed the situation better if there was a specialist veterinarian based out of Valparai.

But one main thing was that everyone wanted to save the calf. No one had anger or irritation against these elephants, despite the damages they sometimes do. The people are really tolerant here and we need to foster it.