by Nora Ditmars of Pickrell, NE
For those of you who have not been informed as to the nature of elephant calls, I will give you a brief explanation before I go into a detailed account of the last 24 hours.
Domesticated male elephants undergo a ‘seasonal’ physiological change that makes them extremely violent. There is not a complete explanation but it involves a hormonal imbalance and is often called musk. Common violent actions include charging/mauling anyone who comes near them and throwing cars, rickshaws, trees, etc. They are quite capable of killing a person either by mauling or smashing them with an object that they throw, but this usually only happens if the person is not respecting the fact that the elephant is in musk and tries to go too close. Also, sometimes the mahouts are killed because they are managing the elephant when it first becomes aggressive and they have no warning.
The veterinarian (my small animal vet, Dr. Tharakan) I work with owns a capture gun. It shoots a dart that is about 6 inch long plus a 3 inch needle, and probably a centimeter in diameter. He uses Xylazine(Rompun) as tranquilizer. This will sedate the elephant so that it is incapable of using it’s trunk and ‘is’ really groggy. (similar to sedating a horse, it is still on its feet just not capable of fast movement) The goal is to sedate the elephant, hobble his front and back feet with chains, and then move him to a safe shady place where they can chain all four feet to trees or concrete posts. The tranquilizer wears off in about an hour and a half so this must be accomplished in that time frame otherwise he will become violent again.
Saturday night I had just come in from playing basketball, and I was sitting on the porch eating watermelon. I was covered in sweat and watermelon juice and was planning on taking a shower as soon as I finished. Joy came out on the porch to tell me that I had a phone call. I said hello and heard, “Hello, Dr. Tharakan here. Just you get ready for a long trip. There is one elephant out of control near Kotayam (normally about a two hour drive). So, you just get ready and be at your guest house gate.” Click.
I am pretty excited at this point because I have been hoping that I would get a chance to go with him for a long time. Forgetting about the sweat and watermelon juice I grabbed a cleaner shirt and pants and ran out the door.
He has a nice car, and for elephant runs, he has a flashing light that he can stick on top. He pulled up with his light flashing. I jumped in and we took off. If you are not familiar with traveling in Indian traffic, you cannot fully appreciate the thrill of riding in the car. As we were going down the highway, he would run right up on people’s tail, and then when they moved over barely enough he would swerve around them. Then he would do the same thing to the next one.
It is important to remember that I never felt like I was in serious danger the entire time. There were definitely tense moments but I never once questioned whether I would come out alive.
At any rate, we arrived in Kotayam and picked up his brother (in the same manner that I was picked up – by screeching to a halt in front of the gate for just long enough for him to jump in). We then stopped at a road side restaurant to eat. I inhaled my omelet and dosha, and coffee. (Out of necessity I have acquired the new skill of being able to drink tea/coffee that is far too hot to drink in a matter of seconds.)
We jumped back in the car. His brother was now driving. I learned that his brother often drives for him because Dr. T doesn’t like to drive and his brother loves the extra excuse to drive fast. I was wrong in thinking that the driving earlier in the trip was crazy because it was nothing compared to now. It is about 8:30 in the evening and we are flying through the hills outside of Kotayam. They are like a slightly smaller version of the Appalachian Mountains. There are lots of hairpin curves and potholes, neither of which we bother to slow down for.
We asked for directions several times. You must make the distinction between stopping to ask for directions and asking for directions. We did not stop. Asking for directions involved yelling out the window at people as we went by. Depending on their response he would either hit the accelerator, or brake slightly before doing a U turn. At about 10:00 we eventually reached a small town where we had arranged to meet the owner of the elephant. We stopped here for 10 minutes while the owner gathered his people and vehicle. The whole elephant chasing operation is fairly stressful and everyone is tense all the time. To make it bearable to sit and wait, Dr. and his brother were translating the comments of the drunk man that was lying on the street next to us. It included the phase “who is bothering me.” They laughed at this and told him “it is us. We are bothering you.” I seriously doubt he spoke English when he was sober, and his only response was to roll over.
Finally the elephant owner came in his van and we followed him further into the hills. At about 11:00 we finally arrive at the place where the elephant is. The terrain is very rugged and it is fairly far from any village. There are no houses in sight. Three of the owner’s men go and check to see if they can find the elephant. Meanwhile, the Dr. is shining his flashlight down the 30 foot embankment on the side of the road and mumbling about how dangerous it is here because of all the bush cover. The search party comes back and says that the elephant is there, but we should wait until morning. Nobody wants to do this because it means a long drive back to Kotayam to sleep for a few hours, and then another long drive back into the hills. Dr. T decides that he will go have a look, so we spend some more time waiting on the road.
I was enjoying myself because I was cold (a feeling that I hadn’t had for awhile), and because the air was clean, and we were out in the middle of a forest. The Vet’s brother was fun to talk to as well. While we are waiting he tells me that the elephant has already killed one person today.
Finally they come back and Dr. says that it is impossible to do anything tonight. The combination of the darkness, brush cover, and the elephant throwing trees made it too dangerous. Therefore, we got back in the car to drive back to Mathew’s (the brother’s) house in Kotayam.
His house is even more impressive than Dr. Tharakan’s. He has a fountain with lots of brightly colored fish in his front yard. We slept from about 1:30 to 5:00 and then again hopped in the car to go up the mountain. Of course we had to stop at the first tea stand we saw and inhale some hot tea.
We reached the same place; then waited for some time until the owner arrived. Then we all trekked into the woods to “go and have a look.” We tip-toe through the forest trying to make as little noise as possible. The elephant was standing there, wrapping his trunk around trees, uprooting them, and throwing them to the side. It almost appears that he is moving in slow motion. I was instructed that this is very deceiving, and that in one jump, he could be right where we were standing. That was all the motivation I needed to stay quiet. We watched for a couple minutes, and then there was motioning for us to go back to the road.
Upon reaching the road we began the long process of loading the gun which is more complicated than it would seem. We then went sneaking back through the woods in a different direction so that we could get behind the elephant. As we left the road Mathew said in a whisper, “You make certain to know the way out. Look at these tall trees so you know what direction to run. Make certain to run on the correct path.” I failed to mention earlier that we are walking on a maze of paths. It is impossible to move quickly if you are not on a path because the brush is too thick.
We continued moving until we could see the elephant. Once we were within 300 ft or so people started crouching down in the brush so that they were not so obvious. It was similar to some crazy action movie where the good guys are sneaking around through the bushes about to ambush the bad guys. The Dr. and one of the mahouts were in front. Mathew and I trailed them by about 20 feet.
The gun is only accurate within 100 feet. There was sort of an open area around the elephant but one could get within about 80 feet still under cover. I felt an arm on my shoulder and Mathew leaned down to whisper, “when the gun goes off, run fast no matter what. The elephant knows which direction the dart comes from and often turns and charges.” I heard the shot and ran as I was instructed. Mathew was in front of me, and I saw him glance backward and then stop. I stopped too and saw that the elephant had come at us for several steps but it was standing still. It then raised its trunk and moved in our direction. We ran again. Again it stopped. . .We stopped. It seemed to lose interest, and it faced the other direction.
We went back to the road, deposited the gun, and then walked back the way we had first gone into the forest so that we could observe the elephant from the front. Dr. T explained that because the elephant was pushing on a tree when he shot, the muscle was tense. He saw the dart hit but it didn’t stick. This probably means that the elephant didn’t get the full dose. If it is effective, it should work in 10 minutes. After one hour he the elephant is still uprooting trees. We have to shoot again.
Another hike back to the road. The gun is reloaded, and we move again to the shooting spot. We hear the shot and run.
This time he charges a little more aggressively but again stops after several steps. Dr. T catches up with us and says that the dart stuck this time. Again we go back to the road and then to the other observation point. This time you can see the effects of the drug. His movements become less frequent, and after about half an hour Dr. T gives the OK to begin the process of tying him up.
As Mathew explained, “it should be like a command operation.” It was not. Dr. T was standing beside me yelling at the men in Malayalam, and mumbling to me “Shoot, what are they doing! Ahh, why he does that. Shoot, shoot!” After about one hour they had the back feet chained together, front feet chained together, and a long rope on one front foot. The process of moving him begins. About 15 guys get on the long rope that is tied to a front foot and pull each time he steps. There is one mahout on top and one on the side each commanding him to move. We move through the forest for awhile, and then along a logging trail. It is a slow process, but things are a little less tense than before. The Dr. is joking with the owner, and the men pulling in front are chanting. Eventually, after about an hour, we make it to the road.
Mathew and I go back to get the car and the elephant procession turns the other way. By now Dr. T is again getting agitated with how slow they are going. The drug will wear off any second, and he is anxious to have the elephant tied up. We follow along in the car.
After about 30 minutes of shouting at them to hurry up, Dr. T gets in the car as well. Finally they arrive at the place they are going to tie the elephant. The Dr. gets out of the car to go and cut out the dart, and to get some toddy. He comes back to the car with a two liter bottle full.
It is not the most disgusting stuff I have ever had, but I was not tempted to drink much. It tastes like yeast and sugar. They finished the bottle, and we went out for lunch with the elephant owner. There was a big festival at the temple in the town where we ate, and many people were dancing and parading. Their bodies were painted with the paint they use for cow horns, and many of them were carrying branches. According to Mathew, “They are crazy. All of them. And what does it mean. Nothing.”
We finished eating and again went back to the elephant so the owner and Dr. T could argue about the fees. Finally they agreed, and we drove back to Kotayam. We stepped out of the car, and Mathew’s wife came out on the porch to say that there is another elephant. There is some discussion. Dr T. looks at me and says “OK, there is another; get in the car.”
The tenseness returns, and we are again in an incredible hurry. Mathew says he cannot go this time, so Dr. drives.
This elephant is a temple elephant. It is between two large buildings, and there are short walls surrounding it for the most part. There are police and people everywhere. We make our way into and through a building to have a look. There the elephant is standing fairly calmly. He turns aggressively when anyone approaches, but he is not running or throwing anything. We watch for a few minutes, and then Dr. motions to me, and we go back to the car for the gun. I was glad that Mathew had been along earlier because I now knew what Dr. T wanted from me. Hold the dart; hold the gun. This time we shot from a doorway, and the elephant just turned towards us without charging. After 20 minutes they began to tie him up and were finished in another 20.
They had obviously done it many times before and I now understood what a “command operation” looked like. Within one and a half hours, we had retrieved the dart and we were on the way home. For the first time in almost 24 hours (other than the 2 hour break after the first elephant) we could completely relax.
excerpts from an E-mail home by Nora Ditmars
Saturday I assisted my Dr. Tharakan (small animal/elephant vet) with a spay. The surgical procedure was the same except dumping antibiotic powder directly into the incision substituted for most of the sterilization precautions I’ve usually seen. He made some comment about it maybe being different from what I was used to. I agreed that it was, but if it works, then it isn’t a problem.
Yesterday I finally got to go with Dr. Raj Manon. I don’t know if I told you about him yet. He is a friend of Dr. Hari Kunar (my large animal vet). (Hari and Raj are 32 and 30 years old and don’t go for formality, so I have been instructed to address them with their first names, which is really uncommon here.) Anyway, Raj works for MILMA, the largest and best milk processing company.
Most of their milk comes from people who just barely exist and have no income at all without their one or two cows. Five cows is a very well off person, and very few people have more than five in this area.
It was really fun to be working with cows again, and I also got to see a lot of village life that I hadn’t seen before. Raj let me do everything. I was giving all the antibiotic injections by the end of the day. His driver/assistant would just hand the syringe to me instead of Raj.
I also learned that coconut water is an excellent substitute for dextrose if you are out. You just put one end of your IV in the cow and the other through a small hole in the coconut. Also it seems that coconut water and small onions have the same effect as ECP, a drug that causes uterine contractions. Other than that, most of the drugs are the same as in the U.S.; or at least the same as what was used in the U.S. 20 years ago.
We left at 8:30 AM and had lunch about 3:00. When I offered to pay for lunch I got a response something like, “I am employed. You are not employed. Therefore I will buy lunch.” He left no room for any argument. It was fun to spend time with him. He also offered to pick me up if he has an interesting emergency since he lives very close to the Guest House.
There are two versions of seasons here. Some people say there are three seasons in Kerala, hot, hotter, and hottest. Other people say there are two seasons, rain and no rain. It has been essentially the same weather the whole time we have been here.