After 12 years of living among humans, the 14-year-old elephant is being sent back to the forests. For now, he is at Konni, a camp in south Kerala, where he will learn to undo old bonds and pick up new skills — showering in the river, foraging for food and making friends. Photographs by Leju Kamal
It’s hard to convince a teenager who has made up his mind. So Indrajith, with all the intransigence a 14-year-old can muster, decides he won’t sit down. He doesn’t feel like a bath and he will not have one. “Irikke aane, irikke (sit, elephant, sit),” yells his mahout, prodding his legs with a stick. Finally, Indrajith gives in, bends his hind legs and slumps onto the ground.
It’s close to noon at the Kerala Forest Department’s Konni elephant camp in the southern district of Pathanamthitta. While the five other adult elephants in the camp walk down to the nearby stream for a wash, Indrajith has his at the shelter. “He is yet to learn how to wash himself. Every morning, we give him a bath and a scrub at the elephant shelter. That takes us a couple of hours. And in the evening, we spray water on his body for half an hour. He is a pampered elephant, doesn’t follow our instructions,” says P K Shaji, the mahout at the elephant camp.
If all goes according to plan, Indrajith will soon learn never to follow any instructions, simply live the wild life the way the big boys of the jungle do. After 12 years of living among humans, Indrajith will become the first captive elephant in Kerala to go back to the wild. The Konni camp is his preparatory ground, his home for the next year or so where he will learn to undo old bonds and pick up new skills — like taking a shower in the river, foraging for food and most importantly, learning to socialise with other elephants.
Twelve years ago, Indrajith, then a two-year-old baby, had arrived at businessman T R Raghulal’s sprawling house in Thrissur. Raghulal had bought Indrajith from a friend for an undisclosed sum, hoping to donate him to the Sree Krishna Temple at Guruvayoor in Thrissur. But as Indrajith grew up, Raghulal realised he would be a mozha (an elephant without tusks), which meant he would be of little use to temples which only take in tuskers. Little Indrajith only had two little teeth that barely jutted out.
So Indrajith led a cocooned life, away from all the work that other elephants in captivity were forced to do — no lugging timber at the mills or standing in attention at temple festivals where drums and firecrackers competed in a decibel war. He would simply be taken around Raghulal’s many estates, where he would spend hours swinging his hind legs — the left and the right by turns — his mottled pink ears brushing away the odd birds that tried to perch on him as he munched on generous amounts of grass, or that special treat he so looked forward to, giant balls of rice cooked in milk.
Rajesh Kumar, Indrajith’s mahout for five years at Raghulal’s estate, says he misses much of that. “The owner is a busy man, travels a lot. He visited Indrajith once in two or three months. The elephant was always with me. He had no tusks so he wasn’t called for temple functions. The only time he went to the temple was for aanayoottu (a ritual feeding of elephants),” he says.
Every morning, Kumar would give Indrajith a bath and feed him rice flakes mixed with banana. By 10 am, the mahout and his elephant would go out for a morning walk, stopping at temples along the way. “Since Indrajith did no work, this daily exercise was very important for his health. I made sure he walked at least 6 kilometres.’’ Back from the walk, Indrajith would munch on some fresh grass and and later rice. In the evening, after another wash, it would be time for dinner. All this kept Kumar busy. But now, with Indrajith gone, Kumar has little to fill his days and lapses easily into nostalgia.
“He was sometimes very naughty. During lunchtime, I would unchain Indrajith and go to my room in the estate. I would leave the valiya kole (a pole used to control elephants) leaning behind his ear. Elephants are trained not to move when the pole is kept on them. But Indrajith would sometimes come in search of me, the pole pressed against his pink ear. Sometimes, he would walk for half a kilometre in search of me,” says Kumar, adding wistfully: “It was only last month that I heard of Indrajith going away.”
But Raghulal says this parting of ways had been on his mind for long. “I had bought Indrajith hoping to offer him to the Guruvayoor temple. But around the time our application was pending, the temple authorities changed their rules and refused to accept elephants without tusks. So Indrajith stayed on with us. But I now think he should go back to where he belongs. The elephant will be more comfortable in a natural environment, where he can move around freely, without chains. He is only 14. He has several decades left to live. I thought he must spend his best years in the wild. That’s where he belongs,’’ says Raghulal, the managing director of Thrissur-based Elite Foods.
He says that after visiting other elephant rehabilitation projects in the country, he submitted a proposal to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Wildlife (PCCFW), asking if he could return the elephant to the forest department. Since the move was without a precedent, at least in Kerala, the PCCFW forwarded the proposal to the Kerala Wildlife Board.
On August 13 this year, the forest department issued an order expressing its willingness to accept the elephant and asked for it to be housed at the camp in Konni. So on November 21, Indrajith left Raghulal’s house at Peringottukara in Thrissur and enrolled as the newest member of the Konni camp.
At the camp in Konni, 20 km from Pathanamthitta, Indrajith has seven other elephants for company, with an aluminum roof open shelter for each of them. For over a century and a half after 1810, the nine-acre British-era camp was where elephants snared from the wild were domesticated. But when a 1977 law banned the practice of trapping wild elephants, Konni had to reinvent itself. It now serves as a camp for rescued elephants. Two of the seven elephants here are calves who had been rescued after they got stranded in the forest. The other five were all rescued from various parts of the state — either from the forests after their mothers (wild elephants) died or from human settlements where they had been found abandoned. Each of the elephants has a name plate — Soman, Priyadarshini, Surendran, Meena and Eva — outside its shelter. Indrajith doesn’t have one yet.
He has been here just a week. It will take him a while before he gets to know his two new mahouts and before they get to know him. His previous owner had told them Indrajith was largely peaceful, though he is known to be in musth for up to six months a year. Musth is a condition in male elephants when their testosterone levels shoot up and it is usually accompanied by highly aggressive and violent behaviour. So for now, Indrajith has been chained, the left hind leg to a concrete stump and the left forelimb to a pole in front.
“So far, Indrajith has been very cooperative,” says forest range officer Nibu Kiran. “The socialisation at the camp is a very slow process. We have not removed the chains so far since we cannot predict his behaviour in this new environment. Once he looks comfortable here, we will remove one chain first, then the other,’’ he says.
Kiran says that on most days, Indrajith is fed 250 kg of green fodder, 3 kg of wheat and 6 kg of ragi. “The daily maintenance cost of Indrajith is about Rs 2,000. If other expenses, including the wages of mahouts are factored in, the government must be spending at least Rs 12. 5 lakh on an elephant in this camp,” he says.
Kiran says they won’t attempt anything drastic with Indrajith. After some months at the Konni camp, the forest department plans to take the elephant to a green patch at Adavi, 15 km away from Konni. That’s where Indrajith will begin to live a somewhat simulated version of his life in the jungle.
The forest department owns 50 acres of acacia plantation in Adavi that has, over the years, grown to resemble a natural forest. “The process of fencing and trenching the borders of the acacia plantation has begun. Once that land is ready, we can rehabilitate the elephant there without chaining him,’’ says Kiran.
But Indrajith will still be in semi-captivity there, with mahouts to look after him. “The natural vegetation may not last long and then we may have to supply the elephant with fodder. Besides Indrajith, other elephants in the camp could also be moved into the new park,’’ says Kiran.
What chance does an adolescent, tuskless male elephant stand in the wild, especially someone like Indrajith who has known no life but with humans? While most experts agree it’s a good idea to send him back to where he belongs, some of them warn that if not handled carefully, this is an experiment that could backfire.
One of the biggest challenges could be getting Indrajith to mingle with other elephants. “Every elephant needs to find a suitable herd, though there are the occasional loner elephants. But a loner needn’t remain one for life,’’ says Dr P S Easa, wildlife expert and member of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group.
Dr T S Rajeev, assistant professor, college of veterinary and animal sciences, Thrissur, believes Indrajith will take to his new life well because he wasn’t a regular captive elephant that carried logs or did the rounds of festivals. “Indrajith led a largely free life. He even has a tendency to disobey and gets restless if he doesn’t get his fodder on time. These are good signs, because it means he is not fully domesticated and it won’t be too difficult for him to adapt to the wild. He is learning fast. I don’t think he will have a problem finding food or friends in the forest,’’ says Rajeev, who has known Indrajith from the days he was with Raghulal.
But the wild has its uncertainties. Forest veterinary surgeon Dr Arun Zacharia says reintroducing an elephant in the forests isn’t easy.
“It’s difficult to predict if the attempt will be a success or not. The chances of an outsider being killed by wild elephants are high. Survival in the wild depends on several factors, including the elephant’s ability to find fodder and company.”
Back at the Konni camp, Indrajith lies on his side as his mahout sprays water from a hose. After that initial reluctance, he seems to enjoy his spa-moment. The boy needs to grow up — and soon.
n hui (Now, it’s been years since we even talked).”