A new-born elephant calf in Kerala’s Vazhachal forests arrived in the world with its own Z-plus security. A photograph published in this paper shows how 20 wild elephants flanked the calf, holding up traffic on the road for six hours. Forest staff provided additional cover. The media-shy calf has since disappeared into the forest, probably to get on with the business of growing up. It is a reassuring image, and one that is increasingly rare.
The Vazhachal region is a pocket of rainforest near the Anamalai hills, surrounded by the Parambikulam tiger reserve and other protected areas. The rush of a waterfall and the beating of hornbill wings break the silence of these lush expanses. Elephant traces line the forest roads and visitors speak of encounters with large herds where vehicles are forced to turn back and nervous bikers dart out of the way. Traffic on the roads is restricted and pachyderms roam freely across a large, contiguous area of forest. This is elephant country. Anywhere else, the new-born calf’s story might have had a different, tragic ending.
The images that have become far more familiar are disturbing — mangled elephant carcasses found on the road or by railway tracks, a calf nosing the body of its dead mother. India’s elephant habitats are shrinking and fragmented, with crucial corridors criss-crossed by roads and rail lines. Assam, West Bengal, Uttarakhand and Odisha report a high number of pachyderm deaths from rail accidents — in 2010, seven elephants were killed by a passing train in Jalpaiguri district, five were killed in Ganjam district in 2012. Elephant corridors in other parts of the country are threatened by heavy traffic on national highways and industrial activity on forest peripheries. Large, far-ranging animals like elephants need viable habitats for their long-term survival, and government projects for new roads or railway lines must factor in the imperative of conservation. Meanwhile, somewhere in the forests of Vazhachal, one hopes, a lucky calf lives.