This article first appeared in Fortean Times FT 301, May 2013. (It's "Fortean Traveller" no. 85)
The south Indian state of Kerala is officially "God's own country", although I heard that Kerala Tourism appropriated the "God" phrase from a slogan they'd taken a fancy to after seeing it over the stall of a small Latin American country at a travel fair. In March 2011 took a couple of weeks off work and went to Kerala to investigate reports in the local English language press of kallana, the alleged pygmy elephant of that region.
One the attractions of this expedition was that Neyyar-Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary – reputed home to kallana - wasn’t exactly at the ends of the earth, or only reachable after months of trekking through wild and inhospitable jungle. Kallana’s alleged habitat was just 56km from the state capital and the international airport at Trivandrum. It was the equivalent of having a mystery animal in the South Downs just outside Brighton. Compared to the cryptids supposedly living in the wilds of Mongolia or half way up the Himalayas, kallana was right under our noses.
So I found myself in Indian's most laid-back state capital, Thiruvananthapuram, so good they named it twice. "Thiruvananthapuram" was a bit of a mouthful for the British when they moved into the then Kingdom of Travancore, so they adopted "Trivandrum", a three-syllable, anglicised version of city's name. The name means "Holy Snake City", after the huge statue of Lord Vishnu reclining on the serpent Anantha inside the main Padmanabhaswamy temple downtown. I only saw a drawing of its interior - like many Hindu temples in India, it's "closed to non-devotees."
It being India, getting hold of my star interviewee and kallana eyewitness Sali Palode proved complicated. He wasn't answering his agent's phone calls. Sali's non-availability gave me the opportunity to go upstate to briefly see some young captive elephants at Kodanad Elephant Camp, a facility for rescued elephants being trained for work in forestry and tourism. It was good to get up close to them, and to compare young conventionally-sized elephants with photos I'd seen of “kallana.”
A young captive elephant and his mahout in the Periyar River, Kodanad, Kerala
I naively imagined that elephants approaching would make the ground shake with their great feet, like something out of Godzilla. But as I stood on the banks of the Periyar River, watching the younger elephants being bathed by their mahouts, the only indication that another elephant - a tusker who must have been over eight feet high (almost 2 ½ metres) – was right behind me and gracefully advancing down the riverbank towards me, was when his mahout put his hand on my shoulder and politely asked me if I could get out of the way. The eight-foot tusker moved completely silently.
I was also mistaken in my belief that young elephants loved going into the river for a bath. They absolutely hated it. The mahouts somehow managed to subdue these beasts - that could have crushed them with ease - just by gently pulling their tails.
Down the road from the Kodanad was the sad little Kerala Forest Department (KFD) zoo for "rescued" animals, which was, frankly, a disgrace. Just down the road from that, however, the finishing touches were being put on its replacement, a spacious park with big enclosures where herds of animals could run in a near-wild state. Some of the deer had been moved in, and the chief warden of the "rescue centre" said its first rescued elephant was due to move in within a few months.
The warden, with some pride, asked me if I'd spotted another Kerali pygmy, "our own dwarf muntjac deer," as if his herd of little dog-sized, short-antlered, fanged, barking muntjac deer were the most exotic animals on the planet. I had to break it to him that, while muntjac may be native to Kerala, they were introduced to the grounds of English stately homes some time ago, from which they escaped and have now become so common they're widely regarded as vermin. To this the warden replied, with a wry smile, "That is the consequence of your folly!" He was presumably referring to the British conquest of India, and Britain's karma for this series of atrocities is being overrun by Indian muntjac.
Sali Palode's agent Balan Madhavan had finally tracked him down. I met them both at the Trivandrum Press Club. It was a noisy interview, as retired journalists - wandering in and out of the reading room where we talked - would interrupt to greet Balan. Sali was shy and retiring with short grey hair and glasses, and spoke quietly in Malayalam, with Balan's deep, more confident voice, interpreting for me in English.
A drawing teacher for the past 25 years, Sali taught at a Malayalam-medium school near the mountain town of Palode in the hills not far from Trivandrum, on the edge of the forest near where he grew up. From an early aged Sali would trek in the forest with his father or with friends form the local Kani "tribal" community. He eventually managed to borrow some photographic equipment and take photos of the wildlife he saw. He's since won over 70 awards, but Balan said all the money Sali's made from photography has been ploughed back into the kit, like the huge Canon lens I saw him use when we later went into the forest together.
Sali Palode at work with his camera in Neyar-Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary
Where did Sali first hear about kallana, I asked. From the "tribals". It was "25 years back, on a trek to the Agustya mountains, on the top." There Sali and his Kani guide Mallan Kani saw "small elephant droppings" that "belong to kallana."
Since that encounter a quarter of a century earlier, Sali and Mallan have been looking for kallana. Sali described how he first "got a picture in 2005" of a kallana, one of a group of four, (FT 252;42-47) and also photographed what he says is a dead adult female kallana by a lake. Kallana's stomping grounds are in the Neyyar-Peppara reserve, among the Agustya Mala hills, which have become a Hindu pilgrimage centre, and Sali says kallana is moving down from the higher altitudes due to "human intervention" on the hills. The animal is agile, and climbs uphill very fast, a feat which Sali has seen himself.
Sali pointed out that his kallana photos show "long limbs" and that "the skin is wrinkled", which he says is evidence that they're adults. What convinced Sali of that adulthood of the "tusker" male he photographed in 2010 were "skin details… long tail, really hairy". And then there were the tusks – certainly more developed that the ones I'd seen on younger elephants at Kodonad.
The search for one cryptid usually throws up some other unexpected mystery animals as well. Sali said a Kani elder had shown him another Kerali cryptid, a purple-bodied tree crab that lives in "gaps on trees". The Kani use this mystery tree crab as "medicine, for the ears". Balan mentioned another Kerali cryptid – the pogeyan, the "clouded leopard", an alleged smoky brown-grey leopard without spots, dwelling in the far north of Kerala, in grassland and "evergreens" of the Munnar region and moving in and out of the tea plantations of Malabar. He knows one forest officer who's seen a pogeyan.
"Warden Sharma" the Trivandrum District Chief Wildlife Warden, after an explanation from Balan of what we wanted to do, gave permission for me to enter the Neyyar-Peppara sanctuary, but only for the day, and only if accompanied by Sali and his guide, Mallan Kani.
Next day I got up very early for a possibly inadvisable 40km trip by motorized rickshaw turbo milk float, which meant I arrived ten minutes late for our rendezvous with Sali at the hill town of Vithura. As we passed a shiny suburban showroom for the new Indian-built Tato Nano economy car, my rickshaw driver said with disdain that his vehicle exceeded the 70kph maximum speed of a Tata Nano.
Sali Palode (left) and Malan Kani (right) in Neyyar-Peppara sanctuary, at the spot where they found the dead kellana in 2005
Soon Sali and I stood before the green and red sign of the Kerala Forest Department at the entrance to Neyar-Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary, where Sali's guide Mallan Kani was waiting. Mallan was a more outgoing character, and he and Sali had a Malayam-language Laurel and Hardy camaraderie thing going, as they marched off ahead through the thick forest at a brisk pace I could barely keep up with. "Faster!" Mallan would occasionally call to me. They had to wait for me once when I got my ear impaled on a dangling thorn.
We went through paddies and low-impact cashew and rubber plantations, and past an anti-elephant trench and Kani houses with solar panels. Then uphill and into deep forest. The trail was steep and narrow, and single-file. Mallan said it was an elephant track. It was difficult enough for humans, only the piles of elephant dung – with mushrooms growing out of it – told us these were elephant paths.
The forest was humid and I was sweating buckets by now. My heart was racing – it could be the altitude. Brilliant blue and white butterflies flitted around us, and there were biting ants that drew blood if you were foolish enough to sit down for long. Strange hooting whistling laughing birds called to us, one sounded like Mutley out of Wacky Races cursing.
Mallan took us on a steep downward descent to the spot where they found the body of the female elephant in 2005, by a lake with the Agusthya Mala in the distance behind. Then Mallan suddenly said, “Gaur! Guar!” although Sali and I saw and heard nothing, and he then disappeared into the forest, after getting Sali and I into cover behind some trees. Sali took out his massive Canon lens and screwed it into his camera, and crouched in the trees just ahead of me at the forest's edge.
Herd of gaur (wild Indian bison) stampede past
Ten minutes later came a thundering of hooves, and curly-horned gaur – wild bison - in a big herd appear to charge straight at us. Sali got up and started running. I decided to stay put, reasoning that the trees would stop them charging directly at me. They veered to the left and charged uphill – beards, calves and all, about 20 in total. Sali was running after the herd, camera at the ready. I missed most of it, having got tangled in a thicket. Following in the wake of the gaur came a cloud of stinging flies. Sali ripped a branch off a bush, and beat them away. Mallan re-appeared.
It seems he'd flushed out for the gaur for our benefit. Mallan's forestry skills were impressive. Some say that “kallana” are just young elephants playing a short distance from a herd that’s unseen and close by, but if the herd were close by, Mallan would know about it.
We were finished by 11.30. We stopped at the next Kani settlement. Plastic chairs were produced for Sali and I, and with a little bamboo ladder, one of the Kani neighbours went up a tree to bring down fresh coconuts for lunch, a rare privilege as access to "tribal" areas is usually restricted. Sali and I bade farewell to Mallan at the Forest Dept. post by the sanctuary's entrance. It was still lunch hour when two short bus rides later I was back in Trivandrum.
Sali and Balan have been tracking kallana for at least a decade, and had only three encounters and one dodgy sighting of its dung. The chances of me tripping over kallana – or even a conventional elephant – in the thick, thick forest, were never great.
Back in Trivandrum, I encountered statues of what were described as “unicorns” or “elephant dragons” – horse-bodied, eagle-clawed beasts with elephants’ heads, often associated with a small elephant that accompanies them.
Some grasped their trunks in their talons, some had trunks reaching down towards considerably smaller “baby elephants” whose trunks reached up to theirs. Some had small crests or tufts on their heads. Some had multiple tusks growing out of the sides of their mouth where their teeth should be, like the mouthparts of a monster prawn.
There were "elephant dragons" in the Maharaja of Travancore’s eighteenth-century palace, and in the huge temple next door. The palace and temple guides told me the "elephant dragons" were carved in the late eighteenth century, during Travancore’s zenith. I was told the makara are not exclusive to India, and there's been little research into their origins. Makara feature fleetingly in Bernard Heuvelmans' In the Wake of the Sea Serpents, but as sea creatures. The makara in Trivandrum, and on the coat of arms of the neighbouring State of Karnataka – were definitely land animals.
I also spent 24 hours in Bangalore, to see Asian elephant expert Prof. Raman Sukumar at the Indian Institute of Science, a university campus so vast it has its own airstrip.
Asian elephant expert Prof. Sukumar Raman
"Don't, whatever you do, come on the 31st of March, it's the end of the financial year," advised Prof. Sukumar. The Union Government in New Delhi demands all taxes are paid by the end of this date on pain of considerable penalties. The last day of the financial year is bedlam. Most banks are open all night for receipt of government revenues, still mostly done in cash. Sukumar has to reconcile the accounts of the IISc's Institute of Ecology he heads - by the end of a very long day. So we met on April Fool's Day instead.
Prof. Sukumar Raman is the expert on Asian elephants, but like every head of department he had a lot of admin to deal with. As well as having to sign leave requests for departmental staff during our interview, Sukumar was interrupted by a bizarre marketing call from a mobile company, following an inquiry about billing for SIM cards. It turned out the two SIM cards they were talking about were “for elephants” in radio collars awaiting deployment on elephants in West Bengal. He told me he had a hard time explaining to the mobile company that he didn’t know the mobile numbers for the SIM cards, as they were radio-tracking devices for elephants, and no, they didn't want free weekend calls...
Sali Palode's website has his photos of kallana, and of the tree crab (the latter on the "Insects" page).
This is an edited extract from Pymgy Elephants – on the track of the world's biggest dwarfs, published by CFZ Press later this year.
© Matt Salusbury 2013