Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Capture of alleged "kallana" pygmy elephant

An animal described as a "calf elephant, which is purportedly a 'pygmy'" was "tethered" (captured) in February by Kerala Forest Department (KFD) vets in the forest in Paruthypally, in the Trivandrum District of the South Indian state of Kerala.

The capture was covered in The Hindu newspaper of Feb 7 this year and there's also a Malayalam language TV broadcast, which has a fleeting few seconds of a slightly strange-looking elephant moving in the forest, with not much to indicate the scale.

While the traditions of the local Kani "tribals" who live in the Peppara forest describe "kallana" - an agile pygmy elephant five feet in height or less, the Kerala wildlife officials were so convinced that the elephant was nothing of the sort that they "dismissed" a demand for DNA samples to be taken from the elephant. V. Gopinath, Chief Wildlife Warden, Kerala, was quoted as saying "kallana" said "kallana" was "a myth" that "existed in the folklore of tribespeople alone." Another KFD official described the elephant as being a six-year-old calf.

The TV broadcast has a short interview with local wildlife photographer Sali Palode, and shows photos by Sali of his 2005 and 2010 sightings of kallana, including the corpse of an alleged female kallana that he found by a lake in 2005. (This appears in my forthcoming Pygmy Elephants book. The licence I bought for reproduction of his photo doesn't extend to web, but there's a watermarked version of this photo on Sali's website. The Malayalam TV report also has photos by Benny Ajantha and Jain Angadi, who were with Sali when he made his 2010 "kallana" sighting.

There's also a photo by Sali of a strange-looking elephant head-on in The Hindu's report. It's more convincing than any of the other kallana photos I've seen. The Hindu article is sceptical - more so than previously - and uses the word "pygmy" in quotation marks throughout. The article points out that the calf elephant was in a bad way - it "had developed infections" and may have been abandoned by the herd.

When I interviewed Sali in 2011, his agent Balan Madhavan (who acted as interpreter) was emphasising the need for Sali to collect evidence of "kallana" for DNA analysis - dung, hairs and discarded skin from the soles of the feet are the most common bits you find - and the "demand" for DNA samples to be taken from the captured elephant calf at Paruthypally came from Sali. The report adds that "blood samples of the animal have also been collected, which could be used for settling the controversy."

I haven't been able to find out what happened to the elephant since February, or anything about any results from the blood sample, but I am on the case - I have asked the contacts I made in South India, including Balan. I am also looking for a Malayalam speaker to translate the TV report for me. A very early start for me, getting up in time to catch people in Kerala and in Bangalore by phone, is imminent. If I get any answers, I will squeeze this into the Pygmy Elephants book just in time for it to go to press.

A Kerala Forest and Wildlife Department sign - this one's from Neyyar-Peppara. Picture: copyright Matt Salusbury


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