Forest officials, however, say that there is no foul play suspected and that elephant deaths are not out of the ordinary this time of the year.

Elephant carcass found in Karnataka sanctuary
news Wildlife Saturday, June 13, 2020 - 13:04
Written by  Girisha

A series of elephant deaths in Male Mahadeshwara (MM) Hills Wildlife Sanctuary and Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka’s Chamarajanagar district since April this year has caused apprehensions among conservationists and animal lovers. 

So far, 10 elephants have died in the given period. However, forest officials say it is normal for elephants to get intestinal infections at this time of the year, which can lead to their deaths, among other natural reasons. Officials also rule out any threats to elephants from poaching.

Deaths in MM Hills Wildlife Sanctuary

The MM Hills Wildlife Sanctuary, spread in about 1,000 sq kms of area, reported the death of an elephant, first of five deaths in the sanctuary, on April 7. 

The carcass of a female elephant aged around 29 years was discovered at Changadi beat. Forest officials attributed the death to the elephant possibly slipping into a deep gorge and breaking its legs. The very next day, the carcass of a 25-year-old elephant was found at Chikkamaruru beat; the forest officials say this male elephant died of natural causes. Since the tusks were intact, forest officials ruled out a poaching incident. 

Then, on May 28, a carcass of a male elephant was found in MM Hill range, followed by the discovery of a female elephant’s corpse in Hanur beat on June 2, and then another dead elephant was traced on June 9 at Martalli beat of the sanctuary.

Deputy Conservator of Forests of MM Hills Wildlife Sanctuary V Yedukondalu says that they came to know through wildlife veterinarians that intestinal infections are common in pachyderms during the beginning of monsoon, leading to death of elephants in the wild. “However, the exact cause of death will be known after results come back for a carcass’s sample sent for laboratory tests in Wayanad in Kerala,” he adds.

Conservationists' concerns

However, a wildlife conservationist familiar with terrain of both Cauvery and MM Hills is not so sure about the samples shedding light on the cause of death. Alleging that the forest guards discovered the carcasses as late as 20 days, he says the samples taken from a decomposed carcass will not be revelatory. “If lab tests are to be conducted on the carcass sample, a clear picture of the exact cause of death will be available only if the sample is fresh and extracted within 24 hours of its death. But since the carcasses were decomposed, nothing can be established about the elephant deaths from these.” 

He adds that forest guards nowadays skip on-foot patrolling in forests beats which makes it difficult to track carcasses. If that is done effectively, most of the carcasses - particularly those of elephants – will be discovered in time, which will help in timely extraction of samples to ascertain the cause of death. 

However, DCF Yedukondalu says, “Out of five deaths, we detected fresh carcasses within 12 hours of death in the sanctuary and samples have been sent for lab tests.” The DCF points out that similar cases of elephant deaths were reported in the sanctuary last year as well. He adds that similar cases of jumbo deaths might be happening in other parts of the state too but have not been made public.

Similar deaths in Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary

Sharing boundary with MM Hills is Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, which is spread over about 1,000 sq kms. Its Deputy Conservator of Forests Ramesh says that his sanctuary has reported five elephant deaths recently as well, including one by electrocution. In another case, a pregnant jumbo slipped and died a week before it could deliver a calf, while another was washed away. Except for the electrocution death of a tusker, he says, all four other cases were natural deaths in his sanctuary.

To find the exact reasons for the jumbo’s deaths, Ramesh says he sought expert opinion from Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and Bengaluru scientist Surendra Verma who also made spot inspections where jumbos died. Surendra Verma will file his report soon.

Ramesh says that every year, there is some percentage of natural deaths among elephants. Despite this, he says that his sanctuary has a healthy number of elephants. He too ruled out any foul play in the elephant deaths in Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary.

Girisha is a freelancer who writes on wildlife and forests.