Kerala’s pygmy elephant


Friday, March 11, 2005 at 0210 hours IST

KOCHI, MARCH 10: It’s a quest in the literal sense of the word. Ecologists of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and officials of the Forest Department are set to trek the state’s forests in search of the ikallaana, the mythical dwarf elephant.

Aimed at conclusively confirming or denying the presence of this species, scientific teams will also undertake DNA mapping of samples of dung collected from areas where tribals claim to have seen the dwarf elephant. A DNA study from dung samples is the first-of-its-kind experiment in solving a decades-old mystery.

Three teams are already scouring the dense forests of Agasthyavanam and Neyyar, hoping to chance upon the kallaana somewhere. Ecologists and veterinarians, however, are strongly divided on the possibility of finding one. ‘‘In all probability, someone would’ve seen an elephant smaller than its peers. But to label it as a dwarf will be too far-fetched. It could be just a variation within a species,’’ said Dr R. Sukumar, IISc professor and chairman of Asian Elephant Special Group.

Another possibility is to mistake a sub-adult male in a herd as a dwarf elephant. Sometimes, tuskers in their teens get together and play with a herd. ‘‘I think somebody has mistook one such for the mythical kallaana. Anyway, the present study will scientifically certify whether it’s a myth or reality,’’ Sukumar said.

The teams have been asked to collect dung samples if they encounter a kallaana. ‘‘Even otherwise, samples will be collected to look for genetic proof to establish the presence of a different species. These samples will be studied at IISc,’’ sources said. While such studies usually bank on tissue or blood samples, sources said, dung sampling was ‘‘easy and reliable’’.

The IISc has already completed a comprehensive study to establish that elephants in the forests of Tamil Nadu and Kerala belong to two distinctive groups even while sharing the same genetical structure. The institute has also initiated a satellite-based telemetry study of elephants in the north-east.