Vandalur zoo male elephant Ashok shows docile side

By Balasubramani Muniyandi Published on Aug 04, 2018 12:58 PM IST

The mahout pours water on Ashok and scrubs its body.

Chennai: In this edition of News Today's Zoo Tales series about Arignar Anna Zoological Park known famously as Vandalur zoo, the focus is on Ashok, the only male elephant who is the king of the vast enclosure at present.

Even as we were talking about Prakriti (the baby female elephant), Ashok, who was tied to a faraway tree, majestically walked to the water tank near us.

His mahout was right behind him and once they reached the tank, one command from his human friend was enough to make the gentle giant lie on the floor.

Immediately the mahout poured water on the animal and scrubbed its body. He gave a command and the animal quietly lifted its leg - whatever the mahout said, the elephant obeyed to like a good boy.

Looking at how amused we were about the obedience of the animal, zoo veterinarian Pa Kalaignan warned us not to be deceived by what we see.

"These are very docile animals, but highly unpredictable as well. It is advisable not to get close to these animals unless the mahout is nearby."

Recollecting his days with Ashok, Kalaignan said he was very playful during his childhood days and just like every other elephant, that nature receded as he grew older.

"He is one of the obedient elephants we have handled and also very cooperative with the vets. He listens to the mahout's command, making our work easy," he said.

However, soon he will be sent to one of the elephant camps as he will be reaching his musth age, said Kalaignan.

Ashok, the only male elephant at Vandalur zoo.

Understanding our puzzled look, another veterinarian, K Sridhar, explained that it was the protocol in the zoo.

"Usually, a bull will be sent from the zoo once it reaches the sub adult stage before it gets its juvenile musth. Most males will be sent to the camp before they reach the age of 10,' he said, and, on a lighter note, added that they do not want to risk the visitors who come to the zoo in large numbers.

WHAT IS THIS MUSTH?

Veterinarian Boon Allwin said musth is a psychological change that usually happens in bulls (there are reports of African female elephants getting musth) and it begins from the sub-adult age, called juvenile musth.

Just like how women get periods, this is a natural process and cannot be controlled, he explained.

It is during this period that a wild bull wins over the other males to mate with the females in heat. During this time a captive elephant will mostly not listen to the mahout's commands. A well-trained mahout will know his limits and not interfere with the animal during this period.

HOW TO IDENTIFY

Just like how it is shown in movies, there is a temporal gland between the eye and ear of the animal which will have a thick secretion during musth. The thickness of the secretion increases as the animal reaches the peak of musth.

Each elephant has its own way of behaving during this time. During this period, even the slightest of disturbance will irritate it. The mahout should always be alert.

Though it is popularly believed that elephants gets musth during winter, there are instances that have been reported during other seasons as well. A captive elephant's first sign of musth is not obeying orders.

However, there are mahouts who are talented enough to keep the animal under control even during musth and this also depends on the animal. Enlargement of temporal glands and penile protrusion and urine dribbling are the other symptoms of musth.

THE THREE STAGES

Unlike popular belief, an elephant do not get musth all of a sudden. There are three stages of musth - pre-musth, musth and post-musth. The elephant will be more aggressive during the musth period.

During this time, the secretion from the temporal glad will be highly viscous. It is during this period that the animal will involve in fight with other bulls to prove supremacy and establish ownership over a female.

WHAT CAN BE DONE

The best thing that can be done when a captive elephant undergoes musth is to let it free in a secured perimeter without confining it to a closed enclosure. This is what they do in elephant camps. We will send the male sub-adults from the zoo to the camps where the musth management facility is better, say the zoo vets.

The movement of the animal will not be restricted there. With more number of elephants around it won't feel secluded. In the forest camp they will be well-prepared to tackle any situation.

Moving a wild animal, especially an elephant, from the zoo is not an easy task; however, zoo director S Yuvaraj and deputy director Sudha Ramen have always ensured that the process is smooth, without causing much stress the animals.

HOW LONG DOES MUSTH LAST?

Mostly the musth period is said to last two months, and, again, it depends on the individual. If there are more female elephants around in heat, this time might be prolonged. The duration of musth is multi-factorial and cannot be confined to one particular aspect.

WHAT ABOUT FEMALE ELEPHANTS?

Female elephants will show heat signs just like other herbivores. Ovulation will happen and there will be subtle changes in their behaviour as well, but they will not be as aggressive as the bulls.

The menstrual cycle in elephant is called as the elephant estrous cycle and lasts for close to 13-18 weeks. It is said to be the longest among all studied non-seasonal mammals till date.

Normally the female elephant will not show signs of heat; however elephants will be able to detect the sex pheromones of the opposite sex even from a decent distance.

TEMPLE PACHYDERMS
 It is mostly reported that temple elephants in musth killed their mahout. But there has to be a reality check. Most temple elephants are females and do not undergo musth. Such deaths can probably be attributed to the animal getting irritated due to its environment and there are chances of mistreatment by the mahouts, which is very rare.

 

MAKE WAY FOR THE KING
 Did you know that Indian kings were among the first to use elephants in their army? The first record of elephant killing happened in 1100 BC. On the occasion of World Elephant Day, which falls 12 August, our next Zoo Tales will bring out the heritage of elephants in our country. Stay tuned.