Experts say the elephant’s return could be driven by his strong bonds with other elephants in the range; he feeds regularly and has not gone back to the village in search of food
On the day he was released, Rivaldo, a wild elephant, walked over 28 km overnight to return to his home in the Sigur forest range in the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR).
Local residents claimed that his return was a “failure” of the Forest Department’s efforts to rehabilitate him. However, recent images captured by the Department and conservationists show Rivaldo feeding and bonding with other elephants in the area. These bonds with other elephants could explain his insistence on returning to the Sigur range.
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Conservation biologist Priya Davidar, who has lived alongside Rivaldo for most of his adult life, has conducted genotyping studies on Rivaldo and 84 elephants in the Mudumalai, Singara and Sigur forest ranges. These studies show that Rivaldo has eight close elephant relatives (siblings and half-siblings) and one offspring in the Sigur range.
“Not only does he associate with his close relatives, but he has also formed bonds with non-related elephants, such as Benito and Messi, two other elephants in the region,” said Dr. Davidar, who added that around 10 adult elephants associate with Rivaldo regularly.
N. Mohanraj is a Nilgiris-based conservationist and part of the team monitoring Rivaldo. He said that since Rivaldo’s release, the elephant was seen associating with a herd comprising three female elephants and a tusker, and more recently, with four males. “His rehabilitation is progressing really well with him feeding regularly,” confirmed Mr. Mohanraj. “His association with other wild elephants shows that he is not scared of them, and he has not returned to the Vazhaithottam village in search of food due to continuous monitoring by the Forest Department.”
There may potentially be numerous reasons that drive translocated wild elephants back to their home ranges. Dr. Shermin de Silva, Director of the Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project in Sri Lanka, said, “Like humans, elephants are already familiar with their regular ranges and might prefer that familiarity over having to learn a new landscape.”
She explained, “They have a network of companions and acquaintances. They may therefore be more comfortable among their old networks as re-establishing themselves is stressful and energetically costly. For bulls, who must range widely in search of reproductive females, it is possible that they have already wandered a large area and have a certain pattern corresponding to their own reproductive cycles, availability of females, seasonal variations, etc. For instance, they may go to certain areas during their breeding periods (known as musth) and other areas to forage. They may have learned all of this over their younger days, when they initially dispersed from their families. All of this knowledge would need to be acquired in a new location.”
“People tend to assume that non-human animals can simply make do wherever they are put by pure instinct. They disregard the very important role that a lifetime of learning plays in such a highly social and complex animal. We do them a disservice by randomly dropping them somewhere far from everything they know,” added Dr. de Silva.
According to Supriya Sahu, Principal Secretary (Environment and Forests), Tamil Nadu, the Forest Department had taken into account the possibility that Rivaldo may try to make his way back to Sigur from Kargudi, where he was released. “Rewilding Rivaldo is going to be a long process, and it was planned meticulously for around 25 days. At the moment he is healthy, and feeds on forest produce and does not rely on the community. Added to this, he interacts with wild elephants. These are all extremely good signs that he is acclimatising to his new found freedom.” said Ms. Sahu.
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