Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Flying elephants? Dumbos? Or just, elephants?

We often come across fiercely contested disputes which, after a spell of intense discussion, are shifted to the backburner, and then surface once more after a new stimulus prods it back to the limelight. The local newspapers of late have been featuring one such debate, which first emerged in the early 1990s. What are we to believe? Does the Kallana exist or not?

Kani tribals, who dwell in the rainforests of Peppara (in Trivandrum district), very much insist that these Kallana (I would spell it as ‘Kal-aana’) exists. Based on the accounts, Kallana are pygmy elephants, miniature versions of the Indian elephant, around five foot tall, supposedly subsisting in the forests of the southern Western Ghats ranges. Their feeding habits are similar to that of the stately Indian elephant, but their smaller size enables them to be agile and scamper over steep and rocky slopes (and thus can be seen in the higher altitudes of the mountain ranges, where the topography comprises of rocks and grasslands).

Wildlife photographer Sali Palode, who has been trekking in the forests of Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary and adjoining areas for nearly fifteen years, had photographed a herd, ten years ago, which were identified by the Kani as adult Kallanas. In 2005, Palode and Mallan Kani (a member of the tribe) encountered a small herd in the Sanctuary. In January 2010, he photographed a supposed Kallana carcass, which the Kani found in Kuttiyaar (within the Sanctuary). The Kani explained that a group of four Kallanas had come to the area. Subsequently, guided by Mallan Kani, Sali Palode and fellow photographer Jain Angadikkal photographed one such elephant sighted in the Kotoor division of the Kerala Forest Development Corporation, adjacent to the Sanctuary. Last month, Mallan also guided photographer Ajanta Benny, to a water body in Marakappara, where another Kallana was photographed. However, when forest officials, along with Mallan, visited the area immediately after these sightings were reported, they could find no evidence at all.

Zoologists and ecologists are sceptical since the Kallana’s existence has not been scientifically proven. Apart from eyewitness accounts and photographs not being strong evidence, the criticisms are:
i. Peppara Sanctuary is not an island forest where animals could evolve in isolation.
ii. The photographs doesn’t provide anything which could serve as a scale.
iii. Could it be the Borneo pygmy elephant? (more on this later)
iv. Is it a true elephant dwarf as opposed to a different subspecies/species?
v. These could be adolescent Indian elephants.

Palode argues that Kallanas are not baby elephants since they lacked the fine hairs characteristically present on the babies. Furthermore, these were sighted at altitudes and thickly forested and steeply inclined terrains, which are not usually haunted by the Indian elephants.

Fossil records demonstrate extinct pygmy elephants from around the world. However, in 2003, after conducting DNA analysis on nine dwarf elephant specimens, it was concluded that these are 'the results of individual cases of nanism (dwarfism) or pathological growth'. The elephants of Borneo, tagged as ‘pygmy elephants’, are around 6 foot tall. The population of approximately 1000 lives in the northern tip of Sabah and extreme north of Kalimantan in north Borneo. A DNA analysis, by Columbia University in 2003, confirmed these to be a genetically distinct type of the Asian elephants.

The Forest Department has supposedly dispatched search teams to the forests of Agasthyavanam, Neyyar, and the Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary. Previously, in 1995, the Kerala Forest Research Institute’s (KFRI) search/survey for the kallana, supported by the ecologists from the Indian Institute of Science (Bangalore) was abandoned due to heavy rains. Searches in 2005 and 2008 came up with naught.

Interestingly, the older generation recollects Kallanas. One local narrated to me of how, before the 1940s, a Kallana had been domesticated by a landlord of a nearby village. It was very popular with children- hardly surprising since I picture it as a Dumbo. Unfortunately, it met its demise when being forced to carry heavy timber along with other sturdier Indian elephants.

If the Kallana indeed exists, what resulted in this different morphology- ecological conditions? Or is it a variation within the species? Would the tribals make some cock-and-bull story, one which is traditionally believed? After all, the tribals are much more aware of the forest biodiversity than the best ecologist in the world.

As for why the search teams came up with nothing, it is certainly much easier to survey animals in the African grasslands than in the oft-impenetrable forests of Kerala. And as for the experts’ opinion, I have my own doubts: after all, they failed to identify the mysterious animal in a television footage of someone’s backgarden, some even supposing that it might be an unidentified species…. until an academic (who isn’t a zoologist per se) easily pointed out that it was none other than a slender loris.

In any case, I am hoping that the ‘DNA sample’, reportedly taken from the corpse of the Kallana by the Kerala Forest Research Institute in January, would solve the puzzle- provided they locate the sample first!


  1. Very interesting! That such a large animal MIGHT be undiscovered (offically) is exciting and gives hope that there may be other such creatures around the world.
    It seems to me that it doesn´t have to be a new species, phenotypic variation (nanism?) and reproductive isolation might produce the same effect.
    To embark on a wild flight of fancy, is it possible that miniature (-ish) elephants might have been bred domestically in ancient times and these are a remannt?

  2. Tropical forests are indeed treasure troves, with numerous undiscovered flora and fauna. I am looking forward to suffixing variations of my surname as a specific name after discovering them :)

    Jokes apart, you raise some valid points. I also wonder whether these are the Borneo elephants left in the wild by irresponsible circus companies (akin to the piranha in Devon river and black panthers in Cornwall).

    Nevertheless, I am hoping that something good will come out of that DNA sample. I think there's some kind of ambiguity over who has it, where, and whether any tests are being conducted after all!

  3. An interesting read! I did come across a picture that was claimed to be that of a Pigmy Elephant recently, taken in Southern India. I am not sure how true it was, but I'm hoping they are still around.

  4. That might indeed be the photos taken this year! The locals certainly believe that it exists- or at least, that it did until a few decades ago.


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