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Tranquillization and translocation of captive bulls - Jacob V. Cheeran, K.C. Panicker, R.K. Kaimal and P.B. Giridas


Kerala is a small coastal state located in the south of India. It enjoys a tropical climate with heavy rainfall, has an area of 39 000 km2 and a captive elephant population of approximately 600. Nearly 500 hundred of these elephants are bulls (tuskers). Temple, church and mosque festivals are a common occurrence in Kerala and it is common to see 50 to 60 tuskers at these festivals. Only tuskers are used on such occasions.

During the last two decades more than 400 (418, as of 29 January 2001) bulls in musth have been tranquillized and translocated. Table 1 gives the seasonal distribution of tranquillized elephants up to June 2000.


Tranquillization is done either at the festivals, in villages, towns, and timber yards or occasionally in forests where lumbering operations are carried out. No kunkies (monitor elephants) have been used. Darting is done invariably on foot, except on rare occasions when it is done from the top of a building or from a tree. After sedation the animal has to be translocated to a safe tethering site a short distance away until it is amenable to safe handling by the mahout. Occasionally an elephant will have to be darted with the mahout still on the top of the elephant when it does not allow the mahout to climb down. Initially, nicotine was used but was later discontinued. On one occasion, Xylazine (@100 mg/MT of body weight) with Ketamine was used to tranquillize bulls and once Gallamine was used.

Ketamine and Xylazine together did not produce as much synergism as has been observed in carnivores. Ketamine produced photo-sensitization. When the animal is left to stand in the hot sun a triangular ‘burn' patch beginning from the neck to the thoracic portion on the back is produced. A large number of animals have been controlled using an Acepromazine (40 to 60 mg/MT body weight) - Xylazine combination. The sedation was good and manipulation was easy. But some of the elephants that were exposed to the direct sunlight developed photo-sensitization on the dorsal aspect. The area, which suffered the sunburn, was triangular in shape with the dimension of 45 x 90 x 90 cm, approximately with the base beginning from the neck. To prevent the sunburn, as well as to arouse the animal from sedation, water was poured over the animal. However, to avoid the occurrence of photo sensitization the Acepromazine, which is a Phenothiazine derivative, was later avoided and only Xylazine (@100 mg/MT of body weight) was used. The equipment used was a Palmer's Cap-chur gun or a Dist Inject using a detonating mechanism (syringe charge) for the drug injection. Any disturbance during the injection prolongs the induction period for a considerable time. Because most of the darting takes place in crowded areas it is very difficult to contain the excitement of the crowd so some disturbance is perhaps inevitable.

The initial symptoms of induction will be noticed by the relaxation of the penis, which will be seen within five to eight minutes after darting if there is there is no disturbance. Gradually, movements of tail, ears and the trunk reduce and the animal remains almost motionless. At times the animal may snore. This is no indication of the depth of sedation and the animal can be aroused explosively if handled. The peak result is obtained about 40-45 minutes after the onset of the symptoms described here. Thus the animal should be handled only after this time. No rise in body temperature is ordinarily noticed. If the animal is feeding at the time of injection the fodder will be kept in the mouth rather than swallowed or dropped. The animal will remain in a standing position, and any attempt to lie down, which is rare, should be discouraged. A certain amount of ambulatory property is to be retained by the animal to enable translocation on foot.

The level of sedation is tested by touching the area at the base of the tail of the standing animal with a long pole. If the response is very mild or nil, the translocation operation can be started. If the animal is not under proper sedation an additional dose can be given one hour after of the first darting. After achieving a satisfactory level of sedation the noosing can be started. Injection by subcutaneous route or haematoma at the injection site can slow down the action.


Four ropes (preferably polypropylene) of 2 cm diameter and 8 m length are used. An iron ring of 8-10 cm in diameter is tied at one end. If this is not available on the spot a loose knot can be made at one end of the rope. The rope is thrown from behind between the two hind limbs, and then using a long hook the ringed end is taken and placed round one of the hind limbs. While lifting and pulling the ringed end it should be lifted as high as possible as the animal is likely to lift the leg and avoid noosing. The loose end of the rope is threaded raising the rope as high and quickly as possible. The rope is tied on to a tree or a good peg, as close to the ground as possible. Then the opposite foreleg is noosed in the same fashion.

While noosing the forelimb the rope may be thrown between the forelimb from the side of the elephant instead of standing in front of the elephant as this is a safer place to stand. This rope is also tied as safely as that on the hind limb. Any attempt made by the elephant to meddle with this rope with its trunk should be discouraged by giving commands and/or simultaneously by the hitting the trunk with a short stick.

Then noosing is undertaken with the remaining hind and fore limbs. When all the four limbs are noosed, translocation can be attempted. Ten to fifteen persons hold all the four ropes and the elephant is coaxed to move. Oral, percussive or mild prodding commands are given. This is supplemented by pulling the rope attached to the limb concerned. If enough coaxing is done the animal will move forward or even backward. The animal's subconscious mind works and obeys the command as if in a hypnotic trance. The mahout with whom the animal is angry should not be employed. His voice or even smell can provoke the animal. Even calling out for the chain or the sound of the chain will be experienced as unpleasant stimuli. The chain is carried in a gunny bag to avoid any sound.

By coaxing the animal, translocation to a distance of 100-200 m can be easily covered. For greater distances a mahout can mount on the animal and can give toe commands. This is also useful if the terrain is uneven or undulating.

The hind limb is first tied at the tethering site and then the forelimb is extended and tied to a tree. Then these ropes are replaced by chains. A distance of 60 cm should be left between the tree and the leg. A standard ball and socket joint chain is used to tie the hind limb to provide freedom to move and lie down if necessary. Water is poured all over the body to reverse the sedation. However, the animal should not be allowed to lie down and sleep immediately. Make sure that the ground surface is even and level to avoid difficulty when the elephant lies down. Reversal with Yohimbine or Yohimbine Plus 4-Aminopyridine is rarely done.

The festival season and the musth season often coincide resulting in more elephants bolting and a greater need, consequently, for darting. The majority of darting takes place during the pre musth or post musth period and rarely within the full musth period itself. On certain other occasions the owners start making use of the animal before the symptoms of full musth subsides. This leads to refusal of the animal to obey commands and resulting problems. The elephant immobilization team generally carries with it the necessary ropes with ring and detachable long hook along with an immobilization kit.

Table 1. Seasonal Distribution of Elephant Immobilization (April 1979 - June 2000)


Number of Elephants Immobilized



























Question and answer session

Q1: What experience do you have of the drugs zolazapam, midazolam, detomidine and medetomiline?

A1: None. They are not available in India.

An out of control domesticated bull elephant in musth has been sedated. Note a dart on the left rump of the elephant. The mahout is trying to noose the hind limb.

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