An elephantine issue in Munnar

Chinnakkanal and Santhanpara panchayats in Idukki have become theatres of conflict between wild elephants and people. With a spike in the number of attacks and deaths lately, local people are demanding an immediate solution to the issue

Updated - December 16, 2022 09:59 am IST

Published - December 15, 2022 07:49 pm IST - IDUKKI

A tusker in the Suryanelli hills near Chinnakkanal.

A tusker in the Suryanelli hills near Chinnakkanal. | Photo Credit: TH

On November 21, Swami Vel Thevar, a 70-year-old farmer, was trampled to death by a wild elephant at Thalakkulam, near Santanpara, in Munnar. Thevar and his wife Parvathi were on their way to their cardamom plantation when the elephant, Chakkakomban, attacked them. Thevar died on the spot. Parvathy, who had a miraculous escape, has not come to terms with the loss of her husband. 

Thevar is not the first person to lose life in an elephant attack in the region. It is estimated that 42 people have been killed in wild elephant attacks in the Munnar Wildlife Division, of which Thalakkulam is a part, since 2010.

Protests erupt after each death, demanding compensation for the victims and rehabilitation of residents, but it peters out only to flare up again with another attack. After Thevar died, people blocked the road at Pooppara, which lies 30 km northeast of Munnar, demanding immediate compensation to his family and steps to mitigate elephant attacks, following which the Forest department sanctioned ₹5 lakh to his kin.

Devikulam Forest Range Officer P.V. Vegi says the Chinnakkanal-Anayirankal region is a human-animal conflict hotspot in his jurisdictional area. “The Forest department is trying its best to mitigate it,” he says, citing destruction of habitat as a major reason for human-animal conflict. 

Root cause 

Elephant attacks are commonplace in Idukki. Two panchayats, Chinnakkanal and Santhanpara, at distances of about 20 to 25 km northeast of Munnar, bear the brunt of most of these attacks. Herds of wild elephants raid the plantations at regular intervals and attack people. 

People say elephant-human conflict here is the direct fallout of the decision to allow human settlements near the Anayirankal dam by the government headed by A.K. Antony in the early years of the century. The government had allotted one acre each to 301 tribal families here, ignoring a report by the then Munnar Divisional Forest Officer.

Areas such as 301 Colony, Sinkundam, 80 Acre, Panthadikkalam, BL Ram, Chinnakkanal, Santanpara, Pooppara, Anayirankal, Suryanelli, and Thalakkulam, under Chinnakkanal and Santanpara panchayats, are now facing the threat of wild elephant attacks. According to officials, most number of deaths are reported in these areas. 

M.N. Jayachandran, district secretary of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, says the human settlement project is a typical example of programme implementation without proper studies. “The then Munnar Divisional Forest Officer Prakrithi Srivastava had urged the government to desist from allowing settlements in and around Anayirankal dam areas. But the government ignored the report and allowed settlements at the 301 Colony, Sinkukandam and Chempakathamkudy areas. The settlements came blocking the natural trail of elephants, giving rise to a conflict between both parties,” he says.

The settlements caused some 38 elephants to get trapped in the area. It set the stage for endless elephant attacks. The majority of the tribal families fled the area fearing attacks. Of the 301 families that originally moved to these settlements, only 40 remain now.  

“The elephant corridor connects Chinnar, Munnar, Pondimala, Mattupetty, Chinnakanal, Sinkukandam, Udumbanchola, Adukidantanpara, Chellarkovil Mettu, Mathikettan and ends at the Periyar Tiger Reserve. But the passage was blocked when the land was fenced by estate owners,” says a former Devikulam Range Officer, who refused to be identified. 

Farmers too attest to this fact. Saji Pattarumadam, who lives at Chinnakkanal, says human-elephant conflict has been on the rise at Chinnakkanal and Anayirankal ever since 301 families moved to the area.

“Wild elephants used to camp at 301 Colony, Sinkukandam and Cement Palam. Over the years, the grasslands at Sinkukandam and Cement Palam have been transformed into cardamom plantations. Elephants move to this area in search of food. Now wild elephants come close to my home at Chinnakkanal, giving us sleepless nights,” he says.

 Mitigation efforts 

In view of the rise in elephant attacks, the Forest department appointed around 25 watchers at Chinnakkanal and Bodimettu for the safety of people. 

The team starts its work at 5.30 a.m. every day and ends after 10 p.m.. “They will alert us on the presence of elephants in each region via WhatsApp groups. This helps residents to be cautious. Besides, the watchers send the live location and pictures of wild elephants in each region,” says a forest official.

Elephant watcher Manikandan works from 5 a.m. till midnight. He says the team provides real-time alerts about the presence and movement of wild elephants at Chinnakkanal, Sinkukandam, 301 Colony, and Thondimala. The initiative was launched after the death of a 60-year-old man at Sinkukandam, near Anayirankal, in March this year, thanks to the intervention of former Munnar DFO Raju Francis. 

In an attempt to restrict the movement of elephants, the Forest department recently decided to fix hanging solar fences at Chinnakkanal. This was done based on a study carried out by researcher Surendra Varma with the Asian Elephant Research and Conservation Centre at Bengaluruon the behaviour of elephants in the region. The study had concluded that elephants were camping in the area owing to the availability of tasty food. 

Shaktivel, member of a rapid response team created to chase away wild elephants from settlements, says three elephants Chakkakompan, Arikompan and Murivalan are the troublemakers.  “My team has been following the pachyderms since 2014. Chakkakompan and Arikompan are the more dangerous tuskers,” he says.

Checking the menace 

Santanpara panchayat president Liju Varghese demanded an immediate solution to the problem, which has lingered on for a long time now. Data obtained through the Right to Information (RTI) Act by Idukki District Congress Committee general secretary Bijo Mani show that 35 people had been killed in wild elephant attacks in the Devikulam Forest Range in the past 10 years. “The initiatives to mitigate human-elephant conflict have not been successful, and most of the money had been spent without proper study,” he says.

Besides the threat to their lives, people complain that recurring wild elephant raids have caused massive destruction of crops. “Poor people are the worst affected by this,” says A.T. Baiju, a Church of South India missionary working at 301 Colony CSI Church.

According to him, relocation of wild elephants from the 301 Colony area is the only way out to protect people’s lives. Three tuskers are mainly causing issues to the people in this region and they have to be relocated immediately.

Elephant expert P.S. Essa differs, saying it is the people who should be relocated, not the elephants. “The issue can be resolved only through addressing the local people’s concerns. What is happening at Chinnakkanal is a fight for survival by the elephants and by the people. The government should develop a package and relocate the people from the elephant attack-prone areas. The package should include better livelihood to the people. No conservation activity is possible without the people’s support,” he says.

Dwindling elephant population 

From the wildlife conservation point of view, the elephant numbers are dropping. Forest officials say Chinnakkanal area had some 40 elephants during 2004-05, which has fallen to 24 now. They attribute the fall in numbers to non-availability of nutritious food, which affects the reproductive capacity of elephants. “Mating has become rare because of non-availability of nutritious food. This has led to the fall in the number of elephant calves in the region,” says an officer.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.