In Kerala, close elephant encounters of the third kind

With the recent death of a farmer, people living on the periphery of the forest in Kerala’s wooded Wayanad district are angry. The Hindu explores why the human-wildlife conflict is escalating, with animals looking for food and comfort bursting into human habitations

Updated - March 05, 2024 03:14 pm IST

Published - February 15, 2024 07:36 pm IST

An aerial view of  the tuskless male elphant Belur Makhana.

An aerial view of the tuskless male elphant Belur Makhana. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Romith Eldho, 12, is still in a state of shock. He still sees the image of a rogue elephant trampling upon his neighbour. The happenings of February 11 have left the villagers of Chaligadha, a forest-fringe hamlet near Kuruvadweep on the Kabani river in Wayanad’s Mananthavady municipality in Kerala, shaken and angry. 

The morning broke with a tuskless bull elephant, which later came to be called Belur Makhna (male elephant), entering the village and chasing people. From his home atop a mound on the village road, Eldho saw people scurrying for cover. A man jumped over the gate into the compound. P. Ajeesh, a 47-year-old neighbour who lived a few houses away, attempted the same. But he tripped and fell. The elephant climbed the narrow flight of stairs leading to the gate at lightning speed, broke it open, charged at him and flung him away before trampling him to death.

Eldho shudders as he recalls the episode. “It was all over in about two minutes,” says Jomon Payikkandathil, his father, who also witnessed the attack. Going by CCTV footage which went viral on social media later in the day, the attack took place at 7.11 a.m.

Ajeesh and his friend Sajju were walking to their homes when the elephant, who forest officials were trying to drive back into the nearby forest, targeted them. “We thought that the elephant would not chase us through the narrow staircases to the home but, it chased us through the stair. It was the moment I saw my death nearest to me,” says Saju. “It pains me that I could not save the life of Ajeesh,” he laments.

Data available with the Wayanad Action Committee on Prevention of Wildlife Attacks say that 153 people have been killed and 660 more injured in wildlife attacks in Wayanad district since 1980.

Fear and fury

This was the second incident of a wild elephant causing panic in the Mananthavady area in just over a week. Following public outcry, forest officials tranquilised and captured the first elephant, which got the nickname Thannerkomban, meaning water tusker, after its habit of breaking water sprinklers to quench its thirst.

Like the Belur makhna, which has eluded capture, Thannerkomban was a radio-collared bull elephant released by Karnataka forest officials in the Bandipur Tiger Reserve bordering the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. Following its capture on the Kerala side, the officials took it in a wildlife ambulance to the Ramapura elephant camp in the Bandipur Tiger Reserve. But the elephant didn’t survive the ordeal. 

The back-to-back incidents sparked widespread unrest and irate mobs blocked the roads, including the Mysuru-Bavali-Mananthavady interstate highway. They also waylaid the District Collector, forest officials, and the District Police Chief demanding protection for their life and property, and adequate compensation for the kin of the Ajeesh, who was his family’s sole breadwinner. While a ₹10-lakh solatium and job to the farmer’s closest kin were announced by the government, the Forest department’s efforts to capture the elephant have not succeeded.

Meanwhile, the sightings of a tiger and a gaur in habited areas in Wayanad fanned the flames of protest, with the people organising a fire torch rally seeking protection from wild animals on the night of February 14. 

“Both these elephants were radio-collared, but the Forest department failed to alert the people to their presence in human habitation. In the case of Belur Makhna, it reached Valliyurkavu, some 10 km from Chaligadha, around 3 a.m. on February 11. Forest officials were apparently monitoring its movement, but they failed to alert the public,” says an enraged Reji Mathew, a resident of Chaligadha.

“Prompt action by forest officials would have saved a life. The officials made a loudspeaker announcement about the movement of the animal only after it killed Ajeesh,” he says. 

Environmental concerns

Episodes of human-animal conflict aren’t new in the verdant hill district of Wayanad, but it was the apathy of officials that caused the present crisis, observes N. Badusha, president of the Wayanad Prakruthi Samrakshana Samiti, a green activists’ forum.  

He cites historical reasons for the steady increase in incidence of human-animal conflict. The first elected government in Kerala, in 1957, granted permission to harvest thousands of tonnes of bamboo from the natural forests of Wayanad for use by the Gwalior Rayons Factory at Mavoor in Kozhikode at a subsidised rate. “It paved the way for the gradual deterioration of forest land. When the Forest department started to plant eucalyptus and teak saplings on the vacant land with a business outlook, it accelerated human-wildlife conflict in the district,” Badusha says. 

“About 36,000 hectares of the total forest land of one lakh hectares in Wayanad have monocrop plantations such as eucalyptus and teak. It significantly lowered the availability of food for wild animals,” he adds. With the onset of summer and the heat getting worse over the years, he sees a surge in incidents of human-animal conflicts.

Environmentalists have long maintained that the massive destruction of bamboo, which elephants relish, in the three forest divisions of Wayanad and in the adjoining tiger reserves in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka after a gregarious blooming season a few years ago, led to a spurt in incidents of elephants straying into human habitations looking for food.

Frequent forest fires too prevented the widespread growth of bamboo in these forests and in its place bloomed invasive, alien plants such as Senna spectabilis (calceolaria shower) posing a serious threat to wildlife. A drive to get rid of these deadly plants was launched only late last year.

For fear of elephant raids, farmers living on forest fringes cut down young jackfruit trees from their plantations. Unregulated growth of tourist resorts on elephant corridors and inside protected areas too have a role in disturbing the tranquillity of forests. Ecotourism activities conducted by the Forest department and grazing of cattle on forest land also contribute to the present situation, explains Badusha.

Locals in Mananthavady point a finger at the Karnataka Forest department that captured nine wild elephants from Hassan, Chikamangalur, and Sakleshpur districts under its Operation Jumbo project in 2023. While two of these elephants were released on the Kerala-Karnataka border, the remaining were shifted to the Nagarhole National Park, which shares a border with the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. While the elephants were all radio-collared, their movements were hardly monitored, alleges a resident of Mananthavady.  

Badusha asks why the Kerala Forest department was sloppy in informing the people about the presence of these elephants that could be tracked. Culpability also lies with the Revenue department, District Disaster Management Authority, and the Police department as they have not addressed the issue either, he alleges. “Despite repeated appeals, successive governments have not done anything to restore the forest ecosystems,” he rues. 

State trouble 

“Each death is followed by a customary all-party meeting convened by the Minister and a few review meetings. Decisions such as constituting a special committee to study the issue are taken, but there is no follow-up action,” says T.C. Joseph, who chairs the Wayanad Action Committee on Prevention of Wildlife Attacks.

Last year, when a farmer in Thondarnadu grama panchayat was killed in a suspected tiger attack, Forest Minister A.K. Saseendran called a meeting and constituted a special committee to conduct a comprehensive study on increasing incidence of human-animal conflicts and to suggest redressal measures.

The report submitted by the committee led by K.S. Deepa, Chief Conservator of Forest (northern range), about six months ago has not been made public nor implemented. The report is said to have given short-term conflict mitigation measures such as construction of forest fringe fences and equipping the forest staff with modern tracking devices. The long-term measures, say sources, include cleansing the forests of invasive and alien plants and augmenting the forest ecosystem to ensure adequate food for the animals. 

Meanwhile, the latest incident has further accentuated the demand of settler-farmer organisations to contain the burgeoning population of wild animals in Kerala forests. Environmentalists, on the other hand, believe that a mechanism under the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change to govern contiguous forest areas such as the trijunction connecting Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka could reduce conflicts arising from translocation of animals. 

Chief Minister calls for interstate panel

In the wake of the Chaligadha elephant attack, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan chaired a top-level meeting and proposed the formation of an interstate committee headed by the Additional Chief Secretary and Principal Secretary-level officers of the three States, which share contiguous forests, to take measures for mitigation of human-wildlife conflicts.

The meeting also asked the Law department and the Advocate General to look into the legal hassles in taking on troubled wild animals. It also mooted a command control centre jointly run by the Revenue, Forest and Police departments in Wayanad to coordinate measures to reduce wildlife intrusions in human habitations. 

The State Assembly has urged the Centre to amend the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 to empower the Chief Conservators of Forest (CCF) to use lethal force to liquidate wild animals that trespass on human habitations.

Early warning systems

On the backfoot, though, the Forest department says it is ready for a spike in human-animal conflicts in the summer ahead. “Early-warning electronic systems have been operationalised in the conflict zones to relay alerts on wild animal sightings to control rooms, which will be subsequently relayed through SMS alerts to all registered users after adequate physical verification. Rapid response teams have also been strengthened in various places to bolster surveillance measures,” says a senior Forest official. 

Physical barriers, including elephant proof trenches and hanging solar power fences, are also expected to augment the mitigation efforts. Jana Jagratha Samitis, people’s groups comprising representatives of local self-government institutions and forest officials, have also been convening periodic meetings every two or three months to assess threats, he says.

People are sceptical though. “Neither the Minister nor the top brass of the Forest department have paid a visit to the kin of Ajeesh to console them. For people living near forests, the struggle is solitary and perennial. But we are not giving up,” says a protester.

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