Palakkad’s electric death traps 

Over the past couple of years, the human-animal conflict has increased with wild boars ploughing through fields and farmlands in Kerala’s eastern district. Abdul Latheef Naha reports on how farmers are installing electric fences that kill wildlife and people

Updated - February 08, 2024 04:06 pm IST

Published - October 12, 2023 08:58 pm IST

The police exhuming bodies of the two youngsters who were secretly buried after being electrocuted from an illegal power trap at a paddy field at Karingarapully near Palakkad.

The police exhuming bodies of the two youngsters who were secretly buried after being electrocuted from an illegal power trap at a paddy field at Karingarapully near Palakkad. | Photo Credit: K..K. MUSTAFAH

“We were too heartbroken to look at the disemboweled body of my younger brother when the police exhumed it. Can human beings be so cruel as to mutilate the body of an electrocuted youth?”  M. Ranjith wailed, over the tragic death of his younger brother Shijit, 22, along with his friend Satheesh, 24, in Kottekkad village, Palakkad district, Kerala. 

On their toes following a police case for their alleged involvement in a local brawl, Shijit and Satheesh fatally tripped on an electric trap set in a paddy field against wild boars at Karingarapully, near Palakkad, on the night of September 24. The man who set the illegal trap sought to destroy the evidence by burying their bodies after eviscerating them with a knife.

The gruesome incident, however, is not an isolated one. The number of people killed by illegal power traps set by farmers against wild boars is unsettlingly on the rise in Kerala, particularly in Palakkad district. As many as 11 people, including a 63-year-old woman, have fallen victim to illegal wild boar traps in the district since May 2022. The death of a woman, Gracy Puthanpurakkal, at Vandazhi, near Mangalam Dam, on October 4 is the latest in a series of such avoidable tragedies. Ironically, she had set the trap herself.

Living alone and looking after a tapioca field, she had drawn a powerline from her home for the trap. On October 4 morning, she unwittingly walked into it.  

“It was so sad and shocking. A woman who made a living with her old-age pension, Gracy lost her life while trying to safeguard two dozen tapioca plants from being destroyed by wild boars. Death came from an extreme necessity for her,” says Fr. Saji Joseph, coordinator of the Palakkad Karshaka Samrakshana Samiti, a farmer organisation. Gracy was also a parishioner in the church he oversees.  

According to Fr. Joseph, farmers feel they have no choice but to set these traps because of the increasing wild boar population and their perceptibly changed more aggressive behaviour. 

Proliferation and responsibility 

The numbers of other natural predators such as tigers, leopards, and wild dogs have not increased in tandem with the rapid growth of the wild boar population. Until a few years ago, wild boars were seen raiding farms on forest fringes. Today, they are seen in some urban areas as well.

In May 2022, the Kerala government empowered the State’s local bodies to cull wild boars by using empanelled shooters when the Central government turned down the State’s repeated plea to declare wild boars as vermin. But farmers complain that many local bodies are shying away from their responsibility. 

“We do not have enough shooters for this legal act of culling. Even if someone procures a gun and applies for a licence, the forest authorities put a spoke in it,” says a president of a grama panchayat in the north-eastern part of Palakkad district where human-wildlife conflict is rife. Requesting anonymity, she says the panchayat fears many complications, including legal, if it sets out on a culling drive.  

The police exhuming the bodies of the two youngsters who were secretly buried after being electrocuted from an illegal power trap at a paddy field at Karingarapully near Palakkad.

The police exhuming the bodies of the two youngsters who were secretly buried after being electrocuted from an illegal power trap at a paddy field at Karingarapully near Palakkad. | Photo Credit: K.K. MUSTAFAH

The crop loss the farmers suffer from wild boar raids results in about 10-20% loss, though farmers rarely report it. Wild boars raid farmlands in groups, ploughing through fields, rooting out the plants, and destroying crops by eating and trampling. “We are often forced to helplessly watch them. You can’t blame farmers,” says Mariamma Thomas, a farmer who settled near Palakkayam village a few decades ago.  

Farmers say wild boars used to run away upon seeing people earlier, but now they have started scaring them away. In some infested areas, rubber tappers have stopped venturing out in the early hours of the day for fear of being attacked. 

M.N. Jayachandran, an animal rights activist and Idukki district secretary of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, says that it will not be fair to blame it on proliferation without a proper census. He says the prey-predator relation should be assessed through a census. He says the agricultural style and pattern on the forest fringes have changed drastically to attract wild boars out of the forest. “Only if they remain in the forest, can they have their dates with their predators,” he says. 

Trips and traps 

Elephants and wild boars are today the most feared wild animals from the point of view of farmers living in areas close to forests. While elephant raids are restricted to certain areas, wild boars are not. “At night, they will definitely cross our path. People are advised to avoid bikes at night. Life has become tough because of these animals,” says Fr. Joseph.  

At least half a dozen people have lost their lives in the past two years from accidents caused by wild boars. “The attack is unlike other animals. Using its little tusks, a wild boar can tear us apart. It’s a formidable little creature,” says Mohammed Ali from Palakkayam, who once had a close shave with the animal. 

Although the government has given permission to erect power fence against animals by using direct current (DC) solar energisers, many farmers resort to illegal power fencing by using alternating current (AC) offered by the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB). While a DC-powered fence can give only a shock to the animal or person touching it, an illegally erected AC power fence can electrocute any living being that touches it.  

“We have taken up this issue with the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) and the police. We have increased patrolling along the boundaries and fringe areas, but it is difficult to detect this crime. We want the KSEB and the police to act strong,” says Palakkad Divisional Forest Officer Sreenivas Kurra. 

Apart from the human deaths, several elephants too have met with a shocking end at the electric snares erected for wild boars. In Attappady alone, two elephants have been electrocuted in the past two months.  

Illegal power traps have increased considerably in Palakkad over the past two years since the government sanctioned culling of wild boars. Taking the government move as a ‘licence’, many farmers started hunting them for flesh. People in the know admit that almost all traps using domestic power are meant to kill, not merely to prevent them from pillaging. Electrocuted wild boars are being consumed and this passive hunting is being commercialised, with people selling their meat.  

In some areas, particularly in the north-eastern part of Palakkad, wild boar meat is in demand in certain restaurants and toddy shops. A killed wild boar weighing between 30 and 50 kg can fetch at least ₹20,000. 

Danger ahead  

Forest officials say hunting other animals too has increased since the government permitted controlled culling of wild boars. Several cases related to hunting in the wild have been registered in recent months in the Mannarkkad forest division.

According to a senior forest officer, for every case booked, there are many that have gone unnoticed. In March this year, five people were booked at Kalladikode for poaching a fully pregnant sambar deer. Veterinary surgeon David Abraham, who led the necropsy of the four-year-old sambar, says the foetus he removed would have been birthed in just a few days.  

The illegal power traps in fields and on farmlands on the forest fringes pose a big threat to the forest staff as well, especially when they are called in to scare away raiding elephants. “It’s like walking in a minefield. We often get calls when an elephant or a herd comes out of the forest and enters human habitat. This is invariably at night. Our men run to chase them away. We shudder at the thought of those electric death traps out there,” says Range Forest Officer N. Subair.  

Fr. Joseph, who influences the people both as a priest and as a farmer coordinator, says the parish is on an awareness drive to educate the farmers about the dangers of using illegal power traps. “At all our meetings, we tell them not to resort to illegal means,” he says. However, he admits that people will find a way out, no matter how extreme, when their means of subsistence is threatened.  

Farmers admit that the human tragedies and elephant deaths will not bring an end to illegal electric traps, which are easy to install and economical for them compared to the legal solar fencing. They admit that it is for meat too. However, they insist that the authorities find a lasting solution to the increasing incidence of human-animal conflict. Trenches on forest boundaries and hanging solar fences are some of the solutions they suggest.  

But the forest authorities find them impractical. They allege that aggressive human encroachment and farming in lands adjacent to the forest are reasons to attract wildlife out of the forest. Unless the government takes the matter seriously and does something tangible by taking the farmers into confidence, the electric death traps in the fields and farmlands of Palakkad will continue to claim more human lives in the coming days, they warn.

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