Panic in human habitations: New villain on the block?

Wild gaur, which is often treated as a non-risky wild animal, has suddenly emerged as a dreaded beast. The presence of the animal is now sufficient to trigger fear and panic in human habitations close to forest areas.

Updated - May 26, 2023 08:44 am IST

Published - May 25, 2023 07:54 pm IST - KOCHI

Purathel Chacko, a septuagenarian of Kanamala, near Kottayam, was scanning the headlines of a newspaper on his veranda when he heard a shuffling sound a few yards from his home.

He never knew he was dicing with death when he stepped out of his house. Death came in the form of a wild gaur that came charging down. The animal struck a fatal blow with its horn before Chacko could run for cover. He was the second victim to fall before the beast last Friday. In the early hours of the day, the gaur gored Thomas Antony, 63, to death at his rubber plantation. 

The day turned out to be the bloodiest in the recent history of human-wildlife conflict in Kerala as one more person fell prey to a gaur attack. Samuel Varghese, 64, of Ayur near Kollam, was the third person to be killed by a gaur on the day.  

A few days later, Vellappankunju, 55, was seriously injured in another case of gaur attack at a tribal colony, near Kuttampuzha, in Ernakulam district. 

Wild gaur, which is often treated as a non-risky wild animal, has suddenly emerged as a dreaded beast. The presence of the animal is now sufficient to trigger fear and panic in human habitations close to forest areas. 

Irate residents of Kanamala blocking the Erumely-Pampa route in protest against the death of two persons by a rampaging wild gaur.

Irate residents of Kanamala blocking the Erumely-Pampa route in protest against the death of two persons by a rampaging wild gaur. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The four back-to-back cases of gaur attack have put the Forest department and the State government on the back foot as the incidents triggered waves of unrest in different parts of the State.

The gaur-human conflict evolved at a time when the Forest department had partially succeeded in addressing the issue involving Arikompan, a tusker that habitually raided ration shops for feeding on rice, by translocating the animal. 

Casualties from human-wildlife conflicts involving wild gaur are considered rare in Kerala. There have been cases of a few forest officials perambulating the habitat of the muscular species encountering them. However, the species stands accused along with others, including elephants and wild pigs, when it comes to crop raids. 

Also read: Wild gaur triggers panic at Chalakudy

Data with the Forest department on human-wildlife conflicts in the past three years indicate that gaurs account for only one death during the 2017-18 period while three persons each were injured in 2017-18 and 2018-19. However, instances of crop loss and property damage caused by the animals show an increasing trend in the past two years. While 58 such cases were reported during 2020-2021, it went up to 75 in 2021-2022. Three deaths and three cases of injury were also reported last year. 

The State authorities as well as wildlife experts are at a loss to explain the sudden increase in gaur attacks that have taken place in human habitations. 

A section of the Forest officials say the animal, which killed two persons, appeared to be on a panic run to save its life. The possibility of the animal getting frightened following a poacher attack is also being probed. However, there is no confirmation of the theory until now, say officials.

R.S. Arun, Chief Conservator of Forest (High Range Circle), says there has been no history of conflicts involving gaurs in the region. This animal appears to be scared and shaken and running away from some sort of risk than in an aggressive mood as seen in a video footage of the unfortunate incident. It might have attacked the two men whom it encountered on its path, he says. 

Also read: Catholic Church locks horns with LDF over wild gaur issue

Forest watchers tracking the animal after the attacks say it initially moved to the Ranni forest area and then further into the Periyar forest. The animal is unlikely to return to human habitations, says Mr. Arun. 

Some wildlife experts opine that the population of the species may have gone up significantly in the forests, forcing them to raid farmlands and habitations. The absence of predators to keep the gaur population under check can be one reason for their increasing population. Though tigers are known to prey on the calves of the species, gaurs form less than 5% of the prey base of big cats. Kerala is yet to have an updated database on the gaur population, they say.

“Incidents of gaur attacking people are extremely rare in Kerala. A few years ago, a wildlife researcher was seriously injured in an attack that took place in a grassland. Renowned conservationist E.R.C. Davidar was once attacked by an animal as he tried photographing it,” says K. Sankar, a former faculty of the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, and a specialist in wild gaur. 

Like other wild animals, wild gaurs charge at people and other animals when they feel threatened. Gaur attacks have been reported from human habitations near Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu. Studies reveal that loss of grasslands, the natural habitat of the animals, and the spread of weeds in their habitats have contributed to the increasing instances of attack, says Dr. Sankar, who had also served as director of the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, Coimbatore. 

Kerala needs to map the locations of recent cases of animal attacks. A population estimation of the species has to be carried out and the threats to its survival analysed, he says.

M.A. Predit, wildlife researcher, survived a harrowing attack by the animal eight years ago to recount his close encounter with death. “I suffered a deep wound in the abdomen as the gaur speared its horn into me and threw me away. My spleen was ruptured and four ribs were broken in the attack that took place at Karaimala Gopuram in the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve,” he says. 

“A few of us were out on fieldwork in the grasslands as part of a research project. We suddenly ended up before a huge gaur. The animal, which may have encountered a human being for the first time, shook its head sideways as a sign of confrontation. It came charging. There was little time to respond,” he says.

Also read | Lack of data, studies hinder efforts to check man-animal conflicts: Zacharia

“Some of the foresters feared that I might not survive the attack. It took 10 gruelling hours to reach a hospital as the accident took place in inaccessible terrain,” he says.

Marimma Sunny, president of Erumely panchayat, where the present gaur attack was reported, says the animals have been forced to forage in human habitations as they lacked adequate food in forest areas. The conversion of forests into plantations has denied them food and water. The authorities should take steps to plant herbage that form part of their feed. Steps for creating waterholes in forests shall be undertaken, she suggests.

The authorities should undertake planting of such saplings on World Environment Day rather than planting saplings on walkways and other areas. Though there have been instances of cattle lifting by tigers in the area, gaur attacks are something unheard of. No one knows from where the animal appeared and what caused the attack, she says. 

The solar fencing laid along forest fringes has become non-functional and the trenches have became shallow, she says. 

The Forest department’s decision to tranquillise the troublemaker and not gun it down has not gone down well with the organisations of farmers and a section of the Church. The government moved in quickly to cool tempers by handing down half of the compensation amount immediately to the survivors of the deceased and stepping up vigil in the area. 

With instances of human-wildlife conflict claiming lives and damaging crops and properties, the State needs to evolve a mechanism to address the perennial issue effectively, rather than resorting to ad hoc measures, caution wildlife experts. 

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