Running into Jumbos in Munnar

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Despite centuries of coexistence, man-animal conflict remains an elephant in the room. The solution may lie in cultivating mutual respect.

A wild organism might well understand the language of respect and boundaries if only humans spoke it. | George Netto

Scary (at times, hair-raising) encounters with wild elephants in Munnar’s tea estates are becoming common these days. Indeed, on as recently as July 4 this year a man was viciously trampled to death by a wild tusker in the town’s environs, raising the human toll in the ever-worsening man-wild elephant conflict here to 23 over the past decade.

Elephant sightings — one of the main attractions for the multitudes of tourists visiting Munnar — are so predictable now that seldom does a day pass when my 6-year-old granddaughter doesn’t see a few on the roadside during her bus-ride to and from school. There is, of course, a specific reason for this: several arterial roads here cut through elephant corridors, hindering the free movement of the herds and — when tourists are around ceaselessly photographing them — even ‘confining’ the pachyderms to a particular area for hours on end. Time and again I’ve seen noisy and careless tourists taking ‘selfies’ with the jumbos dangerously close behind them.

Forming what are virtually ‘semi-cordons’ around wild elephants in order to view and photograph them is most inadvisable. For, should an elephant turn aggressive and try to break through, there would be a disastrous stampede of humans, young and old alike, in terrain with which most of them are unfamiliar. Further, having to wait endlessly for crowds of tourists and their vehicles to go away, so that they can move on to fresh pastures, makes the jumbos understandably restive. People seem to forget that wild elephants prefer to be on the move constantly, covering around 40 to 50 km on a normal day.

Aggravating the problem is the fact that forest cover — which provides both shelter as well as fodder for the pachyderms — has dwindled alarmingly over the years, virtually forcing them into the open. Today, tourists can often see wild elephants in and around Munnar in broad daylight even though the town has been denuded of its forest cover. In stark contrast, when I was growing up in Munnar in the 1950s we seldom saw wild elephants in the open, though we did come across fresh mounds of their droppings (sometimes still ‘steaming’) during our rambles. The reason was that the town’s environs were well-wooded then, providing suitable habitat and sufficient fodder for the jumbos who never raided local vegetable gardens or other cultivations as they routinely do now. Further, hordes of tourists who mindlessly trespass into forests disturbing the tranquility of the woods and their denizens, were unheard of then.

 

 

Sadly, tourists often behave irresponsibly with wild elephants here. In fact, I’ve seen the more boisterous among them — usually under the influence of liquor — teasing and provoking the pachyderms in a show of bravado by shouting and stoning them. This, undoubtedly, angers them and sours their disposition, making them inclined to take it out on the hapless locals they run into later or at night. It’s significant that locals account for more than 90% of elephant-related casualties in Munnar.

I’ve had personal experiences of this frightening fallout. One morning while driving down to Coimbatore a jeepload of youngsters going ahead of me mischievously pelted stones at a tusker foraging on the roadside and sped away. When I passed by minutes later the incensed pachyderm suddenly burst out of the scrub jungle and doggedly chased my car for about 100 metres, trumpeting furiously, before we outpaced it.

My daughter-in-law had an equally chilling encounter a few months back when an irate elephant, which had apparently been harassed by tourists earlier in the day, suddenly sprang out from the undergrowth flanking the road and advanced menacingly towards her car. Luckily, the driver had the presence of mind to back away fast out of harm’s way.

One unforgettable evening in October 2007, my wife, son and I had a truly providential escape. Rounding a sharp bend on a deserted stretch of road, we all but drove into a massive tusker foraging on the roadside. As startled as we were, the elephant advanced menacingly to within about 15 feet of the car. My son backtracked immediately with the colossus moving closer, somehow managing to keep the car on the narrow and tortuous road. When we had reached a fairly safe spot, he stopped and we waited for the jumbo to move off. But, quite inexplicably, it didn’t budge for the next two hours and eventually around 7.30 p.m. it was driven away by local estate workers waving lighted flares. This, too, most likely was the backlash of the tusker having been mindlessly pestered by tourists earlier in the day.

 

Most of Munnar’s arterial roads and highways are improvements or refinements of former elephant routes and tracks. Indeed, Munnar’s former British tea planters have officially acknowledged the pachyderms to be excellent road-makers.

The favourite haunts of wild elephants in Munnar are the reservoirs of the Madupatty and Anaiyarankal dams, and to a lesser extent, that of the Kundaly dam. However, these areas, which are thronged by tourists almost throughout the year (thanks to the boating facilities on offer), are too widespread and unwieldy to be effectively patrolled by Forest Department personnel. Hence, incidents of elephant attacks occur from time to time, several human fatalities having been reported over the past decade, some of them truly gruesome.

Incidentally, in a bid to increase its contingent of captive jumbos for logging operations, in 1978 the Kerala Forest Department resorted to trapping wild elephants at the Madupatty dam reservoir, using the pit method. The captives were transferred to a sturdily-constructed corral nearby where they were confined for a week as part of a ‘cooling off period’ before being trucked to an elephant training camp near Thrissur. No less than 8 pachyderms were captured in this manner, in camouflaged pits located near the edge of the reservoir so that when they swam across they virtually walked into these traps.

Traditionally, tea planters have been at the forefront of wildlife conservation and protection in Munnar and many are the tales of their elephant-friendly initiatives. At a local tea estate, a calf once blundered into an uncovered septic tank one night and was abandoned by the herd when it couldn’t be extricated. In an elaborate 3-hour rescue operation the next day, the estate manager and his workers succeeded in getting the youngster out unscathed. It quickly tottered off in search of the herd, scorning attempts to give it a much-needed bath, leaving behind quite a stink in its wake.

 

 

Another planter found a week-old calf — famished and dying — inexplicably abandoned by its mother. Reacting with remarkable presence of mind, he and his assistant quickly fed it a mixture of Farex baby food and glucose through a piece of hose, saving its life in the nick of time. Soon a veterinarian arrived on the scene and took over.

Running into an ill-tempered wild elephant on the road at night is an ‘occupational hazard’ that most locals in Munnar have learnt to face with equanimity. The trick is to allow the pachyderm ‘right of way’ by backtracking one’s vehicle to a safe distance. A risky alternative — some daredevils actually resort to this — is to dodge past it if and when its back is turned. However, this expedient has resulted in human fatalities in the past, especially when a vehicle stalls unexpectedly.

In the 1950s and 60s, a British tea conglomerate (which owned Munnar’s tea estates then) kept a .350 Rigby Magnum rifle exclusively for the elimination of rogue elephants proscribed by the Kerala Government. Local British and Indian planters, who were accredited hunters, tracked down the ‘rogue’ with the assistance of native Muduvan tribesmen and dispatched it. The hunter was permitted to retain one tusk free of cost and purchase the other, which otherwise went to the government.

In 2000, there was a blatant incident of poaching in a tea estate close to Munnar. A young tusker was shot and brutally slaughtered overnight for its tusks. The poachers were eventually apprehended and the tusks recovered. Since then several cases of elephant poaching have rocked Kerala.

“Today, only around 40,000 to 50,000 wild elephants are believed to be left in India. With several being mowed down by railway trains from time to time and many being lost to organised poaching, the number is expected to decline further.” | George Netto

In the early 1990s the craze for ivory resulted in the daring theft of a magnificent pair of elephant tusks, each measuring well over 6 feet, from a prominent planters’ club in Munnar. These had been gifted to the club by a retiring British planter and had been on display in the men’s bar for decades. Sadly, the tusks were never recovered. However, the club still sports a massive molar of a proscribed elephant.

Another little known fact is that most of Munnar’s arterial roads and highways are improvements or refinements of former elephant routes and tracks. Indeed, Munnar’s former British tea planters have officially acknowledged the pachyderms to be excellent road-makers.

Today, only around 40,000 to 50,000 wild elephants are believed to be left in India. With several being mowed down by railway trains from time to time and many being lost to organised poaching, the number is expected to decline further. Unsurprisingly, the pachyderm is listed as ‘endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Strictly herbivorous, the Indian elephant (Elephas maximus indicus) subsists on foliage, tree bark and edible plants. In Munnar and its environs the wild elephant shows a marked preference for vegetables too, such as carrot, cabbage, beetroot, beans and peas, as well as bananas and sugarcane. Naturally enough, this brings it into direct and seething conflict with local cultivators who are dismayed to see months of hard labour undone overnight by its depredations.

Thus, there appears to be no let-up in the ongoing man-wild elephant feud in Munnar and its environs — with the human toll going up steadily.

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