On February 17, 2023, one hour past midnight, the natives of Santhanpara, a forest village in Kerala’s Idukki district, woke up hearing the noise of a building being crushed. The ration shop in the locality was crushed into pieces. The villagers witnessed the whole thing helplessly as anyone making any noise would have likely been attacked.
This is not a piece on any crime story and the ‘villain’ who comes in the wee hours to attack the ration shop is not a thief either. He is a wild elephant locally known as ‘rice tusker’. He often comes to human settlements and targets ration shops. The elephant takes one or two sacks of rice after breaking the walls and roof of the shop and vanishes into the forest. He has been a habitual offender in targeting ration shops for 10 or more years and thus was given the name ‘rice tusker’ by locals.
The ration shop broken by the rice tusker in the wee hours of February 17 belongs to Ameer who has been running it for 30 years. He told Outlook that the shop has been attacked by this tusker 15 times since 2020. Ameer’s shop is located in the Harrison Malayalam Estate in Idukki, one of the oldest tea plantations in Kerala.
“This elephant has attacked the ration shop five times since last year. Every time, I have to shift the sacks of rice and other grains to some other place and reconstruct the shop. Couple of times, I got the aid of Harrison Estate to rebuild the shop, but I had to do by my own later,” said Ameer to Outlook, adding that he had a loss of around Rs 2 lakh by repeated attacks by the elephant.
Ameer has not reconstructed the shop after the attack in February. He has not received any aid from the government till date.
Ameer’s shop is not the only target of the rice tusker. Antony runs a ration shop in Panniar Estate which is part of Harrison Malayalam Plantations. His ration shop was attacked 11 times since 2018 till January 2023. In January alone, the tusker bulldozed the shop five times.
Antony, like Ameer, has not reconstructed the shop after the last attack on January 27. On that night, rice tusker broke the walls and got inside. The roof of the tiny shop also was broken when the tusker entered.
“He took two sacks of rice by the trunk and went back to the forest. Though the people see the tusker coming the breaking the shop, nobody can do anything. If someone makes noise, he would turn violent,” Antony told Outlook.
Ration shops are not the only targets of Rice tusker. The small houses belonging to the tea estate workers also are subjected to his attack. Several houses have been fully or partially destroyed by him. He comes to the back ide of the house, demolishes, the kitchen and takes rice sacks away.
Idukki District of Kerala has several such wild elephants having pet names according to their character. Jackfruit tusker is called so because he comes to human settlements to pluck jackfruits. According to the villagers, he does not like fallen fruits, but prefers to pluck fresh ones from the trees. ‘Padayappa’, who is often seen on the roads of Munnar, the hilly tourist town, is as fearless as the South Indian superstar Rajinikanth and has been thus given the name of his character in the 1999 Tamil movie. Padayappa often comes to the Munnar town to walk through the national highway and push fruit stalls on the roadside. He is a fruit eater not scared of human presence.
However, all these tuskers have the history of taking the lives of many and destroying crops. During 2018-22, 105 were killed by wild elephants in Kerala, according to the state wildlife department. A closer look at the data also shows that the death toll is only on the rise. The number of persons killed in 2018 was 20 and the same in 2021 was 27. The uproar among the people and the high alert at the local level by people’s collectives had some impact in 2022 as the number slightly came down to 23.
The latest in this series of deaths is that of Shakthivel, a 48-year-old wildlife watcher in Devikulam forest division. On January 24, Shakthivel was on duty in a tea estate in Santhanpara to guard the school-going children in the nearby tribal settlements from the attack of wild tuskers. It’s suspected he was attacked by a herd of elephants. An elephant and a calf were seen in the tea plantation and Shakthivel’s scooter was found lying on the ground. His body was found in the plantation after three hours of search.
Two months prior to Shakthivel’s death, a video of Shakthivel had gone viral on social media. In that video, Shakthivel was seen scolding the Jackfruit Tusker who had come towards the road. Shakthivel ordered him to go back. The elephant looked at him and slowly turned back and vanished into the forest. However, Shakthivel later told the media that he was not appreciated by his bosses for what he had done because the public would think that the wild tuskers would listen to people and the people might imitate what he had done. However, two months post the viral video, Shakthivel lost his life in a suspected elephant attack.
Though the panchayats such as Santhanpara, Chinnakkanal, and Suryanelli, the worst hit areas in Idukki, are part of Munnar wildlife division, there are several elephants that live in non-forest areas such as in plantations and grass fields. According to Viji, the range officer of Devikulam forest division, there are around 20 elephants that often wander around the plantations and human settlements in addition to the herds that come out of the forest causing the loss of life and property. The people living in plantations and forest borders go through sleepless nights, share alert messages through WhatsAapp groups day and night regarding the presence of the elephants, and use torches and fire crackers to scare away them.
“The man-animal conflict is as old as the history of the mankind which is very much part of the evolution,” said Arun Zakkaria, Chief Forest Veterinary Surgeon specialised in darting wild animals.
Zakkaria holds the view that the expansion of human habitation into the wildlife habitation is the fundamental problem that needs to be addressed in a rational and scientific manner.
“Selective culling is one way of addressing the problem. Culling is not necessarily killing the animal, but bringing it into captivity and providing the animal the wildlife habitation in designated places,” said Zakkaria.
Zakkaria does not encourage killing of the animal whatever be the circumstances. He also recommends conflict mapping.
“There is a need to do the mapping of the conflicting animals which is an exercise of spotting the nature of the conflict based on time and space,” said Zacharia, arguing that sustainable and comprehensive solutions based on such studies are to be evolved.
Populist decisions leading to chaos
The human-elephant conflict in the Munnar wildlife region has escalated since 2003 for a particular reason. The then Congress-led UDF government provided land to 300 odd tribal families in the Anayirankal dam site in this region which used to be a natural habitat and corridor of elephants. This resettlement programme was the result of a 45-day-long struggle by Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha, the tribal organisation demanding land.
The struggle had turned blood as police firing caused the death of five people. The then Chief Minister AK Antony decided to allot land for 301 tribal families in the Anayirankal dam site after ignoring the contention raised by the then DFO who warned the government that encroaching elephant corridor would be deadly. The place is known as 301 Colony since then. Around 35 people have been killed in elephant attack in this region since 2003.
Majority of the tribal families, who were shifted to 301 Colony left the place. They either went back to their native places or shifted to some other place. Now the government is considering reversing the decision by relocating the remaining families to safer locations and converting the area into an elephant sanctuary. However, a wrong decision taken 20 years ago caused heavy loss of life and property and resulted in the complete disruption of the harmonious co-existence between human beings and wild animals.
The data shows that the number of wild elephants in Kerala used to show a steady increase. The stringent rules against hunting wild animals and the strict implementation of the same play a major role in increasing the elephant population. According to the 2011 census, Kerala has 7,490 wild elephants. This figure was 4,286 in 1993, 5,737 in 1997, and 6,965 in 2002 respectively.
On the contrary, the spike in human-elephant conflict has also led to the death of elephants over the past few years. According to the figures provided by the forest department, 64 elephants were killed either by being electrocuted or after being hit by vehicles or by the explosion of fire crackers that are used by farmers to scare away wild animals.