The recent death of a pregnant elephant in the forest ranges of Palakkad in Kerala was tragic, but more tragic were the responses based on half truths that had the tinge of a hate campaign. Emotional reaction was all the more because the elephant was pregnant. Instead of trying to go into the causes and finding solutions to the long-pending man-animal conflict, it is saddening to note that efforts, under the guise of love for the wild, are being taken to create an impression that there was a big design behind the elephant’s death.
On May 27, a 15-year-old elephant died in the Velliyar river in Palakkad district and not Malappuram which assumes political and social significance. It is suspected that the elephant must have eaten some fruit stuffed with explosives, commonly used as baits to ward off wild boars that come to farm lands on forest fringes to eat crops.
According to forest officials the immediate cause of death was drowning and lung failure and its jaws were mangled due to explosion about two weeks earlier. Owing to the wound, the elephant was unable to take food and water for nearly two weeks. The post mortem says nothing about any trace of gunpowder.
Former chief veterinary officer with the forest department EK Eswaran says there is no evidence of a blast intended to kill an elephant. Even the forest department has said it is difficult to believe the claim that the elephant was deliberately fed. “It is a wild elephant and no sane person would have gone near that elephant to feed it,” was what one of the top officials said.
There was no conclusive evidence that injury to the lower jaw of the animal was caused by pineapple stuffed with crackers. However, this may be a possibility, it said.
The elephants tongue and mouth were affected. Its lower jaw was damaged. A massive blast would have led to more serious injuries, admits Eswaran.
Tales of the elephant coming out to eat pineapples, not grown in those areas, are as fictitious as the claims that elephants have a craze for anything sweet. Wildlife experts say that but for salt, elephants have no special liking for any particular flavour and can only acquire it.
Finally a case has been registered, one farmer taken into custody and hunt is on for two others who have gone into hiding.
Renowned wildlife photographer NA Naseer has vividly explained an incident that happened years ago at Masanagudi on the Tamil Nadu border where he along with wildlife enthusiast late Mark Davidar fed and took care of a similarly injured elephant that had strayed into Mark’s land. The elephant was unable to eat because of a wound and Mark and Naseer fed it, gave it medicines, gave it sufficient water and nurtured it back to health. They also named it Rivaldo after the renowned Brazilian footballer. The area used to be frequented by elephants and several of them were given names of Brazilian footballers and used to move freely in the area and even knock at Mark’s door. According to Naseer, Rivaldo too must have had a similar experience like the elephant that died in Palakkad on May 27.
Beyond emotional reactions and arguments that lack logic, the vital issue that has come to the fore is tackling the big issue of man-animal conflict that has come as a result of shrinking forests and expanding farming with an eye on profit generation on its fringes. It has been practice since long to have farming on the fringes of forests. Settlers from Central Kerala years ago moved to these forest areas, cleared lands and struggled to make a living through farming. Infringement into forest land resulted in wild animals like boars and elephants venturing into these farms. To ward off these elephants, farmers used to take turns at night and drive away elephant herds by striking tin sheets cans and making noise. This also helped in distancing wild boars which were a bigger threat as they used to wade through the farmlands and destroy crops. But that was natural and usually a part of the crop would be taken away by boars and birds.
But things changed when farming became more of a large-scale economic activity and years ago, this was also promoted by the forest department that leased out land for contract farming, resulting in electric fencing and using of explosives like the one that killed the elephant in Palakkad.
More than 40 years ago, this writer while trekking through the forest with a group of wildlife enthusiasts had to pass through a similar large tract leased out to a private party for tapioca cultivation. The trek started early in the morning, resulting in fatigue by afternoon and all of us had to reach the destination quite far away before dusk as it was risky being in the forest after sunset.
Fatigue and hunger made one among us try collecting some tapioca. Suddenly there was a blast and fortunately none was injured. But immediately a group of workers from the plantation rushed and it took some time to convince them very apologetically that we were on a trek and hunger forced us to try our hand at some tapioca. Convinced, the workers then told us that they used explosives to keep away wild boars, that are protected and come under Schedule II and cannot be killed, from plantations and we were lucky that there was no harm. They also admitted that use of such explosives was illegal.
But this tendency to use explosives has become a practice across farmlands near forests. Wildlife expert Shaju Thomas says the elephant’s death has raised the issue of management of forests and the areas around it. Wild boars have been a menace. Often with limited space for grazing, they have been venturing into farmlands. Since farming in these areas, which were once for subsistence, and have turned into income-generating businesses, such illegal activities to keep animals away have become quite common.
Wild boars straying into farmlands and not going back to forests because of easily available food has resulted in groups staying in the vicinity posing a big threat. Often with their not having to dig deep for food, their teeth, which otherwise would have been put to use, grows.
On the demand for treating wild boars as vermin and allowing them to be culled, he says that this is the practice in many developed countries as part of forest management. This is the case when the population of any species grows beyond a limit. Even the Kerala Government recently passed a law to make such culling of wild boars legal. But the issue here is that unlike in the West, as it could be misused and hunting of wild boars would become a practice.
Things should never be looked at emotionally as in the case of this elephant death which is a tragic one. It should be an eye-opener and should result in evolving a new management of forests and its fringes ensuring that man-animal conflict is minimised. But that would mean taking bold steps and should be with people's participation. Certain reactions to the elephant death were more painful as sitting in cozy environs outside the forests can make people say anything and everything as they must never have had the feel of a forest, he feels.
Worse than the tragedy of the pregnant elephant’s death was the venom-smearing attempt by a section against a people of a particular area. It was initially mistakenly mentioned that the elephant died in adjoining Malappuram known to be a minority-dominated district.
And sadly the comment that such killings happen in Malappuram came from none other than BJP leader and former Union Environment Minister Maneka Gandhi. Rightly so, a case has been registered against her for `wantonly giving provocation with the intent to cause riot’. One should be thankful to the present dispensation for not having installed her in that post.