It is said that, when misfortune strikes, it does not come alone but in a series. Even as the nation is facing one of the worst ever pandemic in living history, we have witnessed a series of disasters including the devastating cyclone hitting Odisha and West Bengal and a less virulent one last week in Mumbai and surrounding areas. But to my mind, an equally terrible disaster was the ‘murder’ of a six month pregnant wild elephant that strayed into the Mannarkatt forest ranges in the Palghat district of Kerala from the Silent Valley National Park last month. Investigations are still going on and at least one man has been arrested. There is no clarity yet on what exactly was used to make the elephant bite the explosives. Initially it was believed that the explosives or powerful crackers were hidden inside a pineapple and later the investigating agencies said that it could be a coconut with jaggery. It is said that elephants love sweet things and can even smell it. Whatever may be the cause we know according to the post-mortem report of the body that the mouth and tongue of the elephant was severely damaged as a result of which for days together it could not eat anything and died of starvation. It was a painful death inflicted by heartless men. Like terrorists and poachers such miscreants have no community or religion. It is unfortunate that there was avoidable political controversy between certain elements at the centre and the state government which I feel was unnecessary.
I have termed the killing of the elephant, gentle, friendly, useful and harmless, as a disaster and it indeed it is a disaster for the fragile environment of the country. We are moving towards an environmental disaster. The story of the elephant’s death has come out even as we were observing World Environment Day on June 5 with the theme ”Biodiversity” is significant. Killing of wildlife affects even the very existence of humankind. On the occasion of the World Environment Day the United Nations defines “Biodiversity” in these words: ”Biodiversity is the foundation that supports all life on land and below water. It affects every aspect of human health, providing clean air and water, nutritious foods, scientific understanding and medicine sources, natural disease resistance and climate change mitigation. Changing or removing one element of this web affects the entire life system and can produce negative consequences. Human actions including deforestation, encroachment on wildlife habitats, intensified agriculture, and acceleration of climate change have pushed nature beyond its limit”. [www.un.org/en/obse]
So the killing of the pregnant elephant is not just an isolated case but an indication of lack of concern for animals and what we are doing to nature.
According to some estimates of 2019, one million pants and animals were at the risk of extinction; we have lost at least 571 species since 1750. Vultures had disappeared from the Delhi skies. Sparrows, which almost were a nuisance when I moved to Delhi in 1981 are hardly seen these days. I am tempted to quote one of the versions of a letter supposed to have been written by the Chief of the Suwamish tribe to the U S president, when the U S government wanted to buy land from the Red Indians. “Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is it to say goodbye to the swift pony and the hunt? The end of living and the beginning of Survival.”
The animal-man conflicts in forest lands and farms all over the country are a reality. In many cases the land used for farming are illegal possessions alleged to be acquired or encroached, using political and bureaucratic connections and heavy corruption. It may also be added that according to reports illegal cultivation of cannabis or ‘Ganja’ is also rampant in these forests in high- altitude districts like Idukki. These cannabis planters with criminal backgrounds possess arms besides destroying virgin forests for illegal cultivation of cannabis are also a threat to wildlife. Such criminality therefore might have resulted in the killing of wild animals including elephants.
The collective consciousness of the nation was hurt leading to widespread condemnation for the ‘murder’ of the elephant. The elephant may be one of the largest mammals but once the wild ones are tamed, they are gentle, friendly, useful and harmless. In Malayalam all elephants have names like Keshavan, Padmanabhan, Ramachandran, etc and are referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she’; the pregnant elephant who died has been referred to in news reports as ‘Vinayaki’. Unlike other animals, temple elephants are given a funeral according to Hindu religious rites. I remember reports of how people protested when tyres were about to be used for the funeral of a dead temple elephant till it was announced that only wood will be used. So, an elephant is not just an animal but a person.
The elephant is a symbol of people’s cultural heritage and is also considered a revered being with linkages to Lord Ganesha, considered ‘Vigneshwara’ or remover of obstacles. All ceremonial occasions have the auspicious presence of the elephant. After the rather stringent implementation of wildlife protection laws, poachers and jungle thieves generally do not target elephants for their invaluable tusks. Children especially are attracted by the elephant not just because of their enormous size but also because the elephant has given our children great joy and provides entertainment. How could anyone so brutally kill such a lovely animal?
Animal rights activists may consider it cruelty and question the whole process of catching wild elephants which involves a surfeit of cruelty and violence. Further taming them, training them, employing them for heavy manual labour [used in tree-cutting by Forest departments and private contractors in the lucrative timber industry], entertainment industry [ circus, tourism, cinema etc.] for religious/ceremonial occasions and of course used by armies in ancient days-all considered violation of animal rights and violence against animals today.
It is even more tragic that the elephant was killed in Kerala, the land of temple festivals and church feasts which have elephants in all the pageantries and processions. The world famous Pooram festival in the Malayalam month of Medam in the Vadakkunnathan temple in Trichur is an annual fixture for thousands of tourists from home and abroad. One of the biggest attractions is the beautifully caparisoned elephants. In the Feasts [observed on the commemoration day of the patron saint of the church] of traditional Syrian Christian churches in Kerala have the ceremonial presence of elephants. For example, Our Lady of Fatima at St. Mary’s Assumption [Catholic] Church, Kottekad , near Trichur in Kerala, celebrates its Feast with elephants. As children we were thrilled to see elephants during the annual Feasts in our Orthodox Churches. The ten-day Chandanakudam festivals in Mosques like Beemapalli in Trivandrum and elsewhere and Petta Thullal before a mosque by devotees of Sabarimala Ayyappa in Erumeli on the way to the hill shrine in Kerala have the ceremonial presence of a number of beautifully caparisoned elephants. I have no hesitation in saying that elephants are part of the religious and cultural milieu of Kerala as an integrating factor. It is therefore painful to see an un-seeming controversy following the death of the elephant in Palakkad.
The severest punishment must be given to those who were responsible for the killing of the pregnant elephant. Excuses like the target was not the elephant but the wild boars which destroy crops of farmers cannot reduce the severity of the crime. Man is indiscriminately killing animals to satisfy his greed causing irreparable damage to biodiversity. In the process the cruelty to animals knows no limits. Man kills elephants for its precious tusks, tigers for their skin and for the alleged medicinal properties of certain parts of their body.
Despite stringent laws and vigilant animal rights groups, both wild and domesticated animals are subjected to cruelty and violence and we need a better understanding of our animals and environment. Is it not man’s duty to protect both? I happened to meet an animal rights activist at a seminar on child rights a couple of years back. He works with equine rights and said how human rights are intertwined with animal rights and how the child of a brick kiln worker playing with his donkey was beating the animal just for nothing. The worker had not been paid his wages for quite some time and hence the whole family was in distress. Human exploitation and injustice can disturb our relationship with animals. Think of young children throwing stones at dogs on the street or some other children trying to stone and kill frogs in ponds and wells. I have noticed that many elders who watch such scenes desist from correcting and reasoning with such children. Such children therefore consider cruelty towards animals as normal human nature and such childhood attitudes continue as they grow up.
We really need to educate our young people to care for animals and our fragile environment and work for social justice.