Elephant's death in Kerala

An elephant's death and an unsavoury campaign against Kerala

Print edition :

The elephant standing in a stream in Kerala's Palakkad district.

WORLD Environment Day this year was marked by uproar in Kerala over the death of a pregnant wild elephant on May 27 following reports that it had been cruelly ensnared using some fruit filled with explosives, after which there was an attempt by some prominent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders and a section in social media to give a communal and political slant to the tragic incident.

The elephant’s death came to light on May 30 after Mohan Krishnan, a Section Forest Officer with the Kerala Forest Department, wrote an emotional note on his Facebook page narrating the animal’s last moments in the Velliyarpuzha, a stream passing through Ambalappara village in the Mannarkad forest division in Palakkad district.

The officer, who was part of a team that tried to save the elephant, described how the animal had stood in the stream for over two days seeking relief from pain, after being injured in an explosion triggered by a bait she had bit into while wandering from the Silent Valley forests in Palakkad in search of food.

The crude explosion caused serious injuries to her jaw, mouth and tongue and she had wandered about writhing in pain, eventually seeking reprieve by staying immersed in the cold waters of the stream before she died on May 27. The elephant was reportedly unable to eat or drink for nearly two weeks and was extremely weak, and her wounds were filled with flies and maggots.

With their natural habitats shrinking fast, wild animals frequently enter farmlands that encroach into forest areas. It is a common practice among local cultivators to use traps to kill wild boars and pigs that raid crops. There are frequent complaints from cultivators about animal attacks on crops, fences and property. Larger animals such as deer and elephants too fall for the bait when they come in search of food.

Following early reports that some persons in a Kerala village had “fed” a wild elephant with pineapple stuffed with explosives, and Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar’s statement that the government had taken a “serious note of the killing”, social media went wild with comments, most of them unjustified, about “the way the so-called ‘God’s Own Country’ was treating its animals”.

In one of her many controversial statements on the incident, seemingly under the mistaken impression that it took place in the Muslim-majority Malappuram district, former Union Minister and BJP leader Maneka Gandhi said in a TV interview: “Malappuram is very famous for incidents like this. It is the most violent district in the whole of India. It is not only the killing of elephants that Malappuram is famous for. It is also, for instance, in their panchayats… they will go and throw poison at random on the roads so that 300-400 birds and dogs died at one time (sic)....They will hit women. There are political conflicts in which they have cut off people’s arms. It is an extremely violent area.”

Describing the State Forest Minister as “one who does nothing” and a chief wildlife warden as “useless”, she also said: “There is one elephant killed every three days in Kerala.”

Her earlier tweet described Malappuram as “an area of intense criminal activity, especially with regard to animals”, and she claimed that “they keep doing it because no action has been taken against a single poacher or wildlife killer”.

Together with her “call for action”, the statements resulted in a divisive hate campaign against the people of Malappuram and Kerala in general.

While describing the death of the elephant as “most painful”, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said that using the pretext of such an unfortunate incident, a concerted campaign was taking place at the national level against Kerala and Malappuram district in particular.

He said: “But the elephant died not in Malappuram but in Palakkad district. It is a baseless campaign indulged in by some people including certain Central Ministers to denigrate Kerala and Malappuram. This is not the right approach. We cannot accept attempts to question Kerala’s self-respect. We will certainly seek to find ways to reduce man-animal conflicts.  But under the pretext of this incident if someone thinks that they can destroy the acclaim that Kerala is getting for its fight against COVID-19, and spread hatred, I can only say that it will be a futile exercise.”

On Twitter, the Chief Minister assured those who reached out to the government that their concerns would not be in vain. “Justice will prevail. Having said that, we are saddened by the fact some have used this tragedy to unleash a hate campaign. Lies built upon inaccurate descriptions and half-truths were employed to obliterate the truth. Some even tried to import bigotry into the narrative. Wrong priorities,” he said.

On Friday, State Forest Minister K. Raju said that one person (a rubber tapper who set the crude explosive inside a coconut smeared with jaggery) has been arrested in the incident and two others (an estate owner and his son) were “in hiding”.

The Kerala Forest Department has registered a case under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and the police have registered a case under the Explosives Act, 1884, and the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. 

The Forest Minister said: “There are 5,706 elephants in Kerala as per the 2017 wild elephant census. Sixty-four elephants died during 2010-2020 of unnatural causes. There is more likelihood of man-animal conflicts in Kerala, [because it is] a State where human habitats are located very near forests.”

He added: “Still, the annual unnatural death rate of elephants is only 6.4, much lower than in other States. That a former Union Minister is indulging in the campaign that over 600 accidental deaths of elephants have taken place in Kerala is unfortunate.”

The Minister informed that on an average, every year, 77 wild elephants die of natural causes such as old age in the forests of Kerala. “This is not an unusual figure for wild animals that need to struggle to survive in the forests. There are 491 domesticated elephants in the State and the Wildlife Department takes care that they too are looked after properly.”

Kerala was the first to introduce a law for the protection of domesticated animals, according to him.  The State has sanctioned Rs.5 crore to ensure that domesticated animals, including elephants, did not go without food during the lockdown, Raju said.

The Congress-led Opposition United Democratic Front (UDF), in which the Muslim League is a partner, reacted sharply to the campaign linking Malappuram and the people of the district with the death of the elephant.

“The killing of the elephant is a most deplorable act. Those responsible must certainly be punished. There should be a proper inquiry. It is so surprising that people sitting in Delhi, especially Union Ministers, are indulging in a campaign to establish that something that happened in Palakkad took place in Malappuram. Maneka Gandhi claims that Malappuram is a place where such incidents take place often. What kind of disease is this? We must take a stand against their divisive statements,” Muslim League leader and MP, P.K. Kunjalikkutty, said.

The political controversy may die down sooner or later, but the poignant description by Mohan Krishnan of the last moments of the 15-year-old elephant will likely stay in the collective conscience for a long time. Here are some excerpts from the post, written in Malayalam on May 31:

“She must have known she had to stay healthy (because she was carrying a baby). That is why she came in search of food into the village that was masquerading as a forest... When the pineapple or some other fruit that she ate exploded she must have shuddered, thinking not about herself, but about the birth that was due in about 18 or 20 months….

“She did not harm even a single human being as she passed through the village in deadly pain. She did not destroy even a single house...

“When I saw her, she was standing in the Velliyar river, with her face and trunk bent down… her stomach was lean… and she looked emaciated and tired...  She must have been dipping her head underwater to ward off flies and maggots from her wound. It was our duty as forest officials to bring her up and give her treatment…. We got a plan ready within a single night to lift her up from the river.  Two kumki elephants, Surendran and Neelakantan, arrived to lead her out of the river… All arrangements were ready. But it seems she had some sixth sense. Without letting any of us do anything, on the evening of May 27 at 4 p.m. she attained jalasamadhi (death), just like that, while standing in the river. We were all shocked... and how quickly did the two kumki elephants gauge what had happened. They were shedding tears. I felt the river boil when those tears fell into it....A river’s protest against man’s greed....“We had to give her a fitting farewell. For that, we lifted her into a lorry and took her into the forest. She lay frozen in the very soil on which she had played around all through her childhood and days of youth. I was with the doctor who did the post-mortem examination….He told me in a faltering voice: ‘She was not alone.’ Though I could not see the doctor’s expression under the mask he was wearing, I understood the sadness in his voice. I could gauge the pain in it. We made a pyre and cremated her there itself. As the fire received her body, I bent my head down before a mother’s heart. I had only one thing to tell her, on behalf of all human beings who now stand perplexed before even a micro-organism such as coronavirus… ‘Sister, forgive us’.”

The rescue team realised only later during the post-mortem that the elephant had been pregnant. And, while trying to portray a false image of the State and launch their obnoxious campaign against Kerala, the critics sought to focus attention only on the deeds of a few people that led to the elephant’s death—and ignore the outrage against it within the State too, and the thousands there who shed a tear reading about her final moments.

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