Chief Veterinary Officer (Retd) of the state Forest Department Dr E K Eswaran and Professor (Retd) Dr Jose Joseph of the Kerala Agricultural University toured the man-animal conflict zones on behalf of Manorama. This is the third part of a series on their findings.
"Initially, the elephant broke the roof to put its trunk in to eat rice. When we strengthened the roof, it broke in through the stone wall. While chasing away, it used to flee, balancing a gunny bagful of rice between his tusks and trunk. The bag eventually gets torn and the rice will be scattered all over the ground. Neither the elephant nor us could use the rice," recalled P L Antony, who runs the shop, on sporadic attacks by the now-translocated Arikomban on the outlet.
His ration shop — ARD-17 at Panniyar at Chinnakanal in Kerala's hilly Idukki district — has been catering to hundreds of families in four colonies for the past 60 years. It was damaged by rogue tusker Arikomban 11 times between 2018 and 2023 to satisfy his craving for rice.
"The elephant raided the shop five times in 10 days from January 17 alone! Each time we had to repair the shop," Antony said.
The repeatedly bolstered walls of the shop today stand testimony to the wild tusker's assault.
It was not just rice. The elephant had rendered even 50 kilograms of wheat flour useless within seconds.
Antony had later shifted his shop to escape the marauding elephant. He has been planning to return since Arikomban has been captured and translocated; however, he has to shell out a handsome amount to transport his wares.
The ration shop at the previous location is untouched after Arikomban's translocation. The renovated shop doesn't have windows.
"Arikomban used to raid another ration shop, ARD-26, located 1.5 kilometres away. It had damaged that shop several times. He used to break in through the window there. That's why I didn't instal windows," Antony reasoned:.
According to a forest department report, Arikomban had damaged 180 buildings and killed seven people. As many as 44 people lost their lives to elephants at Thalakkulam, Sinkukandam, 301 Colony, Panniyar, Moolathara, and Anayirankara localities in the hilly region.
Forest watcher's final recce
Priya's father Sakthivel was killed by wild elephant, named Murivalan, on January 25, 2023. About two months ago, a video of Sakthivel scolding the same elephant and sending it back to the forest had gone viral on social media.
As a watcher with the forest department's Rapid Response Team (RRT), Sakthivel was a pillar of strength to Priya, as well as many others at Kozhipannakkudy locality in Chinnakanal.
Sakthivel used to conduct a recce of the plantations early every morning and posted locations of wild elephants in the WhatsApp group of residents. He walked ahead of children going to school to the main road to ensure that they did not encounter elephants.
On January 25, Sakthivel went for his routine recce but was caught in front of a raging elephant on a tea plantation. His body was found in a sitting position amid the tea trees. Murivalan might have thrown Sakthivel away with its trunk.
Shaktivel had married off his two older daughters. With Shaktivel gone, Priya became the lone member remaining in their house. It has been over six months since he was killed, and Priya has not been offered a job by the government. She was provided half of the compensation amount.
Fear grips colonies
Sinkukandam is the gateway to the 301 Colony. "Jungle law only in the jungle, how many more lives to be trampled," a banner displaced at Sinkukandam blared.
The banner is part of the remains of a mass day-and-night protest staged by an entire village, demanding the capture of Arikomban. The makeshift shed of the protesters has been removed, but the spot has several tales to tell.
Nadaykkal Sunil, 34, was trampled to death by an elephant. To the right, Mannaniyil Mariya's grocery store still bears the brunt of the jumbo fury: damaged shutter and peeled concrete.
Another wild elephant, Kalyani Komban, is still roaming the area where Arikomban used to maraud earlier. The elephant was named after Kalyani of Sinkukandam, who fell victim to the animal. (In contrast, Arikomban's penchant for rice got it the name — a portmanteau of the Malayalam words "ari" (rice) and "komban" (tusker).
Rooftop huts for survival
Man innovates to overcome adversities. Such innovations — single-room huts atop concrete houses — could be seen at 301 Colony and Kozhipannakkudy.
The rooftop huts are redoubts to escape the unpredictable jumbo fury. Whenever elephants stray into the settlement, they take refuge in the huts.
"We can't predict what an elephant in musth does. Once an elephant destroyed the kitchen. In another instance, it tried to uproot a tree onto the house. In such circumstances, we do not have an alternative other than to rush up to the terrace," Radha of Palkkulamkudy said.
This is the situation at the 301 Colony, once Arikomban's hangout. The government acquired 1,490 acres inside the forest and brought 566 people from several places, set up settlements, and named the colonies after the number of families living there, such as 301, 36, and 97.
The 301 Colony was formed after the government brought people and granted them title deeds. The residents should be compensated if they are to be evicted. There are 160 families living at Sinkukandam for four generations. They were not given title deeds due to various reasons. They are unwilling to shift without reasonable compensation.
There are more colonies, such as Suryanelli Vilakku Colony and 80 Acre, where people live under the constant fear of wild animals.
"Some people are demanding that we should be evicted. They accuse us of encroaching on elephant land. Who is responsible? Aren't those who brought us here responsible for the current situation," Radha's daughter asked.
Whose safety and rights, firstly!
"Elephants have killed 43 people here. But the Shanthapara police have recorded only 27 killings. The forest department and other authorities maintain that forests rightfully belong to elephants. Our families have been here for four-five generations. Don't we have any rights," asked P N Sunil, a farmer and member of the Kerala Independent Farmers' Association (KIFA).
Sunil added that the forest department has submitted a report to the High Court saying the elephant corridors around Chinnakanal panchayat, including 301 Colony, should be restored.
The report for establishing the Anayirankal National Park has also recommended evicting people residing between Mathikettanchola and Gap Road to restore elephant corridors, he further said.
The areas mentioned in the report included BL Ravu, Tidir Nagar, Shanmughavilasam, Suryanelli Vilakku, Sinkukandam, etc. About 25,000 people, many of them holding Cardamom Hill Reserve (CHR) title deeds issued from 1903, live in these areas.
Those with and without title deeds reside here. If evicted without providing proper compensation, about 25,000 people would hit the streets in protest, the residents said.
Sunil suggested a solution to end man-elephant conflicts: Enough flora for elephants to forage on should be grown inside the Mathikettan Shola National Park.
"Mathikettan Shola already has 3,000 acres for 18 elephants. What would the authorities do if the land acquired by evicting people is inadequate for elephants," he asked.
Dr Jose Joseph said the rehabilitation of people at places including 301 Colony is unscientific. 'Group farming' and 'group living' would have been possible if houses were constructed in clusters as a colony and farmlands were brought together. Now there are isolated houses.
It was announced when the colonies were allowed here in 2003 that they would be made organic villages. Nothing happened beyond the announcement.
An enumeration of wild animals should be carried out and excess animals that the forests cannot hold should be culled as in foreign countries, he further said.
'Right of way for both man and beasts'
The population of wild animals in the hilly regions will keep increasing. Constructing walls and bursting firecrackers to keep elephants inside the forest is good. But it's not permanent since the animals will overcome the impediments, warned Dr E K Eswaran.
All elephants could not be tranquilised and translocated. A permanent solution should be found in consultation with the farmers in the affected areas, he urged.
The former Chief Veterinary Officer of the Forest Department also suggested opening of elephant corridors to sources of water, like rivers. Farmlands on either side of the corridors should have electric fencing. If farmlands are to be acquired for providing elephant corridors, farmers should be adequately compensated.
The forest, revenue, panchayat, and agriculture departments should come together for a coordinated effort to acquire land, rehabilitate people, and provide decent compensation, Dr Eswaran stated.
The state should adopt the model that the National Highways Authority of India follows. The NHAI compensates for the property and livelihoods, and hence people do not hesitate to part with their land.
The view that elephants and other animals are the private property of the Forest Department should change. They should be the collective responsibility of the departments mentioned above.
Local self-government institutions, ward committees, and people's committees should take up the construction and maintenance of electric fences along elephant corridors. If the hanging electric fences are maintained properly, elephants won't cross them. It will ensure the rights of both elephants and people. It is the solution, Dr Eswaran concluded.