Livelihoods at stake for Kakkayam farmers as killer gaur remains elusive

A protest meeting in front of the Forest Range Office in Kakkayam on Monday. Photo: Special arrangement

Kozhikode: Kakkayam, a picturesque village on the periphery of the Western Ghats, is gripped by fear. The villagers, mostly farmers, who cultivate rubber, cocoa and cashew on purlieus bordering the forest haven't been able to work freely ever since a wild animal killed one of their own on March 5.

Palatt Abraham, a 70-year-old farmer, was gored to death by a gaur at his farm. More than 300 acres of farmland, owned by no fewer than 60 small-scale farmers like Abraham, span the fringes of the forest en route to the Kakkayam Dam a popular tourist destination in Kozhikode district.

But since the death of Abraham, farming activities in Kakkayam have more or less come to a halt. Several villagers haven't returned to their farms for fear of wild animals. The Samyuktha Karshaka Raksha Samithi has raised a demand for compensation to the farmers, who have lost their livelihood due to the impasse.

“To be alive is more important,” says K G Jose Koyikkuthummel, one of the farmers of Kakkayam, who has planted rubber trees on 1.25 acres. “Rubber is my livelihood. But now I can't go tapping. Cocoa trees are also ready for harvest.” Jose remembers a warning from his deceased friend. “The late Abraham warned me about gaurs straying into farmlands. Sadly, he became a victim.”

For Johnson Kakkayam, who was the first to rush to Abraham's side, the routine hasn't been the same since the tragic death of his neighbour. He had carried Abraham to an ambulance. “Now we are all afraid, our day-to-day life has changed. Only a few farmers dare to go to the farmlands for tapping or harvesting. Even workers are unavailable,” says Johnson, who used to collect latex from 3 am before the incident.

Palatt Abraham, farmer killed in gaur attack. Photo: Special arrangement

Baby Thekkanathil too waits until the day breaks to collect rubber, but has realised the delay isn't good for business. “In the summer it is not good to tap rubber trees after the sun rises because the pods dry up easily and it affects the quality.” The farmers say rubber is the most viable produce in the region “because coconuts, areca nuts and cocoas are destroyed by wild squirrels and monkeys” and “other crops are destroyed by wild boars and elephants”.

According to Baby, tracts of land bought by outsiders intended for tourism projects also pose a threat to the local farmers. “Because of the threat from animals, the vast lands remain unused. The newly formed forests create another threat to our life,” says Baby.

Killer gaur remains elusive
Abraham's body had been handed over for an autopsy only after the authorities agreed to kill the killer gaur. The Principal Chief Conservator of Forests issued a shoot-at-sight order on March 7. Almost two weeks have passed, but attempts to identify and tranquilise/kill the gaur have not succeeded. A team of the Forest Department continues to camp in Kakkayam.

“It is difficult to identify the killer gaur, the search is on by our team led by the deputy range officer,” said DFO U Ashique Ali. The Forest Department said it was using a Thermal Imagery Drone camera to track the animals. “We have spotted a herd of gaurs. But they are calm. Once they see us, they run toward the forest. The nature of an attacking gaur is different, it may charge at us. We think the killer gaur and the one which attacked the visitors at Kakkayam Hydel Tourism Centre two months back are the same. That's the one with an attacking tendency. It strayed near the Kakkayam Dam site areas before, but now it's missing,” Ali said.

Protesters refuse to back off
On Monday, the people of Kakkayam led a march to the Forest Range Office demanding security for their lives from the wild animals. Members of farmers' organisations, the church and political parties attended the march. The Youth Congress Mandalam Committee has announced a reward of Rs 10,000 for one that shoots the killer gaur.

Meanwhile, the local church has decided to move its Easter prayers (March 31), usually held post-midnight, to 7 am. The parish has also altered the route of its Way of the Cross procession on Good Friday. The procession led to a hilltop used to take a path along a road toward the Kakkayam Dam.

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