Thiruvananthapuram: The three young Kerala tuskers that had completed a three-month intense 'kumki' training at Mudumalai Elephant Camp in Tamil Nadu have been put on the job right after their return. One of them, 14-year-old Surya, has already been sent to the Palakkad border to tackle the wild elephant menace there.
"The other two tuskers (Surendran and Neelakantan) were to have accompanied Surya. But we suspect they are in 'musth'. So, at the moment, they have been held back at Muthanga," said N T Sajan, the Wayanad wildlife warden. Muthanga sanctuary, in Wayanad, will function as the base camp of the Forest Department's 'kumki unit, the elephant's equivalent of a commando unit. "They are under observation right now. If the veterinarians testify that they are not in 'musth', then they too will be trucked to Palakkad. Or else, they will join the mission a month later," Sajan said.
Kumki's deadly swagger
Surya's presence seems to have put forest officials in the Palakkad circle at ease. "Ever since the tusker began patrolling the border with Tamil Nadu, we have not had a single wild elephant incursion in the border areas," Palakkad DFO Narendra Nath Veluri said. But the DFO soon gets realistic about his admiration. "We cannot precisely say so because the border was silent for five days before his arrival," he said. Palakkadan villages along the border like Malampuzha and Kalladikode are highly vulnerable to surprise wild elephant raids.
At the basic level, the presence of 'kumki' elephants, like that of black cat commandos, is expected to function as a deterrent. "Their very strut along the border is enough to scare the wild elephant away. Kumkis are trained not to be afraid," DFO Veluri said. A kumki elephant always wins the battle of the nerves. "Whenever a wild and a kumki comes face to face, the wild one, especially if it is a bull, will be the first to back off," Veluri said. The pheromones the kumki elephant releases, the scent of its dung and urine, all of this together, would keep a wild jumbo, the dangerous bulls especially, from daring to come anywhere near.
Even if a wild jumbo dares, kumkis are trained to subdue them in very subtle ways. These elephants were trained by skilled tribals who employ ancient techniques perfected during a time when elephants were revered as supernatural beings.
Elite jumbo unit
Wayanad wildlife warden Sajan said that the jumbos had returned thoroughly transformed after the training. “There has been a marvelous change,” is how he put it. “Earlier they had not allowed even their mahouts to climb over them,” Sajan said. Their mahouts, two for each of them, were also given training at Mudumalai.
It is true that after training, they will not be as free as their brothers in the wild. Nor would anyone subject them to the kind of controls that domesticated elephants are. "They are now admirably disciplined," Sajan said. These tuskers seem to have acquired the stiff, almost robot-like discipline of the armed forces or those in pursuit of extreme sports.
"A daily schedule has been drawn up for them, right from the morning bath to the time it retires for the day. It is already in their system. We just have to provide them all that is required at the appointed time," Sajan said. They will walk a lot, drink and eat a lot, and rest a lot. "After training they know what to do. Even during patrol, mahouts never push them or command them to do anything. If they want to graze longer, they will. If they want to rest, they will. These elephants do things the way they want to", the Palakkad DFO said. After its daily patrol, Surya returns to the temporary elephant camp at Dhoni in Palakkad.
Elephant whisperers and percussionists
The state was desperate to have a 'kumki' unit. There are at least 18 areas in the state where human-elephant conflicts have been reported. It has been officially estimated that there has been agricultural losses with Rs 5 crore as a result of wild elephant menace during the 2017-18 fiscal alone.
The Forest Department picked three tuskers from three of its elephant rehab centres - Neelakantan, 17, (Kodanad), Surendran, 18, (Konni), and Surya, 14 (Muthanga) - to be trained as the state's first batch of 'kumki' elephants. Besides young age, the height of the beasts, their strength, and also the length of their trunks mattered in their selection. They are among the 37 wild elephants that the forest department had taken custody of over the years. "More elephants will now be trained as kumkis," wildlife warden Sajan said.
The tribal trainers in Mudumalai mostly use whispers, strange percussive sounds (by tapping on trees, stomping on the ground, and also with their mouths), and also mimicry (they do a variety of elephant sounds like rumbles, snorts, grunts, and trumpets, and also the sounds of other beasts). The tribal handlers will have sticks in their hands but they use it only rarely, that too for just a mild admonishing tap.
The training but has a violent phase, the 'mental toughening' phase. Trained kumkis will be let loose on the greenhorns. The trained 'kumkis' will physically harass the greenhorns, testing their strength and staying power. They will rush at them, poke them with their tusks, lash them with their trunks, and will generally push them around. In a month, if the elephant selected is of the right kind, it will start to withstand the bullying. All the three young tuskers proved they were made of stern stuff. "Some of the bullies, we were told, refused to go near them after a point," Sajan said.
(The word 'kumki' is a derivative of the Persian 'kumak', meaning aid. A 'kumki', essentially, comes to the aid of a wild elephant in deep distress. The Persian connection is also an indication that the 'kumki' system was in vogue from time immemorial. It is also widely believed that a starry-eyed Persian traveller like Al Beruni might have given such elephants this name.)