While the state was ravaged by the August floods, a great escape seems to have occurred deep inside its forests.
Hundreds of landslides inside forest areas had let loose high velocity water currents loaded with rocks, trees and boulders. The Geological Survey of India (GSI) reported over 1,000 landslides in forests falling under Palakkad division alone.
Large swathes of forests were flattened. Yet, according to the Forest Department, the animal death toll was a mere 16.
A single landslide in Kozhikode's Kattippara Village in June this year had killed 14 people.
Among the 16 dead wild animals are two tigers (reported from Periyar Tiger reserve), eight wild elephants (four deaths reported in Periyar Tiger Reserve, and two each in Wayanad and Malayatoor forests), two bisons, one each of sambar deer, porcupine and peacock.
A king cobra was also found dead in Thattekkad Rehabilitation Centre.
“These figures are based on the reports filed by the district rapid response teams after the floods, and so are more or less accurate,” said assistant conservator of forests (intelligence) R Sivaprasad. These animals were mostly found washed up near the reservoirs, Sivaprasad said.
Wildlife activist M N Jayachandran said the relatively low death toll inside the forests was not a surprise. “It has been scientifically observed that animals in the wild are more alert to an impending natural disaster. When the tsunami struck Andaman Islands in 2004, wild animals had climbed up the hills to the safety of the top,” he said.
It perhaps was this understanding of animal instinct that had prompted the Animal Husbandry Department during the recent floods to ask people to free cattle and other domestic animals that have been kept tied.
“All animals that were freed before the water rose somehow managed to remain safe,” said Jayachandran, who is also the secretary of the Idukki Society for the Prevention of Cruelty towards Animals.
He said animals that were killed in the floods were the ones caught unawares.
“I was at the post-mortem of one of the tigers found dead inside the forest. The prey it had devoured was fresh inside the tiger. It meant that the tiger just had a heavy meal and was resting when it was caught in the floods. A heavy meal subdues even a tiger for a while,” he said.
Can animals predict man-made calamities?
Wildlife expert P S Easa said that at least two of the wild elephants killed during the floods were straggler calves that had got lost from the herd. “Only the weak among the wild animals, calves or wounded adults are normally swept away by the floods,” Easa said.
Easa, however, did not ascribe the low death toll this time to the highly evolved instincts of animals. According to him, there were not many landslides inside the forests to cause widespread damage. However, official figures contradict Easa's statements.
The Forest Department has said that landslides had occurred in 300 locations inside the forests during the recent floods. (The GSI's figure is in the thousands.)
Easa is also not sure whether animals in the wild could predict the debris flow that happens as a result of landslides. “Earthquakes and volcanoes, they can sense. But not landslides, which is more man-made than natural,” he said.
Lessons from Sariska
There are other reasons why experts consider the death toll trotted out by the forest department to be suspect.
T V Sajeev, principal scientist at Kerala Forest Research Institute, said that the figures were an attempt gloss over the catastrophe.
“These figures are put out by forest field officers, and not the result of any detailed study. One of the lessons of the Gadgil Committee report is that the state should not take the reports of field officers as the golden truth,” Sajeev said.
He was referring to the Sariska tragedy mentioned in the Gadgil report. Every year, the official claim was that Sariska reserve had over 20 tigers. Problem was, not a single one of them could be sighted. So in 2005, after the Tiger Task Force was formed, the shocking truth was revealed. There were no tigers left in Sariska - all of them were poached.
Sajeev said that the low numbers could also be the result of official negligence. “Reporting a wild animal death requires a slew of elaborate procedures like the preparation of the 'mahasar' and the FIR. During the floods when the state was too bothered about its own survival to think about what was happening inside the forest, the staff might have found it convenient to ignore some of the deaths,” he said.
Nonetheless, intelligence ACP Sivaprasad said that the department had no idea of the deaths of small animals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and insects inside the forests.
“It is virtually impossible to collect data on the number of mongooses, squirrels, frogs, dragonflies, and butterflies that had vanished in the floods,” he said.