Two elephants are carrying a dead elephant from a river. People are bystander.

A jumbo tale

The painful death of a pregnant elephant in Kerala last week shook the entire country. In the enraged hue and cry that followed, one seemed to oversee a major issue ~ poaching, which takes the lives of hundreds of elephants every year. That an animal, so adored and revered across India, could be subjected to so much cruelty is an irony

People across India woke up last week to television images of the dying moments of a pregnant elephant in Kerala and news reports of her painful end. As the injured elephant splashed about in the river and finally her dead body was pulled ashore, everybody’s hearts went out to the poor animal. News of the painful and cruel death of the pregnant elephant in Palaghat district grabbed media attention and made headlines across the country. Apparently, the elephant had eaten a pineapple stuffed with firecrackers, which exploded in her mouth, around two weeks ago. The extensive damage to her oral cavity prevented her from eating or drinking water, leading to her eventual death.

 The incident moved people across the country as they vented their anger and remorse on social media platforms. From celebrities to ordinary citizens, from wildlife activists to NGOs, all have condemned this act of brutality in the strongest of words, demanding severe punishment to the perpetrators. Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan promised to take strict action against the offenders. “The forest department is probing the case and the culprits won’t be spared,” he asserted.

 While questions are unanswered, since investigations are underway, as to where the animal came from and whether it mistakenly ate the fruit meant to kill wild hogs or was willfully fed the explosives, what has emerged is that this was not an isolated incident. As per the forest officer serving in the area, there are plenty of such incidents of animal brutality. Given that the region is surrounded by forests, human-animal conflict is quite frequent.  As per news reports, a similar incident took place over a month back when a female elephant met with the same fate in April in Pathanapuram forest range area under Punalur division in Kollam district. The only difference was that this time it was captured on camera and widely circulated on social media.

 This incident also highlighted the dark side of wildlife ~ poaching. Since India is home to several species of wild animals, poachers are drawn to its rich wildlife. Every year, a variety of animals are killed for their body parts or meat and smuggled out. This is the story of all forests and national parks, not only in Kerala but across the country.  Elephant tusk are prized in the international market and for this reason tuskers are killed mercilessly wherever they are found. In fact, many experts state that most of the poaching attempts are later coloured as human-animal conflicts.

A little background

The region, where the 15-year-old cow elephant was killed, falls in Western Ghats and comes under Mannarkkad forest division. The entire Western Ghats, including Kerala and Karanataka, houses a fair number of elephants. As per a statement by the forest official, the elephant reached the village from the Silent Valley National Park’s buffer zone. And it died in the Velliyar river on 27 May, just 300 metres from Thiruvizhamkunnu forest section.   Following a country-wide protest, the alleged culprit of the crime was arrested. He was a rubber farmer, who claimed that firecracker-filled fruits are routinely placed to ward off crop-raiding wild animals like wild boars. As per the law, certain species like Nilgai, Rhesus Macaque monkeys and wild pigs are declared pests because they destroy human property, like crop. Unfortunately, the elephant ate one such pineapple with tragic consequences.

 People came to know about this incident from a forest official, Mohan Krishnan, who wrote an emotional apology on his Facebook page. “Sorry sister. With her mouth and tongue destroyed in the explosion, she paced around hungry without being able to eat. She must have been more worried about the health of the child inside her than about her own hunger,” he shared.  In a similar incident, a cow elephant had died a month back in the same fashion. A forest official informed a newspaper that a pachyderm was found alienated from the herd, its jaw broken. When the forest official approached it, the animal ran towards its herd. But the next day, it was again found alone. The official managed to give some treatment but the elephant succumbed to its wounds.

 Now, the big question is, why have so many animals fallen victim to human cruelty? One may also notice that habitation around forests or protected areas always tend to face human-animal conflicts. It is prevalent not only in Kerala but entire country. Locals and farmers, who live near forests, National Parks or in buffer zones, said they are always troubled by wild animals. In the case of elephant territories, including in Kerala, movement of wild elephants is inevitable.

 As per government data, in Kerala’s Western Ghats, in 2016-18, the incidents of human-animal conflict have gone up from 6,022 to 7,229. Sadly, there is no government data on the deaths of animals due to this conflict. Animal rights activists cite rising human population, depleting forest areas, destruction of natural corridors and poaching as some of the reasons for the growing conflict.  

Poaching on the rise?

The good news is that India is home to the largest population of tiger, Asian elephant, leopard and sloth bear. Given the wildlife asset, poaching is quite prevalent and elephants top the list. Once Asian elephants were widely distributed all over India but are now left in a few states. As per 2017 census, India is home 27,312 elephants, accounting for around 55 per cent of the total Asian elephant population in the world. Its dwindling numbers made the Union government accord the highest possible protection under the Indian wildlife law.

 The law prohibits hunting or trading of this species and violation can attract rigorous imprisonment or fine. However, as per a report by India Times in 2019, India has lost 429 elephants to poaching in the past ten years. Also, in the same period, 642 poachers were arrested in the entire country. Among elephant deaths, Kerala tops the list with 136 killed during this period. It is followed by West Bengal (48), Karnataka (46), Tamil Nadu (44) and Odisha (41) as the other states that had registered significant number of elephant deaths.

 Now the big question is, why are elephants killed in such a great numbers? Activists contend that mainly the male elephants are illegally hunted and killed for the ivory tusk, which is highly priced in International markets. People use the ivory to make ornaments and other decorative items, which fetches handsome sums. As per the WWF, poachers smuggled elephant tusks to countries like Japan and China via Thailand, Singapore and Philippines, where it is used to make jewellery and seals. Most of the killing takes place in the rich habitat of Western Ghats, spanning Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, as well as in Orissa and Assam.  

 Demand in the domestic market also drives poachers to kill the tuskers. Many communities in western India use the tusk to make bangles and decorative artefacts. In the North-East, elephants are killed for meat and other products like tail hair, which is said to have several curative properties.  One can thus say there is a huge commercial behind elephant poaching across India. One may well be angered by such stray incidents but unless this commercial link is broken, there can be little reprieve for an animal that is not just doted for its lovable looks but venerated as an incarnation of the elephant god, Ganesha.

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