Ration shop raider, jackfruit lover: The elephantine problem of the Idukki district in Kerala

Elephants like Chakka Komban and Ari Komban are giving sleepless nights to people in the Munnar-Devikulam region.

ByK A Shaji

Published Feb 04, 2023 | 8:00 AMUpdated Feb 06, 2023 | 8:55 AM

Ration shop raider, jackfruit lover: The elephantine problem of the Idukki district in Kerala

Residents of the Santhapara and Chinnakanal grama panchayats, bordering the famous hill station Munnar in Kerala’s Idukki district, now have a strange daily routine.

Most youngsters of both the panchayats, for several weeks now, have been beginning their day by plucking and disposing of as many jackfruits — which are abundant in the whole locality — as they can.

This is jackfruit season, and the heady aroma of ripe jackfruits attracts a wild tusker with a strong addiction to it.

Locally nicknamed Chakka Komban (jackfruit tusker), the elephant always forays into forest-fringe farmlands to relish the fruit.

After relishing the jackfruits, the tusker engages in crop-raiding and scaring the local community, which has been at the receiving end of human-animal conflicts for a long time.

Now, the village feels the only option left before it is plucking and transporting out maximum jackfruit.

The jackfruit connoisseur

The elephant Chakka Komban. (Jomon George)

The elephant Chakka Komban. (Jomon George)

Most farmers are also cutting and removing the branches of jackfruit trees on their land to avoid the chance of them bearing fruit next season.

“Jackfruits once ensured us a steady income. There were many buyers from outside for the seasonal fruit, which was abundant in our locality. Now, forest officials advise us to remove branches of all jackfruit trees to keep wild elephants away. Farmers are ultimately the losers,” said ME John, a medium-scale farmer of Chinnakanal.

Some farmers are plucking and selling jackfruits when they are grown without waiting for them to get ripped. “Ripe jackfruits fetch more price than raw jackfruits,” said V Sasankan, another farmer of the locality.

For people in the Munnar-Devikulam belt of Idukki, Chakka Komban is among the more than a dozen aggressive wild elephants that attack people — even without provocation.

“If he went away peacefully after relishing jackfruits, we might not have been bothered. But this tusker destroys crops and attacks people often. This elephant has injured at least 18 people in the last three years, some of them seriously,” said Sasankan.

According to Santhanpara village panchayat president Liju Varghese, there is an equally dangerous rogue elephant in the locality, and it is known as Ari Komban or Rice Tusker.

It has the habit of regularly targeting ration shops in the two panchayats and eating the maximum amount of rice.

Threat to life and property

According to elephant expert PS Esa, these jumbos have a strong penchant for food materials like jackfruits and rice.

He said a tusker in the Valparai forest region of Tamil Nadu used to destroy ration shops to eat rice.

Ari Komban

The elephant Ari Komban. (Jomon George)

In the case of Ari Komban, it recently attacked a house where some ripe jackfruits were kept.

The wall of the house collapsed and fell on 38-year-old estate worker Rajeshwari and her seven-year-old daughter Kokila. They had a providential escape from the accumulated debris. The attack occurred at around 1 am on 28 January.

According to Assistant Conservator of Forests Shanti Tom, the Rapid Response Team was working round the clock to chase back the tuskers to the forest. However, they refuse to return as forests lack enough fodder for them.

According to Devikulam MLA  A Raja, Ari Komban eats whatever is available in the ration shop, including rice, sugar and wheat.

In the last 15 months, it has attacked a particular ration shop at Panniyar 10 times and eaten whatever was available there.

Also read: Why a 5.8-km stretch of B Line track in Palakkad is a death trap

The threat from Ari Komban

Local grama panchayats have passed resolutions urging the state’s Forest Department to capture and relocate the animals immediately.

“Over 500 families of estate workers and tribals depend on my ration shop. During each attack, the tusker eats whatever food products there are. The elephant attacks the shop normally in the evenings. So I keep its shutters down during the evenings,” said shop owner PL Antony.

Local people say the tuskers destroyed over 128 houses in the Munnar region in the last two years. Their attacks were seasonal and mostly in the post-monsoon months.

Just during the last week of January was a temporary forest watcher — known for scaring away wild elephants — trampled to death by a tusker.

Nobody knew which elephant had killed 48-year-old G Sakthivel, a watcher known for his expertise in chasing away the elephants.

Besides Ari Komban and Chakka Komban, many elephants roam the area, providing sleepless nights to the local community.

Sakthivel was posted in his native to facilitate the safe movement of school students from the tribal settlement of Kozhippanakudy.

Almost every day, the local community organised protests demanding a solution to the human-wildlife conflict.

They included a regular blockade of the Kochi-Dhanushkodi National Highway at Thondimala near Santhanpara.

Also read: Kerala plans to sterilise wildlife from the air; experts sceptical

Possible solutions?

The elephant Padayappa. (Jomon George)

The elephant Padayappa. (Jomon George)

According to Essa, capturing and relocating is an arduous task. Compared with Wayanad and Palakkad, where elephants were captured in recent days, Idukki has undulating terrains, and they pose a challenge. The Anayirankal dam in Chinnakanal is another spoiler.

There is the risk of drowning as tranquillised elephants can easily enter the water in dams. The area has many small hills, and sedated elephants might face death if they fall from any of them.

Forest officials said they started efforts to capture Ari Komban six years ago, but the efforts have been in vain.

According to statistics, 42 people died in elephant attacks in the Munnar-Devikulam stretch in the last 13 years.

Officials cite habitat destruction as the root cause of the prevailing elephant attacks in the region. In many elephant corridors, private individuals obtained land rights by fudging documents.

At least 38 elephants are trapped in an area — cut off from the rest of the forests — because of fragmentation, and they often engage in crop raids during food scarcity, said forest officials.

Fences erected by estate owners are also worsening the situation in areas like Pondimala, Chinnakanal, Munnar, Chinar, Sinkukandam, Adukidannapara, Udumbanchola, Chellarkovil Mettu, and Mathikettan.

Earlier, forest patches in these areas had direct links with the Periyar tiger reserve, and elephants used to move through the path.

The Forest Department had constituted 25 elephant squads in the region, and they chased the elephants away mainly by bursting crackers.

But now, the department officials are of the view that some forest fringe villages need to be relocated as they pose a threat to elephants which are using their traditional migratory path.

Now, Forest Minister AK Saseendran has deputed Wayanad’s celebrated veterinary surgeon Arun Zacharia and an expert group to look into the possibility of tranquillising and relocating the troublemaking elephants.

The minister has told him to capture at least Ari Komban and Chakka Komban, along with celebrated crop-raiding tuskers Mottavalan and Padayappa. The team will soon reach Idukki.

Related: Kerala Forest Department names captured rogue elephant Dhoni