It was around 7 am on Monday, 20 February, when Mangaluru Forest Division’s Deputy Conservator of Forests (DCF) Dinesh Kumar YK got a call on his mobile phone.
It was a missed call. When he called back, he learnt that two people, including a woman, had been killed by a rogue elephant in the Kutrapady village near Renjilady in the Kadaba taluk — 110 km from Mangaluru.
A shocked Dinesh Kumar rushed to the spot while trying to obtain permission from his superiors to capture the elephant.
On his way, he learnt that the matter had turned very sensitive in the village and the locals, including the victims’ families, had started protesting and alleging gross negligence by forest officials as they failed to protect human lives in human-animal conflicts.
Recently, a local resident named Santhosh posted a video of human-animal conflict in the Kadaba region on his YouTube channel.
However, the Aithoor panchayat development officer (PDO) took objection to Santhosh posting the video and filed a complaint with the Kadaba police, who not only detained Santhosh but also forced him to delete the video from the YouTube channel.
Soon after the death of the two people on Monday, the villagers were also up in arms against the PDO and the local administration, blaming them for the deaths.
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Irate local residents
There was a huge crowd waiting for Dinesh Kumar, with the body of one Ramesh Rai (50), who had sustained fatal injuries due to the elephant attack and then succumbed to them.
Meanwhile, a few locals were bringing the woman’s body from a hospital in Nelyady to the same spot where she was attacked by the elephant — near her house.
The incident occurred at the Konaje Reserve Forest, where the villagers have to cross the forest to get to the mainland for running their errands.
Ranjitha (23) used to go to Peradka Milk Society often, and was returning home when she spotted three elephants near her house.
The elephants had strayed into the fringes of the reserve forest, lured by the palm trees, the locals told the forest officials.
Ranjitha called her distant relative Ramesh Rai, who was busy tapping rubber trees at a nearby field.
By the time Ramesh arrived at the spot where Ranjitha said she was, the woman had already been trampled by the elephant, which now started to attack Ramesh and killed him on the spot.
According to Kumar, the tusker had ripped Ramesh’s abdomen open.
The locals and villagers were very angry, upset and panicked. They demanded that the forest officials would have to capture the killer elephant as they feared it would return.
Their second demand was that the forest officials dig elephant-proof trenches (EPTs) around their village.
As it was a sensitive matter, and the crowd was beginning to swell, the DCF assured the locals that he and other forest officials would camp at their village until the rogue elephant was captured.
Dinesh Kumar assured the villagers that he had already obtained permission to capture the elephant.
Meanwhile, the deputy commissioner of the Dakshina Kannada district arrived and consoled the families of the victims and other protesting villagers.
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The operation and the team
DCF Kumar then started to work on mobilising resources to launch the operation to capture the rogue.
Teams from Mysuru, the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Tiger Reserve (BRT) in Chamrajnagar, and Madikeri were asked to reach the spot immediately.
While a “darting specialist” was summoned from Mysuru, three veterinary doctors were called in from BRT and Madikeri.
Five domesticated elephants — Harsha, Kanjan, Mahendra, and Prashanth, led by Abhimanyu — from the Mathigodu Elephant Camp in Thithimathi and Dubare Elephant Camp in Kodagu were also brought to the Kutrapady village in Renjilady for the operation.
It was an operation that had over 100 members: Around 60 Forest Division officers and personnel along with a 45-member team that included veterinary doctors, elephant trackers, mahouts, and police personnel.
There was a total of five doctors, of whom two were from the area.
The forest officials also mobilised a team of drone pilots and thermal imaging technicians from the National Institute of Technology at Surathkal in Mangaluru for the operation.
The mobilisation of resources happened at very short notice, and the operation to capture the rogue elephant started the same day, Dinesh Kumar told South First.
The elephant trackers at work
Elephant trackers are expert elephant behaviourists, who can determine the presence and location of elephants in the forest.
They climb up tall trees and look around over the forest canopy for the movement of bushes or trees, indicating animal movement.
The trackers also use the smell of elephants, the freshness of their footprints, and the temperature of their dung to determine how far or near the elephants could be.
A few senior Forest Department officials led by DCF Kumar and the trackers inquired with the locals and learnt that there were three elephants at the spot where Ranjitha and Ramesh were killed.
The trackers learnt that one was a female medium-sized elephant, while another one was a sub-adult.
The team concluded that it was the third — a tusker — that attacked the two victims, given the nature of the injuries, the size of its dung, and the footprint circumference.
According to the villagers, the three elephants went in a particular direction of the reserve forest after the attack.
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“It was a terribly undulated terrain, and the visibility was only about 20-30 metres during the day. It was the core of Western Ghats, and entering the reserve forest for a combing operation was a slow and exhausting exercise,” Dinesh Kumar told South First.
On Tuesday evening, as day turned to night, thermal imaging technicians were engaged near the forested area to look for the larger mammals.
Thermal imaging was carried out at night and drones were used during the day to trace the elephants, but there was no sign of them on 20 February.
The next morning, the forest officials came to know from the locals that the elephants visited a nearby farm.
The team led by Kumar set out again in the direction of the elephants and continued their combing operation into the reserve forest.
On Wednesday, the team traced the three elephants to a pocket deep in the forest. However, the spot was not accessible for capturing.
“We had to be sensible in our decisions. We had to think twice even before darting the tusker. Soon after darting, the tusker was likely to run amok for about 3-4 km before it collapsed. And all the while, we would have to keep following him along with our five elephants led by Abhimanyu. If the terrain was not good where the tusker fell, it would again become a challenge for the team to bring the elephant to a main road to transport it to the elephant camp,” Kumar explained to South First.
“The pocket of the forest where we spotted the elephant family was a steep terrain, surrounded by a stony and rocky landscape. Around 5 pm, we decided not to dart the elephant and halted for the day. We just kept monitoring the pachyderms’ movements through the night through thermal imaging,” Kumar said.
“On 22 February, we came to know from locals that the three elephants were spotted around 5-6 km from where the tusker killed the two people. We continued in that direction and spotted the three elephants around 1 pm. However, the tusker had at this time gone into a den and was hiding. We could not dart the animal,” the DCF explained.
“Whenever Abhimanyu and the four other elephants would go near the den, the tusker would come charging at us and then go back into hiding. It was a very dangerous exercise, so much so that even some trackers climbed onto trees fearing that the tusker would attack all the elephants, including Abhimanyu,” he told South First.
As the team did not get a favourable opportunity to dart the elephant, they halted the operation that day, but kept monitoring the elephants through thermal imaging at night.
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Uncontrollable crowds, and a stroke of luck
By then, the news of the forest officials hunting for the pachyderm had spread to many villages in and around Kutrapady and Renjilvady, and people started coming in large numbers to the spot where the forest officials were carrying out their operation.
The police had a tough time controlling the crowd as they were busy taking selfies with Abhimanyu, who had by then become the celebrity elephant that had come to capture the rogue one that killed two people.
Around 1.30 pm on Thursday, 23 February, the team again tracked the elephants, but the terrain was again inaccessible.
“It was the fourth day of the operation, and a few team members were already running low on their hopes and confidence to capture the tusker. By then, it also had become a challenge to dart the tusker — and not the sub-adult or the mother — since all the three seemed to be of the same family and moved together,” Kumar told South First.
However, on Thursday evening, the team was fortunate to spot the three elephants very close to a main road, where it was a plain terrain. This was a chance the team did not want to miss.
Abhimanyu and his four team members were ready, and the doctor shot a tranquilliser dart at the tusker.
Almost 5-6 minutes went by after the dart hit the tusker, but it showed no reaction. However, it sat down in the seventh minute and fell unconscious.
There was very little time for the team to tie up the tusker’s limbs to the trees and then wake it.
It was guarded by four elephants — one in front of the tusker, one behind it, and two on either side — as it came to. The tusker was marched to near the main road with Abhimanyu monitoring all four elephants.
“Whenever the tusker trumpeted ferociously, the four elephants would get scared, but Abhimanyu stood his ground and made sure that the tusker obeyed the team. It was around 6 pm, when the light was gone, and the team had to march the tusker using hand-held torches and mobile flashlights. While the tusker was being marched, the forest officials also stumbled upon an old forest coupe road laid by the Britishers, which made the capturing operation easier,” Kumar said.
The tusker was then strapped using belts, lifted using a crane, loaded onto a truck, and transported to the Mathigodu Elephant Camp in Thithimathi, where it would be domesticated, a forest official said.