Elusive ration shop-raiding tusker Arikomban captured and relocated after month-long drama

On Saturday evening, a truck carrying Arikomban proceeded to the Periyar Tiger Reserve in the Idukki district of Kerala.

ByK A Shaji

Published Apr 29, 2023 | 7:55 PM Updated Apr 30, 2023 | 9:03 AM

arikomban

The more-than-a-month-old “Mission Arikomban” culminated on Saturday, 29 April, when the eponymous rice-thieving tusker was subdued with tranquillisers and relocated.

The mission aimed at capturing and relocating the elusive wild elephant Arikoman, who regularly raided local ration shops and kitchens of houses to feed on rice, jaggery, and salt in the Chinnakanal and Santhanpara regions of Kerala’s Idukki district

On Saturday evening, a truck carrying Arikomban proceeded to Periyar Tiger Reserve — the first among the country’s best-protected conservation reserves — in the same district.

To avoid local protests against its relocation to Periyar, prohibitory orders have been clamped on the Kumali grama panchayat and surroundings, constituting the reserve’s buffer zone.

An earlier move to shift Arikomban to Parambikulam Tiger Reserve was abandoned after intense protests by locals living close to the reserve.

Related: The elephantine problem of the Idukki district in Kerala

The capture effort

arikomban

Arikomban

Arikomban is a portmanteau of the Malayalam words Ari, meaning rice, and Komban, meaning tusker.

The elephant, with short tusks, a stout physique, and a broad skull, is reportedly aged 25.

There are unsubstantiated claims that he killed seven people besides vandalising numerous houses and shops.

The elephant, with a penchant for rice, remained elusive till early morning on Saturday despite large-scale arrangements to capture him.

The preparations included a dummy ration shop, four kumkis (trained elephants), and eight teams of more than 30 elephant experts.

Noted forest veterinarian Anil Zakaria coordinated the efforts.

According to officials, Arikomban was captured after administering tranquilliser darts five times.

The first tranquillising shot was given at 11.54 am. Though a booster shot was given at 12.43 pm, the elephant remained conscious.

It took three more rounds — administered after 2 pm — to get the job done.

“The forest officials and others have done a wonderful job. Now, the main job left is to take the animal in the truck and let it open in deep forest at a location as directed by the high court,” said Kerala Forest Minister AK Saseendran in Thiruvananthapuram.

Also read: Constant survival struggle portrayed in ‘The Elephant Whisperers’

Continued endeavours

Despite adverse weather conditions caused by heavy unexpected summer rains, the team loaded the tusker onto a lorry by around 5.30 pm after chaining and blindfolding it.

Before loading the elephant onto the lorry, veterinarians attached a radio collar to Arimkomban to track him and monitor his activities.

The location to which Arikomban would be released remained secret until late evening.

The earlier plan of the Forest Department to shift it to a kraal at Kodanad in the Ernakulam district as a permanent captive was dropped following interventions of the Kerala High Court and the Supreme Court.

When a court-appointed expert committee suggested shifting the tusker to the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve in the Palakkad district, villages close to the reserve witnessed large-scale protests by the locals.

Then the Forest Department decided to keep the relocation plan a secret with the consent of the high court.

Also read: Electric fences, poaching pose threaten Karnataka wildlife

What triggered Arikomban?

​According to elephant rights activists, Arikomban became restless after his habitat in the Idukki district was almost destroyed due to human encroachment.

Arikomban Elephant Kerala

Arikomban in Idukki. (Jomon Pampavalley)

They also termed the local-level protests the handiwork of the land mafia encroaching upon traditional elephant corridors.

However, the local protesters argued that the rice-eating tusker would threaten their existence.

According to Idukki-based conservationist MN Jayachandran, Arikomban is neither a “rogue” nor a “menace”, as projected by the vested interests.

Forest officials and a sizeable number of locals confirmed to South First that Arikomban had caused no harm to life and property in the region.

Stories of the elephant unleashing terror at night were told without adequate proof. Such narratives vilified the elephant.

A campaign was unleashed through local and social media a few months ago painting Arikomban as a dangerous elephant roaming around human settlements and killing people.

“He enters human habitats as it is hungry, thirsty, and homeless. He lost its traditional habitats to encroachment. He visits villages to find fodder and water, as nothing is left inside the forest. Climate change and human interference have made his survival miserable,” Jayachandran told South First.

“If you deplete food and water, where will the animals go? Today it is Arikomban; tomorrow, it will be another elephant. How can we continue to capture all elephants and put them in captivity? What is the state doing? Complete apathy is what we need to address. The problem is we have authorized human settlements in the forest. We need to revisit revenue records to find out who owns the land,” the Kerala High Court division bench was forced to ask on April 12 during one of the hearings​ related to the capture of the elephant.

Also read: Elephant-lovers want money-minting one-eyed jumbo retired

A governmental misstep

In Chinnakanal, land holdings were assigned to people​ ​over 20 years ago despite warnings from then Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Prakriti Srivastava that it was an elephant habitat and allowing human settlements would inevitably cause human-animal conflicts.

However, the ​state leadership chose to ignore her warning.

Now, forest-fringe villages of Kerala are paying the price of a nexus between land-grabbing realtors, politics, and corruption.

Forest Department sources told South First that the Chinnakanal-Anayirangal area was a natural wild elephant habitat till 2002, when policymakers made a grave mistake.

The then-AK Antony-led UDF government relocated 301 low-income families of tribespeople who were alienated from their landholdings by powerful settlers.

Instead of restoring their land, the government took the easy route and assigned reserve forests to the landless tribals.

Their settlement later came to be known as the 301 Colony.

Contrary to claims, only 41 people from 15 families live in the colony today. The rest have already moved out, unable to deal with the presence of many elephant herds.

Also read: Hunt on for vlogger who scared elephant to shoot drone video

What experts say

Experts say the capture of Arikomban would not solve the issue. If not Arikomban, it will be another tusker as more and more settlements are coming up near forest areas.

Other tuskers roam the area: Mottavalan, Chakkakomban, and Padayappa. The settlers claim that they, too, were creating a menace in the region.

A demand will likely be raised to capture and relocate others after Arikomban. It has been alleged that barring Padayappa, the three other elephants had killed 15 people.

There are also allegations of vested interests — the tourism lobby and the land mafia — using tribespeople and plantation workers as tools to create a scare that would help them continue their illegal activities.

Also read: Kerala debates the festival participation of a one-eyed elephant