Kerala High Court orders Forest Department to relocate rice-eating Idukki tusker to Parambikulam

The order was based on the recommendations of a court-appointed Committee of Experts, which blamed the conflict on unscientific resettlement.

BySouth First Desk

Published Apr 05, 2023 | 5:07 PMUpdated Apr 05, 2023 | 5:12 PM

Arikomban Elephant Kerala

Arikomban will leave his home — and herd — for good. The Kerala High Court on Wednesday, 5 April, ordered the state’s Forest Department to relocate the wild tusker to Parambikulam in the Palakkad district from Idukki’s Chinnakanal-Sinkukandam areas.

The residents of Chinnakanal-Sinkukandam have been demanding relief from the much-vilified Arikomban, which often raids ration shops and houses for rice.

The high court ordered the relocation of the around-35-year-old pachyderm based on the recommendations of an expert committee.

The court, on 29 March, constituted the five-member Committee of Experts (CoE) to decide by 5 April whether to capture the wild bull elephant and turn it into a captive tusker or relocate it to interior areas of the forest.

The panel visited the Arikomban-frequented areas on Monday, 3 April.

Arikomban is a portmanteau of two Malayalam words, ari (rice) and komban (tusker). The elephant’s penchant for rice got it the name Arikomban.

No celebrations, please

While ordering its relocation, a division Bench of Justice Jayasankar Nambiar and Justice P Gopinath also prohibited any celebrations — clicking selfies or bursting firecrackers.

Idukki was on a boil after the high court halted the operation to capture Arikomban and keep him in captivity. (Sourced)

Idukki was on a boil after the high court halted the operation to capture Arikomban and keep him in captivity. (Sourced)

Videos of boisterous crowds had surfaced on social media after PT-7, a rogue elephant, was tranquilised and captured at Dhoni in Palakkad on 22 January.

The elephant was christened Dhoni after the village where he was captured.

Eight teams comprising more than 30 people and two kumki — or trainer — elephants have been camping at Cement Palam near Chinnakanal, around 22 km from Munnar, a famous hill station in Kerala.

The high court ordered the relocation of Arikomban even as around 50 organisations from Idukki decided to take out a rally to the court to hand a memorandum over to the chief justice. They demanded that the elephant be captured.

On 23 March, in a late-night sitting, the court stayed the state government’s decision to tranquilise and capture the tusker. The plan was to capture it on 26 March and take it to Kodanad, around 100 kilometres away, for training.

Ten panchayats opposed the order and observed a hartal on 30 March.

The court’s order had come on a PIL by two animal rights groups — People for Animals (PFA), Trivandrum Chapter, and the Walking Eye Foundation for Animal Advocacy.

Watch: 12-hour hartal, traffic blockades in Idukki

Past perfect: Natural habitat

While stopping Operation Arikomban, the court had noted that the area it frequented was part of the reserve forests 23 years ago.

The bench asked the Forest Department to explain the rationale behind allowing people to settle in an elephant habitat and putting them in danger.

​According to Forest Department sources, the Chinnakanal-Anayirangal area was a natural wild elephant habitat till 2002, when the policymakers made a grave mistake.

The then-AK Antony-led UDF government relocated 301 poor 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.

Related: Wayanad still mourns its mascot Maniyan

Unscientific resettlements

The expert committee noted that the animal-human conflict was a result of unscientific resettlements in the area.

The 11-page report submitted to the high court on Wednesday said that the area of conflict was the Chinnakanal and Santhanpara panchayats in Idukki’s Udumbanchola taluk, and precisely Anayirangal.

“As the name indicates, this area was frequented by elephant herds as habitation and as a passage,” the report, accessed by South First, said.

The CoE also noted that there were traditional settlements of Muthuvans, “who co-existed and continue to co-exist with the wild animals”.

Muthuvans — meaning those carrying something on their backs — or Mudugars are a community of tribespeople traditionally engaged in farming.

The CoE further stated that the man-animal conflict later escalated to other areas, such as Tank Kudi, Chempakathozhukudi, Kozhipannakudi, 301 Colony, Singukandam, BL Puram, Suryanelli, Pathadikalam, Chinnakanal, 80 Acre Colony, Vilakku, Nagamala, Thondimala, and Poopara.

The panel also noted that 34 people had been killed in the area by wild elephants since 2005.

Related: In defence of Arikomban — the ration-​shop raider 

Expert panel’s recommendations

The CoE mooted two possibilities to avoid the human conflict with Arikomban: One, capture, collar, and release it deep in the Idukki forests, and two, capture, collar, and relocate the animal.

“Seen from a humane address to the issue and in fairness to the fact that the animal did not come to the mischief, releasing him in his homegrown locality would have been the best option,” the panel said.

The committee considered the pros and cons of the two options “to balance the human issues in the matter”.

Releasing the animal after radio-collaring would avoid distress to the animal “on account of transportation and also the length of sedation”. It would also avoid the logistics required for transporting the beast.

Listing the cons, the committee said it would not change the tusker’s behaviour. Radio-collaring would only help in tracking its movement in advance.

Additionally, it would strain the Forest Department’s resources “for an indeterminate period” and might not address the issue.

Relocating Arikomban would help in diffusing the current situation in Chinnakanal and outlying areas in Idukki. It would also ensure the larger safety of the animal and humans.

Additionally, the animal would be in an undisturbed habitat if relocated.

However, the transportation would cause stress to the animal, besides traumatising it till the tusker gets acclimatised to the new environment, the committee noted.

Further, its homing instinct would lead it to human settlements. Additionally, people in the locality of translocation might oppose releasing the animal there.

Also read: HC to hear pleas seeking release of captured wild animals

Why Parambikulam?

The CoE said it was “of the opinion that translocation is the appropriate solution to the issue”.

It recommended that the elephant be “translocated to Muthuvarachal/Orukomban falling within the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve”.

The panel noted that the tiger reserve was a larger landscape with plentiful food, water, and natural resources required for Arikomban’s survival.

The relocated location might shape the “animal’s behaviour making it less likely to seek anthropogenic resources” and the area was “most likely” to avoid man-animal conflict.

The committee also pointed out that the state’s Chief Forest Veterinary Office (in charge) Dr Arun Zacharia has assured that his “field officers are capable of capturing the animal and transporting (it), though (it is) in musth (mating period)”.