With Kerala’s LDF government approaching the Supreme Court on Saturday, 15 April, saying it is not able to find a suitable forest home for the elephant Arikomban — as directed by the Kerala High Court — the safety and survival of the wild tusker that raids ration shops for rice hangs in the balance.
In its petition, the Kerala government has said human habitations or agricultural lands surround most of the state’s forests, and that the high court-ordered relocation, based on the recommendations of a court-appointed expert committee, is impractical.
It also said in its petition that no relocation that provoked public protests is possible.
The Arikomban story so far
Following intense protests by locals in Chinnakanal near the hill station of Munnar in Idukki, where Arikomban (ari is rice in Malayalam and komban means tusker) roams free and occasionally raids ration shops, the government last month set out to capture the elephant so as to confine it to the Kodanad Elephant Camp in Ernakulam district.
However, when some elephant lovers brought the matter to the attention of a division bench of the Kerala High Court on 29 March, the court prevented the Forest Department from tranquillizing the elephant and keeping it captive forever at the Kodanad camp.
It then constituted an expert committee to find places where Arikomban could be relocated.
After studying the situation in different forest regions of the state, the committee advised relocating Arikomban to the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve, spread across the Palakkad and Thrissur districts, where hardly any human-animal conflicts exist.
In addition, the well-protected reserve has enough fodder and water to support the pachyderm, which became restless after its habitat in Idukki was almost completely destroyed by human encroachment.
However, a massive protest erupted among people living close to Parambikulam, especially residents of Muthalamada grama panchayat in Palakkad, against shifting Arikomban there.
The protesters argued the rice-eating tusker would end up posing a threat to their existence.
Matter back in high court
The issue reached a dead end with local MLA K Babu leading the agitation from the front, and even approaching the same high court bench against shifting the elephant to Parambikulam.
The division bench then directed the Forest Department to find a suitable location for relocating Arikomban within five days.
The court warned that the elephant would be shifted to the same Parambikulam area after the stipulated time if no alternative was found.
It was then the Forest Department decided to approach the Supreme Court.
The government stance
Though the Supreme Court is yet to take any decision on the matter, developments so far clearly indicate that Kerala’s Forest Department prefers to stand with agitating settlers rather than champion the rights of an animal in distress.
They also suggest the government prefers permanent captivity for Arikomban, disregarding the findings of the expert committee and the high court bench, as it fears protests by locals wherever the elephant is relocated.
“Implementing the Kerala High Court order means confronting the local communities. We don’t want to provoke the local farming communities. The government will act as per the advice of the Supreme Court,” Forest Minister AK Saseendran told South First.
Asked why his government approached the Supreme Court instead of filing a revision petition in the high court, Saseendran said the legal opinion was that the division bench would not retract its early order.
All set to capture Arikomban
Meanwhile, Arikomban roams free in Chinnakanal and its surroundings, blissfully unaware that his freedom could soon be completely curtailed.
Forest officials in Chinnakanal and its interiors like Cement Palam remain are fully prepared to capture and shift Arikomban to Kodanad if the Supreme Court so orders.
The preparation involved a dummy ration shop loaded with rice and other provisions. Four kumki, or trained, elephants — Vikram, Surendran, Kunju and Surya — are camping nearby to force Arikomban into submission.
In Kodanad, about 100 km from Chinnakanal, a kraal, or a wooden enclosure, has been readied to confine and train Arikomban to obey humans.
Eight teams of more than 30 trained people are camping in Chinnakanal in Munnar to tranquillize, capture, and take him to Kodanad. In addition, 71 senior forest officials are on duty in the locality.
The message is clear: The government and the settlers will not allow Arikomban remain in his home.
Protests by locals
Apart from the accusation of raiding ration shops for rice, Chinnakanal locals also allege Arikomban, aged around 35, has killed 12 people — an allegation that is yet to be proven, according to the Forest Department, but is the basis for the protests against him.
According to Forest Department insiders, the protests against Arikomban’s relocation were unexpected.
As in Chinnakanal, residents of Muthalamada had also created blockades causing severe traffic problems. MLA Babu was the focal point of the protests. In the writ petition filed before Kerala High Court, Babu argued that Arikomban was habituated to straying into human settlements to raid ration shops.
If relocated to Parambikulam, it would damage ration shops and provision shops in Muthalamada Grama Panchayat.
But the division bench, after hearing experts, dismissed the MLA’s arguments as unfounded fears. It also dismissed his argument that translocating the “unruly” tusker would upset the ecological balance within the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve.
The court also said those who live on the edges of forest reserves have no right to decide on the nature and character of wildlife being relocated.
According to Idukki-based conservationist MN Jayachandran, Arikomban is neither a “rogue” nor a “menace” as projected by the vested interests.
The elephant, with short tusks, a stout physique, and a broad skull, raids local ration shops and kitchens of houses to feed on rice, jaggery, and salt.
Forest officials and a sizeable number of locals confirmed to South First that Arikomban has caused no harm to life and property in the region. Stories of the elephant unleashing terror at night are told without adequate proof.
Such narratives have 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.
“It enters human habitats as it is hungry, thirsty and homeless. It 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.
Politics, corruption and land-grabbing
“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 authorised 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 12 April during one of the hearings.
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. Today, contrary to claims, only 41 people from 15 families live in the colony. The rest have already moved out, unable to deal with the presence of many elephant herds.
The high court has enquired about the possibility of relocating the remaining tribal families to safer places.
Incidentally, the Forest Department submitted an affidavit before the court, saying relocating the remaining families would provide a lasting solution.
Elephants will inevitably frequent the corridor as it is the way to the Anayirangal Dam, which holds adequate water even in summer.
Protests by non-tribals
Incidentally, not all the protesters are tribespeople. There are a set of non-tribals who, over time, have taken over the land assigned to tribe members in both Anayirangal and Muthalamada.
They thwart any relocation move by creating the impression that it is impractical. Even in 2006, there was an official move to shift the tribal families to revenue land in Vallakadavu and merge the existing colony and its surroundings with the Chinnakanal sanctuary.
The Anayirangal colony remains the major obstruction in the elephant path stretching from Anamudi Tiger Reserve of Tamil Nadu and Parambikulam in Kerala to Periyar and Mathikketan Shola in Idukki.
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 allegations by 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.
In the past six months, local politicians said these tuskers destroyed 128 houses in the Munnar region. Towards the end of January, forest watcher G Sakthivel, 48, was trampled to death, and Arikomban has been accused of murdering the elephant expert.
The blame was put on Arikomban based on circumstantial evidence. He was sighted in the area before Sakthivel’s death.