Saga of rice-loving tusker continues, relocated Arikomban captured again — this time in Tamil Nadu

Dear to many, the around 35-year-old tusker was tranquilised in Theni, and taken in the direction of Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve.

ByVinodh Arulappan

Published Jun 05, 2023 | 8:28 PM Updated Jun 05, 2023 | 8:28 PM

Arikomban captured again

Wild elephant Arikomban did not offer much resistance when kumki (trainer) elephants forced it onto an open truck at Chinnaobulapuram village near Cumbum in Tamil Nadu’s Theni district early on Monday, 5 June.

The around 35-year-old tusker looked weak and tired, a deep gash visible on its trunk.

The Tamil Nadu Forest Department tranquilised it when the animal had strayed into the village. It ran some 100 metres after being hit by the first dart and slowly went into sedation between 4 am and 5 am. Forest officials bound its legs, brought in three kumki elephants, and ferried it out of the village.

It was the partial culmination of an operation that was launched on 27 May. Unlike in Kerala, it was smoother and devoid of media cacophony.

On 29 April, the Kerala Forest Department captured Arikomban near Cement Palam at Chinnakanal, a neighbourhood of prominent tourism destination Munnar. Even under sedation, the tusker gave kumki elephants a hard time, at times even trying to attack them.

Arikomban was translocated from Chinnakanal to the Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR) — some 105 kilometres from his home and herd — following complaints of the animal raiding homes and ration shops for its favourite food, rice.

Its penchant for rice got the jumbo the name Arikomban, a portmanteau of Malayalam words ari (rice) and komban (tusker).

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

A dangerous move to town

After its release in the PTR, the majestic animal refused the food provided, and water mixed with medicines. It explored the forest and later went to Meghamalai in Tamil Nadu.

Arikomban Elephant Kerala

Arikomban before being captured from Chinnakanal in Idukki. Photo: Jomon Pampavalley.

The radio-collared elephant was sighted near the 10th hairpin bend on the Cinnamanur-Megamalai Highway within the Srivilliputhur-Megamalai Tiger Reserve on 8 May.

The Theni district administration made Meghamalai out of bounds for tourists, and with the help of the Kerala Forest Department, kept a tab on its movement.

The Kerala forest officials often lost signals from the radio collar as the beast moved under the thick foliage.

On 26 May, Arikomban ambled into the outskirts of Cumbum taluk, sparking a belief in Kerala that it was returning home to its herd. But it was not the case. It did not cross Mathikettan Shola, as was widely anticipated.

A team of five veterinarians under Dr Kalaivanan was deputed to monitor the tusker’s health. Further, 23 elephant trackers were deployed to monitor its movements.

On 28 May, Arikomban moved to the Koothanachi reserve forest, and the forest officials prevented the elephant from entering the human habitat.

However, the next day, it entered Cumbum town. Constant honking of a truck’s horn and a drone that flew overhead scared the elephant, which ran through the town, creating panic. A 56-year-old man, Balraj, who fell from his two-wheeler while fleeing the elephant, suffered head injuries. He died on 30 May.

However, a video recorded by an unknown mobile-phone user showed the elephant ignoring an old woman trapped on a shop verandah.

Meanwhile, in Kerala, several people demanded Arikomban be returned to Chinnakanal. Protest rallies were taken out pressing for its return. Sabu Jacob, the managing director of Kitex Garments approached the High Court of Kerala for an order to bring the animal back to the state.

The high court rejected his petition on 31 May, asking if Arikomban was the chief coordinator of Twenty20, a political outfit that Jacob promotes.

Related: Arikomban captured and relocated after month-long drama

Protest against translocation

After spreading havoc in Cumbum town, Arikomban retreated to the Chinnamanur forest.

The injury on the trunk of Arikomban (Supplied)

The injury on the trunk of Arikomban (Supplied)

Meanwhile, Theni District Collector RV Shajeevanam promulgated prohibitory orders under CrPC 144 in the town till the animal was captured. The Forest Department brought kumkis Suyambu and Muthu from the Top Slip in Anamalai Tiger Reserve to capture Arikomban.

On Sunday, 4 June, it moved towards Chinnaobulapuram. Veterinarians fired four tranquiliser darts and captured the elephant. It was then taken to an undisclosed location.

Later, the open truck — or the Wildlife Ambulance as it was called — was seen moving towards Tirunelveli in a convoy under the blazing sun. The convoy stopped at several places, and fire trucks brought water to cool down the animal.

Forest officials later said that the elephant was being taken to Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR), spread over the Tirunelveli and Kanniyakumari districts.

Once the destination was known, people living in villages abutting KMTR took out protest rallies against releasing Arikomban there. They expressed fear that the tusker might stray into the residential areas in Manjolai. They also blocked the road. Revenue officials and the police were holding talks with them as this report was being filed.

Related: Tussle over Arikomban reaches Supreme Court

Animal activist moves court

Even as the media broke the story of Arikomban’s capture, a Kochi, Kerala-based animal rights activist Rebecca Joseph filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Madurai Bench of the High Court of Madras.

The petitioner requested an order to return the elephant to Kerala to facilitate treatment of its injuries. She contended that the elephant was ill.

During the hearing, the court directed the Tamil Nadu Forest Department not to release Arikomban into the forest on Monday.

However, in the afternoon, the Forest Department officials explained the scenario to the court that the elephant had already been captured and transited to KMTR.

Recording this, and taking into account of the elephant’s health, the court allowed the Forest Department to release the elephant on Monday itself at the designated place at KTMR.

The case has been postponed to Tuesday, 6 June, for further hearing.

Concern over frequent sedation 

Animal activists have raised concerns over the frequent changes in the habitat of the elephant and its health as it has been tranquilised too often.

Arikomban being captured and loaded into a lorry on the wee hours of Monday (Supplied)

Arikomban being captured and loaded into a lorry on the wee hours of Monday (Supplied)

On 29 April, it was given six tranquiliser shots in Kerala based on its weight. On Monday, at least four darts were shot. Most of them were boosters.

The activists also claimed that there should be a two-week “washout period” between doses.

Speaking to South First, Dr, Kalaivanan said that the elephant was tranquilised based on its weight.

“The effect of the medicine will remain for up to four hours and the remaining sedation will be there for up to 24 hours,” he said.

“It has been already 30 days since the elephant was tranquilised in Kerala. There won’t be any remnants in the elephant’s body and not even a trace of the sedative could be found after a month. Hence the sedation will not affect its health,” he said.

Kalaivanan also said that the elephant was doing well and its health would be monitored even after its release.

Related: Wildlife vet Zachariah on conservation and human-animal conflict

Not many options

Responding to the concerns on the frequent change of habitat of the elephant, Antony Clement Rubin, an animal welfare activist, and member of the state Wildlife Board said freedom should be ultimate and uncompromised for both humans and animals.

“If the animal is not translocated, the next option is to keep it in captivity. We will not just leave the elephant in the forest. We (the Forest Department) will be monitoring it, and its movement and health will be studied,” he told South First.

On Arikomban’s injuries, Rubin said the wild animals have a natural ability to heal wounds.

“The elephant will be released only after the medical team approves its fitness. If there is any life-threatening issue to the animal, the veterinary team will provide it treatment and it will be released only after regaining health.”

Rubin said the exact location where Arikomban would be released was being kept under wraps because the public would not allow translocation.

“It will disrupt the entire process. For the safety of the elephant and people, we have kept the location a secret.”