Jumbo issue: Learning to live with animals
The Kerala high court halted the operation and set up an expert committee to on the best interests of the elephant and the locals.
The efforts to capture a wild elephant and the debate around that have captivated Kerala. Arikomban, the rice-eating tusker (that’s why the name) aged around 40, is an inhabitant of the Anayirangal-Chinnakanal area of Munnar forests in Idukki district that has made raiding human settlements a habit.
The locals hold the animal responsible for ten human deaths -- a figure which forest officials dispute. While the forest department made elaborate arrangements to capture the elusive elephant, animal rights activists raised a furore. The Kerala high court halted the operation and set up an expert committee on the best interests of the elephant and the locals. Now, as per the panel’s recommendations, the court has ordered the jumbo’s translocation to another forest, while the original plan was to capture and train it in captivity.
The court order is a green signal to resume efforts to capture Arikomban. Still, it cannot end the debate on how to deal with human-animal conflicts, in general, and elephants that raid human habitats, in particular. Rising human-wild animal conflict is a serious concern in Kerala.
As many as 637 people died in attacks by wild animals between 2016 and 2022, and 30 were killed by elephants last year. Two elephants were captured in January this year after entering human habitats. According to local politicians, 48 people died in elephant attacks in the last three decades in the Chinnakanal area.
What cannot be ignored while people and their political leaders fuss over wild animals is how human settlements and activities in forest areas are at the heart of the problem. For example, Chinnakanal is an elephant habitat and a part of the elephant corridor extending from Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary to Periyar Tiger Reserve. It was in 2002 that the then A K Antony government settled 301 tribal families in the area against expert advice.
Many families soon abandoned their lands due to animal attacks. Besides, there are many non-tribal settlements. While the tribal inhabitants of Kerala’s forests know how to live in harmony with wildlife, the non-tribal settlers of relatively recent times see animals as menace to be hunted or captured. Capturing and relocating Arikomban can be a temporary solution, for other elephants are equally capable of wreaking havoc. The authorities should, ideally, look at relocating non-tribal settlers from core elephant habitats and restricting human activities in such areas as a long-term measure.