ON MAY 30, Palraj, a 57-year-old resident of Cumbum in Tamil Nadu, became the latest victim of Arikomban. The rogue wild tusker had been captured by the Kerala government from Idukki district in April and released into the Periyar National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary close to the Tamil Nadu border. According to its radio collar, the elephant crossed forest ranges and, on May 27, entered densely populated areas of Cumbum resulting in chaos and the fatal attack on Palraj.
Official records said Palraj was Arikomban’s eighth victim. But residents of Idukki say the tusker’s victims are in the double digits. Estimated to be 35 years old, it got its name because of frequent raids on shops for rice (ari means rice and komban is tusker). It has been causing trouble in Idukki, a high-range district that is a hotbed of human-wildlife conflict, since 2005. Apart from the people it killed, it destroyed 60 houses and shops.
After calls for its relocation intensified, the state forest department ordered its capture on February 21. The original plan was to tame it to be a captive elephant. But this was opposed by animal rights activists, leading to a legal battle. Ultimately, the court ordered the government to collar and release it. Since being released, Arikomban has crossed forest ranges in Kerala and Tamil Nadu multiple times. The media has portrayed its movements as an attempt to “return home”. But Dr Arun Zachariah, the Kerala forest department’s chief veterinary surgeon, who led the team which relocated Arikomban, criticised such labelling. “Where is home? The Western Ghats were a continuous landscape of elephant corridors,” he told THE WEEK. “That entire system should have been considered home.” Forested areas of the Ghats are now heavily fragmented by human settlements.
India currently has more than 700, mostly disjointed, protected areas. However, 70 per cent of elephant ranges, 40 per cent of lion ranges and 35 per cent of tiger ranges are outside protected areas, according to a 2021 report by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the UN. Ecologist Madhav Gadgil said the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, has enabled an atmosphere where wild animals can invade human habitations with impunity. He explained the optimal foraging theory in ecology, which states that animals try to maximise nutrient intake while minimising time, effort and risks.
“[My colleague] R. Sukumar has shown that even if elephants have the option of obtaining food in forest ecosystems, they invade agricultural areas and forage on crops which provide a much greater amount of nutrients for a given effort,” he said. “Because of the Act, many wild animals have learnt that they can invade croplands or humans habitations as people will not resist them.” He called the Act unconstitutional as people needed official permission even to drive out marauding animals.
Human-wildlife conflict has reached alarming levels in states across India. People being killed by animals, retaliatory killing and subsequent imprisonment of the killers have become distressingly common. For instance, on May 26, a leopard was cornered and beaten to death with sticks and stones by villagers in Madhya Pradesh’s Khargone district after it attacked and injured a man. In response, the authorities said that action would be taken against all responsible.
In Maharashtra, human-wildlife conflict led to the death of 86 people in 2021 and 105 in 2022—a sharp increase compared with the last decade when average human deaths were around 40. Experts said the increasing population of wild animals, like big cats, owing to effective conservation efforts, combined with the changing landscape of the corridors where these animals live because of human activity, is causing more deaths. In the Vidarbha region, this has manifested as increased tiger attacks; in the Konkan, the conflict is between elephants and humans.
Moreover, elephants from Karnataka and Goa, too, are coming to Maharashtra as the elephant corridors in those two states have shrunk. They enter Maharashtra from the Tillari forest region and as the area offers excellent food and water sources, they keep returning. The region did not have elephants earlier. They started entering from Karnataka and Goa after 2000.
Sunil Limaye, former principal chief conservator of forests, Maharashtra, said the state has paid about Rs450 crore in the last 10 years towards compensation for deaths and other losses. “We pay Rs20 lakh for death,” he said. “But, compensations have to be paid immediately, otherwise people get angry.” Limaye said it was important to have mitigation measures when the government constructs linear projects. “Linear projects always divide forests, affecting corridors of wildlife movement,” he said. “Measures implemented for the Samruddhi Expressway are good and should be replicated for all linear projects.”
In Kerala, human-wildlife conflicts have led to the death of 718 people since 2017. Wild elephants and wild boars caused the maximum fatalities. The insecurity faced by farmers living near forests has led to new farmers’ groups. Alex Ozukayil, chairman, Kerala Independent Farmers’ Association, said a wild animal protected under the Wildlife Protection Act was protected outside the reserved area, too. “Our demand is that the place of occurrence be considered,” he said. “If the attack happens in the forest, the offender is the human. But when the attack happens in a human-inhabited space, the human is the victim.” KIFA was formed to “resist the negative campaign against farmers” in 2020 after a pregnant elephant died as a result of eating an explosive-filled pineapple (used to keep boars off fields).
Ozukayil said the term human-wildlife conflict was a misnomer. “[It is no conflict]; wild animals are attacking unarmed farmers,” he said. “There were around 9,000 gun licenses in Kerala. But two-thirds were not renewed. There is a negative attitude towards issuing new licenses to farmers.” He said the interpretation of the Wildlife Protection Act could leave poor people defenceless.
In his 2022 speech—Pitting People Against Nature—Gadgil said that the policies for wildlife protection in independent India was driven by erstwhile Indian royals and British tea and coffee estate owners; neither group had much sympathy for ordinary folk.
Ozukayil said it was the interpretation of the Act by the state that decides people’s fate. “The Act says that killing or wounding a wild animal in self-defence shall not be an offence,” he said. “But it is the state’s discretion whether to consider an act self-defence. Last September, Gopalan, a tribal man from Idukki killed a leopard in self-defence. He is, disputably, the first person in Kerala who was not arrested for causing the death of a protected animal.”
Almost nine months after the leopard attack, Gopalan, whose left hand was severely injured, still remembers the excruciating details. “I pushed it away from my neck and stabbed it with a knife, but, it bit my hand,” he said. “Bones on my left hand broke; I still cannot go to work [under MNREGA].” He said he did not get any compensation, except for an initial amount that was paid at the hospital. “Now, we survive with the little money my wife earns.”
Kerala Forests and Wildlife Minister A.K. Saseendran admitted to THE WEEK that the compensation system was in disarray. “There are two main issues,” he said. “First, the allocated funds are insufficient. In the previous financial year, the forest department received only 25 per cent of allocated funds. In the recent state budget, only Rs75 lakh was earmarked for compensation. If a person dies, we give Rs10 lakh. If it is a grave injury, we give Rs2 lakh. Second, there is no efficient system to deliver the compensation promptly.”
Akhileshwari Reddy, a senior resident fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, said that compensations were done by government orders without specific legislation. “As a result, the compensation amount can be altered arbitrarily,” she said. “For instance, in the case of crop damage, compensation is estimated by observation. There should be a uniform national compensation policy with specific criteria.” She said that when a person is killed, at least part of the compensation should be provided immediately to cover funeral costs.
Zacharia said reducing human-wildlife conflict is not going to be an easy task. “The conflict with each species is unique and will change with ecological changes,” he said. “The problem should be identified at habitat-based and species-based levels. There is no common solution. The conflict has to be mapped in each area, and then mitigation measures have to be defined.”
Gadgil supports scientific culling. The ecologist said that no other country bans hunting outside protected areas. He said that India should emulate the Scandinavian countries which have a “rational system” based on the belief that wildlife populations are a renewable resource that must be carefully regulated.
—With inputs from Dnyanesh Jathar