A recent gruesome killing of a pregnant wild elephant using a pineapple stuffed with firecrackers has triggered national outrage over how wild animals are being treated in the state that calls itself God’s own country
Kerala may be a great state to be born in as a human—it’s turning out to be a hellish place for elephants and other wildlife.
A recent gruesome killing of a pregnant wild elephant using a pineapple stuffed with firecrackers has triggered national outrage over how wild animals are being treated in the state that calls itself God’s own country.
Forest official Mohan Krishnan posted an emotional note on Facebook, recalling how he and his colleagues found the elephant corpse near the buffer zone of Silent Valley in Palakkad district on 27 May.
She was hunched over on the banks of the Velliyar river, knees bent, head dipped in water—the last desperate act of an animal rendered immobile by pain days after the bomb exploded in her mouth.
The act of cruelty is one of many such horror stories surrounding wild animals across Kerala, one of India’s greenest states and home to a deepening people versus parks conflict.
On Wednesday, it emerged that another female elephant met with a similar fate in April in Kollam district. Her jaw was smashed by a firecracker-stuffed pineapple, killing her.
Once at the heart of the state’s traditional economy and culture, care of elephants and other wildlife has become a victim of prospering forest buffer zones.
“Such bombings have become a common practice to kill wild boars. It may be purposely used against the elephant, or she may have become an accidental victim," said O.P. Nammeer, an expert on elephant conservation and professor of wildlife at Kerala Agricultural University.
“The major reason for such cases is that the natural habitat of wild animals is shrinking. Kerala is robustly protecting its reserve forests. But closer to buffer zones, encroachments are increasing, as farmers extend their cultivation unchecked."
Farmers in Kerala have taken to cultivating on fields that have been traditionally used by elephants for grazing.
Official data shows that man-animal conflicts increased in Kerala from 6,022 cases to 7,229 between 2016 and 2018, according to a 2019 news report.
“People are getting into conflicts and they resort to different mitigation methods— they put up electric fences, build trenches, or become more brutal and use a crude bomb," said Nammeer. “Cruelty apart, it is illegal. These are animals protected under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972."
The deciding factor today is the economy, not culture, he said.
“The new-age farmers are rubber barons who purchase land in fringe areas, because it is cheap. They are businessmen first, farmers second. They are not attached to the forest buffer zone in any emotional way," he said.
Conservationists cite the examples of the Parambikulam tiger reserve forest in Palakkad district. Close to it, some 200 tribal people are now cultivating rice, banana and sugarcane, but without harming wildlife.
“In market-intensive farmlands, every penny counts. And a giant mammal is a stumbling block to their ease of doing business," said Nammeer.
Public protests and rallies against tigers and elephants are now commonplace in thickly forested and farm-tourism hotspots such as Wayanad and Idukki.
Protests against wildlife conservation have also grown after the topic came to the forefront with the Gadgil Committee report in the last decade. Kerala rejected ecologist Madhav Gadgil’s 2011 report for eco-restoration of the Western Ghats after raging protests that criticized it as biased against development.
“The encroachment lobby has acquired an ideological upper hand in Kerala. When a case like this comes up, people will talk about conservation. After that, everybody forgets. Unless conservation becomes part of the political agenda, our wildlife cannot be saved," said a wildlife expert and senior journalist K.A. Shaji.
Add to this mix the nearly impossible legal ways to resolve the man-animal conflict, he said. “As per the existing law, the killing of wild boar, whose numbers have surged ahead and largely account for a big chunk of the conflict-related cases, should only take place with a single gunshot, whereas getting a gun itself is a laborious process," said Shaji.
“The presence of a forest official and a conservation activist, which Kerala does not have enough, is a must for such killings. The dead boar should then be subjected to postmortem and then set to fire and buried in a deep pit. In return for all of these troubles, the farmer’s incentive is only a ₹500 reward," he said.
“Following laws are far more expensive, while making a crude bomb is cheap and accessible, even if that puts him on the wrong side of the law. But in the forests, who is going to know? As a result, the first ‘legal’ killing of a wild boar based on the order, issued in 2011, happened only last week," said Shaji.
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