The recent incident of a female wild elephant in Kerala falling prey to crude bait meant for wild boar sheds light on the widespread issue of human-wildlife conflict in the state. Scientifically decimating crop-raiding nuisance animals, or vermin, involves a complex and prolonged official process in Kerala. Small-scale farmers across the state are finding wild boars as a major threat to their crops and livelihood.

In the absence of easy permissible measures to ward off the threat, farmers look for alternatives that are often illegal. In a situation like this, other animals, especially elephants, become unintended targets of crude practices to drive away crop-raiding wild boars.

This was the case with the recent deaths of two wild elephants in Palakkad and Kollam districts of Kerala. Though the Palakkad incident created large scale media and political sensation globally, news of the Kollam incident was relatively lesser widespread.

“In both the incidents, female elephants that had eaten food materials stuffed with local crude bombs were brutally killed,’’ observed noted environmental activist and advocate, Harish Vasudevan.

The two elephants, one among them pregnant, were the unintended targets in the fight between local small-scale farmers in Kerala and the state’s numerically strong wild boar population.

As per statistics available with Kerala’s Forest Department, the wild boar population in the state has increased from 40,963 in 1993 to 60,940 in 2002. However, it dipped to 48,034 in 2011 largely because of habitat destruction, human interference, deforestation and climate change. As per a survey conducted by the department in 2019, the state now has around 58,000 wild boars.

Forest department officials retrieve the dead wild elephant with the help of trained elephants at Thiruvizhamkunnu, after four days of rescue attempts. Credit: P S Manoj via Mongabay

Control wild boars

When a wild boar was gunned down by forest officials on May 14, at Aruvappullam, a village that shares a border with Ranni forest range in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala, it marked the first implementation of a government order from 2014, recently amended, which permits strict and scientific decimation of crop-raiding wild boars.

Strictly adhering to the order, the crop-raiding wild boar was shot dead by a trained shooter under the close watch of a range forest officer, half a dozen forest watchers, 10 wildlife protection officials and three animal husbandry officials. Also, as mandated by the order, the local village panchayat president was present along with all the board members and a special police team was also present to keep the local residents at a safe distance.

Before gunning it down, the toughest challenge for the officials on duty was to ascertain whether the boar was a breastfeeding one or not. As no piglets were around, the team finally reached the conclusion that it was not a breastfeeding one. They also had to ensure that it was not returning to its forest-dwelling after moving around in the village. After gunning down the boar, its carcass was burnt using kerosene and the remains buried in a five-foot deep pit.

Submission of a detailed report in a prescribed format within 24 hours to the chief wildlife warden of the state marked the completion of the process. “The government has amended the 2014 order [issued in March and came in effect in May 2020] in the recent days claiming expunging of all impractical clauses,” said PT John, a farmers’ leader based in Wayanad. “Though it removed the clause of hiring a trained shooter, subsequent processes continue to be the same. Panchayat level vigilance committees can permit farmers with licensed guns to kill wild boars. But these two orders are abject failures in tackling the wild boar menace.”

According to him, “Farmers who live in the forest fringes are finding wild boars as their arch-rivals. Elephants are turning wrong targets in the clashes involving forest fringe farmers and wild boars,’’ he said.

A wild boar near an agriculture field in Palakkad district, Kerala. Credit: Ajan R Nair

Twists in the case

Meanwhile, the elephant death in Palakkad won global attention due to the angry responses from Bharatiya Janta Party’s Maneka Gandhi, industrialist Ratan Tata and a number of Indian film actors. As of the latest investigations into the case, there are some discrepancies compared to the original claims in media reports.

The veterinary surgeon who conducted the autopsy confirming that the elephant had not consumed pineapple stuffed with a crude bomb as was widely portrayed. Talking to Mongabay-India, surgeon David Abraham said the pregnant wild elephant drowned following lung failure caused by inhalation of water. “There were major wounds in its oral cavity and which might have occurred due to an explosive blast. As a result, she could not eat for about two weeks, leading to her collapse in the river and subsequent drowning. The incapacitating wounds and injuries in the oral cavity had caused localised sepsis and resulted in excruciating pain. Severe debility and weakness have resulted in the final collapse and drowning,’’ he said.

According to U Ashiq Ali, the investigating officer of the concerned forest department, evidence gathered so far has indicated that the crude bomb was stuffed in coconut to target wild boars. An estate owner, his son and a plantation worker under them have been accused so far in connection with the killing and the worker confessed that the target was not the elephant but crop-raiding wild boars.

Though conservationists and green activists agree with the farmers that wild boars are posing a major threat to farming activities in the state, especially human settlements in the Western Ghats, they prefer to differ with the political parties and farmers’ organisations which campaign for mass slaughtering of wild boars, terming them as vermin. They demand scientific and practical long-term solutions which must prevent possible misuse of the related government orders by mafias engaged in hunting and sale of wild meat.

“It was after a social media post by a forest officer describing the elephant’s ordeal went viral on the internet, that the massive online outrage started evolving,’’ said Silent Valley Wildlife Warden Samuel Vanlalngheta Pachuau when contacted by Mongabay-India. “Thousands have demanded action against the perpetrators. Contrary to what appeared in social media, the elephant was found dead at a human habitation near Kellalloor vested forest under Thiruvizhamkunnu forest division of Mannarkkad division of forests. The incident had not occurred within the adjacent Silent Valley national park as reported by a larger section of the media. Some others wrongly claimed the elephant died in the border district Malappuram. All these claims are false.”

According to forest officials, more than two dozen cases of farmers placing crackers inside fruits and coconuts to kill wild boars have been reported from Nilambaur and Mannarkkad forest divisions, the buffer zone of Silent Valley national park, in the last two years.

According to KK Sunil Kumar, Mannarkkad Divisional Forest Officer, the elephant had fallen prey to the attempt of the estate owner to kill wild boars using illegal means. The elephant was not killed intentionally, he said.

“Another elephant was killed in a similar line in another part of the state during the same time,’’ said environmental activist Purushan Eloor. “But Maneka Gandhi and all other animal lovers have concentrated only on the Palakkad elephant. Even the world’s largest animal protection organisation Humane Society International had offered a reward of Rs. 50,000 for helping to trace culprits in Palakkad. The need is safe protection of all wild animals along with their natural habitats. Regional discrimination must not be permitted.”

As per forest department documents accessed by Mongabay-India, officials had spotted the injured elephant at Thiruvizhankunnu on May 22. The injuries spotted by that day on the 20-year-old wild elephant were serious in nature. When the forest veterinarians and protective staff had attempted its treatment, the animal “charged and chased them for 60 metres”.

As the location where the elephant was found was in a highly habituated area, the officials took care to avoid any untoward incident involving humans. In the meantime, the elephant had waded into the nearby Velliyar stream, a feeder of river Kunthi, and remained there till the end.

Despite the efforts of officials to rescue the elephant, it died on May 27. Even attempts to take it back from the stream for treatment using kumki elephants – trained elephants used to trap wild elephants – had failed. However, the death became a matter of sensation a few days after when the forest officer put up a Facebook post.

“We are now espousing a novel campaign. Such crimes targeting wildlife must not be repeated’’ said Palakkad-based environmental activist S Guruvayurappan. “In the meantime, there must be effective legal mechanisms to protect the farm produce from wildlife attacks, especially wild boar. The existing government order permitting the killing of wild boars under stringent clauses is not sufficient or effective to end this menace.”

Kerala’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden Surendrakumar told Mongabay-India that the department has learnt many lessons from the Palakkad incident and has begun steps to avoid recurring of such unfortunate instances. Efforts are on to facilitate the involvement of local farmers in conservation activities, he said.

Human-wildlife conflict

Though Kerala has achieved significant gains in conservation and elephant protection, human-animal conflicts involving elephants repeatedly occur in the Western Ghats region passing through Kasargod, Kannur, Wayanad, Malappuram, Palakkad, Idukki, Pathanamthitta and Kollam districts. Wayanad, Attappady region in Palakkad and Idukki often witness crop-raiding by elephants and violent retaliation by farmers.

“There is no rationale in terming all farmers as haters of wildlife,’’ said environmental activist Boban Mattumantha. “During September last year, farmers in Pulpally and Sulthan Bathery regions of Wayanad had organised silent processions and condolence meetings to mourn the death of Maniyan, a wild tusker that lived among them without engaging in any clash. In Attappady, tribal local residents are demanding the return of their favourite wild elephant Peelandi, who was captured and relocated due to crop raiding and posing threat to human lives. Coexistence is possible and the forest department is duty-bound to ensure that.”

As per information available from the forest department, there are attempts to further dilute the process to kill wild boars in the state. However, wildlife conservationists are opposing that move on the ground that further relaxation would open the door for unchecked poaching and spawn a black market for wild meat. They say marauding sounders, herd of wild swine, destroy crops more than wild boars and elephants.

“The number of wild boars must be strictly regulated. But at the same time, we must not forget the fact that they constitute an important link in the food cycle of carnivores. Indiscriminate killing of wild boars would lead to dwindling of its population and upset the food chain. If it happens, there would be ecological imbalances,’’ warned a senior forest official who preferred anonymity. He also fears that the order may eventually be extended to other crop-raiding animals.

However, the omnivorous animal’s population is multiplying fast across the state. A nocturnal feeder, the boars mostly raids plantains, fallen coconuts and tubers including tapioca, colocasia and elephant yam. They also dig up turmeric and ginger plants and paddy fields to feed on grubs. Over a dozen human casualties due to wild boar attacks have been reported in the state in the last five years.

Farmers are using cable wires, neem cakes, barbed wires, bamboo fencings, fish nets and firecrackers to illegally fight the porcine menace. As far as wildlife experts are concerned, selective culling is a possible option to control the burgeoning population of the wild pig. Also what matters most is ending human interferences in the buffer zones of forests. Unscrupulous quarrying and unscientific expansion of roads must be prohibited.

A wild elephant crossing a railway track at Kanjikode-Walayar stretch in Palakkad. Credit: P S Manoj

Wildlife displacement

In Kerala, tigers, leopards, gaurs and bears are also entering human settlements, along with wild boars and elephants. All such incidents are suggestive of the fact that wild animals are forced to leave their territories when disturbed by humans or nature. Their intrusion into human habitations must be controlled only by strengthening the habitats and ensuring enough food and water.

Official records show that Kerala has a forest cover of 11,309 sq km. It comprises 29.1% of the state’s total area. Of this, 9,107 sq km comprise reserve forests and 1,837 sq km, vested forests and ecologically fragile lands.

“Encroachment on forests, blocking of natural wildlife corridors for constructions and setting up of tourist resorts have hampered the free movement of wild animals in their own natural habitats. Habitat restoration is the scientific long term solution,’’ said N Badusha of Wayanad Prakrithi Samrakshana Samithy.

According to official data released by the forest department last year, human-animal conflicts increased in Kerala from 6,022 cases to 7,229 between 2016 and 2018. “In the conflict zones, locals are adopting various illegal mitigation methods and they include erecting electric fences and building trenches. Crude bombs are now turning a less expensive deterrent,” opined forest and wildlife expert OP Nameer.

According to him, now there is a trend among rich people in cities to buy land close to forest fringe areas at cheaper prices to start rubber plantations and they have scant regard for the environment. What makes the situation disturbing in Kerala is the ideological upper hand managed by the encroachment lobby in recent years. Political parties use them as vote banks and engage in appeasement tactics. Wildlife and habitat conservation meanwhile, takes a backseat.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.