- Arikomban, the rice-eating wild elephant was translocated from Kerala to Tamil Nadu, following months of protests from conflict areas and heavy media attention.
- Studies on elephant translocation suggest that the move may temporarily diffuse tension, but the elephant may display post-release movements oriented towards the capture site or re-enter human habitations.
- Wildlife experts assert that mechanisms such as tracking elephant movement areas, installing alert lights for elephant sightings, creating awareness among residents and installing electric fences the right way, can be some long-term measures to prevent conflict.
The people of Kerala will probably never forget this defining visual from earlier this year – the aerial view of an elephant at the back of a truck that cruised a spectacular hairpin bend; the elephant sedated and unaware of the fact that he is being removed from the forest he grew up in and lived for more than 35 years.
The ‘Arikomban’ episode started with a minor report, from a ration shop owner at Chinnakkanal, who requested that his shop be shifted to a stronger building since a wild elephant kept pulling down the walls to eat newly stocked rice and wheat.
The elephant, named Arikomban (ari is rice and komban is tusker in Malayalam), caught the fancy of the media and the public and within days, every move of the wild elephant was streamed live. Words such as ‘killer’ and ‘rogue’ were used to describe Arikomban. It was reported that the elephant had killed 11 people, but there are no police records for most cases and some tribal communities have refuted the same claim.
Emotions ran high and soon the incident escalated into an issue in which ministers, the Opposition and social media users stated conflicting opinions on dealing with the human-elephant conflict, ranging from culling to planting fruit trees in the forest to relocating the local residents affected by the conflict.
Placed under immense pressure, the Kerala Government initiated the translocation of Arikomban in the last week of April 2023. The elephant was tranquilised, fitted with a radio collar and released in the state’s Periyar Tiger Reserve with the help of kumki elephants (trained elephants used to trap wild elephants).
The journey was expected to be the culmination of four months of protests and years of uncertainty. But then, the sight of the sedated elephant being transported away from his forest broke many hearts and overnight, Arikomban metamorphosed from a ‘killer’ into a ‘victim of animal cruelty’ in Kerala.
At that time, a group of tribal people from Chinnakkanal held a protest to bring back Arikomban to his home turf. Being the original inhabitants of the area, they had been co-existing with elephants for centuries and it was only the recent settlers who had a problem, they claimed. Above all, this particular elephant was never a killer, they said, a statement later endorsed by Srinivasa Reddy, Tamil Nadu Chief Wildlife Warden.
However, the Kerala government had already spent nearly Rs. 80 lakhs (Rs. eight million) on ‘Mission Arikomban’, only to realise later that the tusker had no plans of staying put in the new destination. He walked nearly 25 kilometres to the nearest human settlement, Cumbum, a town in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. This created panic among the residents, forcing the Tamil Nadu government to initiate another expensive translocation, this time to the state’s Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve.
A wildlife issue turned into a social and political issue
While Reddy, the Tamil Nadu Chief Wildlife Warden, assures that the elephant has plenty of fodder and fresh water in the new area and will remain there, Arikomban is still on the move; a behaviour anticipated by wildlife biologists. A 2012 study on translocating elephants finds that elephants in conflict that have been translocated once, could even succumb to multiple translocations.
Capturing and translocating an elephant from the vicinity, often done under public and political pressure, may defuse the tension temporarily, but the same or perhaps worse situation is created at another location and increases elephant mortality, finds the study. In this paper, the researchers studied 12 translocated ‘problem’ elephants and concluded that translocation defeats both human-elephant conflict mitigation and elephant conservation goals. Almost all the elephants monitored as part of the study were in conflict with humans later on and displayed post-release movements oriented towards the capture site, even if the new territory had an abundance of resources and zero threats from resident elephants.
So, what might be Arikomban’s next move? “In their attempt to go back, some elephants wander over large areas for months and could enter human habitations, by accident or otherwise. An elephant could also settle down in a new area, but would almost certainly go back to doing what he did in the former area and probably become the ‘rice tusker’ again,” says Prithviraj Fernando, lead author of the study and Chairman, Centre for Conservation and Research, Sri Lanka.
P. S. Easa, former director of Kerala Forest Research Institute, echoes Fernando’s views and says that due to the frenzy, they had to take immediate action instead of working out scientific solutions. Easa was also part of a five-member committee commissioned by the Kerala High Court to take action on Arikomban. “A wildlife issue was turned into a social and political issue and the public was misinformed through media. We were unable to proceed according to our original plan owing to media-instigated protests, which was to translocate the animal to Parambikulam,” says Easa, who is against the concept of giving nicknames to wild elephants.
Prevention of conflict
Wildlife biologist Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan points out that even if one elephant is relocated, there would invariably be other elephants which would cause similar problems in the original area. “Considering the species’ social structure, random removal of individuals could also result in behavioural changes in the remnant population, thereby resulting in more problems,” he says. Relocating people hundreds of kilometres away (considering elephants’ walking distances) might not be feasible either. What then, is the solution?
There are no one-stop solutions, or guaranteed solutions to human-elephant conflicts, say the scientists. But preventing potential conflicts through the adoption of appropriate mechanisms without confrontational measures is the way to go, according to Sreedhar, who finds the term ‘problem elephant’, problematic. “Animals habituated to human-dominated areas and have lost fear due to indiscriminate and repeated use of harmful drive techniques such as firecrackers, loud noises, rubber pellets etc., tend to charge at humans at first sight. The key is to prevent the creation of such elephants,” says Sreedhar, who is also a member of the IUCN SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group.
According to Sreedhar, there are five main long-term measures that will help mitigate human-elephant conflict: initiating long-term studies to understand elephant movements and spatiotemporal patterns of conflict which will ascertain where and how interventions are required; tracking elephant movement areas and identifying intense use areas while installing alert lights in vantage points that can be triggered in case of elephant sightings; creating awareness among local residents to avoid elephant feeding or unwanted interactions; training local rapid response teams on avoiding unwanted negative interactions and indiscriminate drives; and tying satellite collars on elephants that repeatedly create issues.
Fencing, done the right way
Wild elephants will always prefer crops over wild fodder since they are more palatable and easier to gather, but they can be prevented from forming such habits in the first place, say Sreedhar and Fernando, while stressing that electric fencing remains one of the most effective, long-term and non-confrontational of methods which can prevent the elephants from forming a habit of straying into human settlements.
Fences have received bad press over the years for their purported ineffectiveness but it depends on how you use them, says Fernando. “Private fences are expensive but compared to the costs incurred in elephant translocation, they are affordable and would work well with government funding. However, involving local communities and encouraging them to bear the material costs of the fences is crucial, without which there would be no sense of ownership from their side.”
Fernando also highlights reasons why the fences haven’t worked so far. They are either built in the wrong place, with elephants and/or forests on both sides, are of poor quality or are not maintained. The stakeholders have to ensure that there is no vegetation for 1.5 metres on either side of the fence, for example.
“Again, there is no 100 percent success even with fences, as elephants learn to push the posts and topple trees on them, but it will prevent them from getting near people. Fences have worked in Sri Lanka when they met these conditions, for more than a decade,” he says.
A tiny step towards conservation
For some others, the translocation of Arikomban is an experiment in the right direction, in a state known for capturing ‘problem’ elephants and turning them into kumkis. In fact, the Kerala state government initially intended to turn Arikomban too into a kumki, like his predecessor PT-7 in Palakkad. It was a petition by Vivek Viswanathan, a PhD researcher at IIT Madras, filed at the Kerala High Court challenging the move, which stalled the capture and led to the translocation eventually. “I knew that translocation does not guarantee success, but the elephant got a chance at freedom at least. And I’m glad that there are judges who took decisions in favour of the animal as well,” says Viswanathan, founder of Walking Eye Foundation for Animal Advocacy.
A large section of the public asking to leave the elephant alone, is also viewed by wildlife experts as a major shift in attitude from the past, where elephants taken for being held captive was normalised.
Meanwhile, a second committee has been formed by the Kerala government to study human-elephant conflicts and suggest long-term solutions. However, Asian elephants are now extinct in 78% of their historic range and are currently limited to a number of fragmented and isolated populations in 13 south and southeast Asian states. With only 16% of their remaining range protected, most Asian elephants are still compelled to share space with humans, leading to frequent conflict.
Banner image: An elephant in a forest. Photo by Sebinster Francis