- Karnataka loses a celebrated kumki elephant during an elephant capture operation, opening a can of worms with many actions of the forest department being questioned.
- Activists and local people allege that multiple nationally-determined guidelines for human-elephant interactions are violated during elephant capture operations in the state.
- Forest department officials refute allegations saying they are forced to capture elephants from high conflict areas under pressure from local people who are affected by conflicts.
December was a month of deep sorrow for Karnataka’s animal lovers. The state’s beloved elephant Arjuna was killed in a freak encounter with a wild tusker during an elephant capture operation in the Yeslur forest range in Hassan district. The operation was part of a mass radio collaring of elephants as per an order by the forest department on June 22, 2023.
The grand tusker Arjuna, a resident of the Balle elephant camp in Kabini, had a long history of bearing the auspicious golden howdah (a covered seat) weighing about 800 kilos of the idol of goddess Chamundeshwari during the festive Mysore Dasara processions, for almost a decade. One would never know if Arjuna, caught in his prime from the wild and trained to mutely submit to human commands, felt his tamed status as meritorious, but for the people of Karnataka, he certainly was royalty.
Allegations of field manual guidelines being overlooked
The local residents and animal activists held the Karnataka forest department responsible for the mishap. While witnesses allege that Arjuna bore a bullet injury on his front right leg at the time of his death, the department that refuted the allegations, buried him without a detailed autopsy mandated in the field manual by the Project Elephant division of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) on managing human-elephant conflict in the country. The guidelines were put together with support from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) as reference material for forest field staff as well as to direct states to form their own standard operating procedures (SOP).
The brouhaha over Arjuna’s passing, mostly associated with his perceived sanctity, overlooks the larger issue of the mishandling of human-elephant interactions in the state, of which Arjuna is just another victim. The circumstances under which the tusker was killed point to an absence of guidelines, protocol or an SOP for the state in elephant capture operations. “The Karnataka government has been involved in the capture of elephants as a conflict mitigation method for decades, yet they don’t have an SOP. This has led to the death of three forest department staff in the past few months. A state policy on human-elephant conflict management and mitigation is also lacking,” said Sumanth Bindumadhav, Director of Wildlife at Humane Society International.
Could elephants in musth be used for capture operations?
Tamed elephants in camps such as Arjuna, also known as kumki elephants, are trained to capture wild elephants, usually for rescue operations, medical treatment, monitoring or preventing human-wildlife conflicts.
Elephant researchers and conservationists Mongabay India spoke to said that the capture operation violated many guidelines prescribed in the MoEFCC field manual. The landscape where the incident happened was covered with overgrown invasive plant species such as Lantana camara that made visibility poor. The guidelines mandate that an elephant capturing or radio collaring operation should be conducted on a flat terrain with high visibility.
There was a herd of elephants in the vicinity. Arjuna was a retired elephant in musth. The wild elephant too was in musth and he probably perceived Arjuna as competition and attacked him, the experts and conservationists note. This raises the question of whether elephants in musth, where their testosterone levels and hence, aggression and unpredictable behaviours, are high, be used for such operations.
A veterinarian with the forest department, shared on condition of anonymity, that kumki elephants in musth are used since they emit a strong odour that keeps other wild tuskers at bay which, in turn, facilitates capture or collaring operations. Elephant researcher and one of the founders of Coexistence Consortium, an association of researchers and conservationists that advocates coexistence with wild animals, Tarsh Thekaekara said that elephants in musth can work in favour of the department but those operations should be done with a clear exit strategy. “A kumki used for such operations should be manageable even in musth. When you perceive danger, the person in charge should be able to pull back the kumki and exit the site,” he said.
The vet-in-charge of the recent capture operation misfired the dart meant for the wild elephant and hit another kumki that collapsed. While the focus of the mahout, the vet and the rest of the cadre shifted to reversing the collapsed kumki, it is suspected that Arjuna didn’t receive the commands on time to retract. “A kumki is not trained to act without its mahout’s commands and there was probably nobody to pull back Arjuna,” said the veterinarian who was not a part of the operation. There was only one veterinarian to oversee the operation flouting another rule that a capture operation should be overseen by three veterinarians.
While speculations run rife on what could’ve led to the death of Arjuna, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF) Subhash Malkhede told Mongabay India that it was an unfortunate incident that has been a learning for the department. “Arjuna was our best elephant after Abhimanyu who could take on any wild tusker,” he said. He added that most guidelines look good on paper but not everything goes as per the plan during such complex operations.
While a kumki in musth is often used, capturing a wild elephant in musth involves huge risk, Thekaekara said. But the forest department overlooked this in the case of a previous operation in Mudigere range of Chikmagalur district a day before Arjuna’s death. A tusker who was darted with tranquilisers for capture, rolled off the hills and died of “asphyxiation”. The elephant was trapped using the “female decoy method” wherein a trained female kumki elephant is deployed to attract a male. The department darted the elephant at dusk, violating yet another rule that darting in the night needs to be avoided as it becomes difficult to track a darted elephant in the dark.
Mass capture and translocation as solutions to negative interactions
The Karnataka forest department has a long history of mass capture of elephants beginning in the early 80s, coinciding largely with the construction of Harangi and Hemavati dams in Kodagu and Hassan districts respectively. People were relocated to forest fringes to facilitate the dams, triggering human-elephant conflicts that have escalated over a period of time, said Ashwin Bhat who has researched elephant captures by the department for five years. The state formed an Elephant Task Force in 2012 that recommended zonal division of the elephant ranges into Elephant Conservation Zones, where elephant conservation takes priority; Elephant-Human Coexistence Zones, where both elephant conservation and human livelihoods have to be balanced; and Elephant Removal Zones, where concerns of human safety and livelihood take precedence over elephant conservation. “Instead of securing elephant corridors and improving habitats, the state resorted to captures and translocation as the prime mitigation measure in elephant removal zones like Hassan,” Bhat said. The data he has collected shows 106 elephants have been captured in Karnataka since 2013.
While the order on June 22 was only for radio collaring of nine elephants considered a threat to humans, captures of elephants that were not problematic were done too, allege activists. A tusker with no track record of crop depredation or attacks was caught from Nagarhole Tiger Reserve. In another capture, a tusker was caught and his tusks cut short with the intention of taking him to the camp but was later sent back to the wild, diminishing his prospects of survival in the wild.
Well-placed sources attached to the department told Mongabay India that the higher officials in the department sometimes take decisions to capture elephants based on the appearance of the elephant and not on relevant data. Bhat alleged that the department captures large tuskers to placate locals affected by elephant depredation and to fill camps and gift them to neighbouring states. His research has shown that the department has gifted 57 elephants to other states since 2016, including two to Maharashtra and 11 to Madhya Pradesh in the last one year. PCCF Malkhede, however, refuted the allegations saying that the department keeps the best elephants for themselves and gives away only others as a goodwill gesture to help other, inexperienced states in managing conflicts. “We need space in our camps that are full due to the conflict situation,” he said. At the same time, he said that the retired Arjuna was pressed into action due to the lack of capable kumkis in the camps.
In his 60s, the majestic-looking Arjuna was a retired kumki who, as per the Guidelines of Captive Elephants released by the MoEFCC, should only be put to light work and under the constant supervision of an experienced veterinarian. Considering the forest department put Arjuna in charge of multiple capture operations in the last few months including the last one where he was fatally attacked, there were concerns over the levels of safety the department is offering to a Schedule I species (under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972) which has retired from its duties and should ideally be taking rest in a camp.
In certain cases, removing problem elephants could be the only solution in high conflict areas, said Thekaekara, but it needs to be done based on data. “Capturing wrong elephants, especially male elephants, is problematic,” he said. Studies on Asian and African elephants have shown that adult male elephants play a crucial role in behavioural training of juvenile males in the complex social structure of the species. Thekaekara also pointed to a decreasing male to female ratio in Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve region where elephants show an uptick in population. “The last three postmortem of elephants showed internal fighting between males which is unhealthy,” he said. Multiple studies have shown the futility of translocations as a solution to negative interactions with elephants. “Sometimes, it is the only solution. We are forced to act as a large number of people are affected due to elephant depredations,” Malkhede said.
Elephant capture operations for radio collaring or translocations incur huge expenses. Experts believe that captures should be the last resort and the money should rather be spent on long-term mitigation measures like scientific analysis of elephant land use, habitat improvement and securing elephant corridors, among others. “We’re focused on keeping elephants barricaded inside enclosures, which will not work in these landscapes,” said Bindumadhav.
As an emotional state government moots a shrine in the name of Arjuna, the humans and elephants would benefit from better use of science, effective policies and most importantly, corruption-free management of the gentle giants.
Banner image: A file photo of elephant Arjuna carrying the golden howdah of goddess Chamundeshwari during the Mysore Dasara procession. Photo by Madhusudhan S.R.