Tuskers in the forests of the Western Ghats are facing the biggest threat since sandalwood smuggler Veerappan’s men changed the elephant sex ratio two decades ago.
Ivory hunters arrested by the Kerala forest department have confessed to mass poaching of elephants — 33 confirmed killings and an estimated toll of 80-100 in the last 18 months — in the state and the adjoining forests of Tamil Nadu.
Five smugglers and poachers, arrested last month by the Kerala forest department and the anti-Naxal division of Tamil Nadu, admitted that their gang killed at least 15 elephants in Tamil Nadu’s Ooty, Coimbatore and Meghamalai forests and traded more than 200 kg of ivory in the last 18 months.
At least two more gangs were said to be operating in the forests of Tamil Nadu where they killed an estimated 35-45 elephants during that period. Kerala also took a big hit with 18 confirmed killings and an estimated loss of 45-55 elephants.
Between 1975 and 1995, up to 2,000 elephants, mostly tuskers, were poached in the southern forests. The population and the sex ratio have since recovered with more than 6,000 elephants now in Kerala and another 4,000 in Tamil Nadu.
On October 17, the deputy director of Kerala’s Periyar tiger reserve wrote to forest bosses in Ooty North, Meghamalai, Sathyamangalam and Anamalai tiger reserves, sharing details of the poachers’ confessions and requesting them to register cases for follow-up action. A month later, the Tamil Nadu forest department is still to respond or join the probe.
John Mathew, deputy director, Periyar east division, said: “We wrote to them (Tamil Nadu officials) last month. I am not sure if they took any action.” For the record, only Meghamalai registered a poaching case last week, that too after all accused were granted conditional bail in Kerala.
“I understand the gravity of the situation and registered a case on November 9. Kerala’s Periyar forests are adjacent to Meghamalai and the staff are coordinating. I cannot comment on why the other affected divisions (in Tamil Nadu) are not interested,” Meghamalai range officer Kaja Moitheen said.
Dr V K Melkani, Tamil Nadu’s chief wildlife warden, did not respond to repeated phone calls and text messages.
A senior forest official in Thiruvananthapuram said: “We are trying our best to prevent further damage. Karnataka is also probing the recent elephant killings in the state. But Tamil Nadu officials are not even accepting that their elephants are being poached. We don’t want an inter-state controversy but they should obtain provisional warrants, take custody of all the accused to recover remains of recently poached elephants — like we found eight carcasses in Kerala — as evidence to strengthen the cases.”
Since 2012, Kerala has seized more than 100 kg of ivory, indicating an upsurge in the trade. This May, forest officials were tipped off about rampant elephant poaching in the region.
Having made more than two dozen arrests in the state since July, Kerala officials followed leads to make four arrests — alleged middleman Babu and poachers Nagoya, Singam and Kubendran — from Theni in Tamil Nadu last month. In all, 25 muzzle-loading guns, custom-made for big game, were seized.
The poachers admitted to hunting at least 15 elephants in the forests of Kotagiri (Ooty), Kallar (Manampalli range of Anamalai tiger reserve), Bhavani (Sathyamangalam tiger reserve) and Kadamalaikundu (Meghamalai). Of the two other gangs operating in the Tamil Nadu forests, the one led by Vanaraja was very active, officials said.