Last month, Raghavan Kaliyarthottathil, 74, and his wife, Madhavi, 70, were all set to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Their eldest son and his wife were celebrating 20 years of marriage the same week. The family that lives in a village deep inside the Wayanad district of Kerala, had planned to commemorate both occasions together. “But that’s when the elephant stomped all over our plans,” a grieving Madhavi says, sitting on a plastic chair in their uncemented home.
A dairy farmer, Raghavan would walk to a neighbouring tea shop, half a kilometre away, early every morning to supply milk. On the morning of March 12, a particularly foggy day, Raghavan was on his way back after dropping off the milk. As was his custom, he was reading the morning newspaper as he walked home. Unknown to him, a wild elephant, which had come out of the nearby forests the night before, was trudging along the same concrete road from the opposite direction. In the thick fog, and with his attention on the newspaper, Raghavan walked into the tusker. The elephant, sensing a threat, whisked the old man up and whacked him on a nearby boundary wall before continuing on its way. Raghavan died on the spot.
“We all know that death will come someday but I never expected it to come in this fashion,” Madhavi rues. In her 70s, she has never seen a wild elephant in her life and still cannot come to terms with the fact that her husband was killed by one on a public road, a few hundred metres from home.
Raghavan’s death is the latest in a long line of horror stories marking the trajectory of man-animal conflict in Wayanad, a region perched in the Western Ghats in northern Kerala and blessed with abundant forest cover. Famous for its centuries-old Edakkal caves and pristine lakes and waterfalls, Wayanad, which shares borders with Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, attracts a large number of tourists every year. It has recently been in the spotlight after Rahul Gandhi, chief of the Congress party, decided to fight the Lok Sabha elections from here, alongside his family staple, Amethi in Uttar Pradesh.
The dense forests of Wayanad, especially the areas under the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, are home to dozens of elephants, tigers, leopards and panthers, all of which are known to routinely stray into human settlements and even attack people. The man-animal conflict in these parts has only intensified in recent years with greater deforestation, forest fires, harsh summers and scarcity of water. “It is our number one problem right now and we are very scared,” says MA Chacko, a Panchayat ward member in Panamaram. In recent months, in residential settlements under his ward, Chacko says, herds of elephants and lone tuskers have destroyed scores of paddy and vegetable fields, smashed walls of schools and anganwadis and have often intruded into backyards of homes in search of food. With the monsoon approaching and the smell of ripe jackfruit filling the air, the problem of pachyderms is only going to get worse, he claims.
Chacko says they have written to revenue and forest authorities a number of times, pleading with them to clear large, private plantations situated close to forest areas and to ensure adequate supply of water for the wild animals. “They mostly come out in search of water,” he says. He suggests that trenches be dug to store water and guards posted to warn people in case elephants leave the forests.
After the death of Raghavan, the local police had to issue Section 144 of the IPC in areas of Arumottamkunnu, Kaithakkal, Kappumchal and Koyileri to disperse large crowds who demanded a robust solution from the authorities to the human-animal conflict in the region. They were shocked that a wild elephant could travel so far away from the forests to densely-populated neighbourhoods like Arumottamkunnu without an alarm being raised. It was the second time a wild elephant was sighted in the region.
Anil Kumar, a long-serving forest officer in the north Wayanad range, says elephants, including the one that killed Raghavan, are mainly drawn to the smell of jackfruit and are willing to travel long distances to taste one. Often, such forays in search of their favourite fruit brings them near human settlements, mostly at night. Once they’re satisfied, he says, they usually return to the forests without harming anyone. “I wouldn’t call it an intentional attack (the death of Raghavan). It was an accident. By the time it had to return to the forests, day had broken and so the animal was in a rush to go home,” he says, adding that night-patrol, especially around rivers and paddy fields adjoining forests, has been strengthened in the backdrop of the attack.
The forest department has offered Rs 10 lakh as compensation to Raghavan’s family. Raghavan’s youngest son Ajeesh has taken up the job to supply milk to the tea shop in the hours of early morning. With the locals spreading unscientific rumours that elephants always return on the path they discover, Madhavi remains restless these days until her son comes home. “I don’t want to lose him, too,” she says.
This article appeared in print with the headline: Where the Wild Things Come