By the time S Manikandan reached the spot in the forests of Dodda Byranakuppe in Nagarahole Tiger Reserve Saturday afternoon, the fire that had broken out near dawn had already been put out. “It was a mild fire and he really needn’t have gone out to the field. But Manikandan had resolved a few months ago that there would be no incident of fire in the forest this summer. And he was determined to check on every small detail,” said Manoj Kumar, chief conservator of forests, Project Elephant.
Minutes after reaching there, Manikandan, conservator of forests and field director of Nagarhole Tiger Reserve, was attacked and gored by a tusker, which had been hiding near a waterhole, behind a wall of lantana weeds, about 50-70 metres from where the 45-year-old officer had stepped out of his jeep.
Manikandan was unarmed, as were the other 15-odd ground staff who had accompanied him on that recce. “It was all over in about 30 seconds. No one had a chance to save him,” said H Prasanna Kumar, assistant conservator of forests, Hunsur.
“The elephant used his tusk to lift him by the chin and tossed him in the air. The tusk pierced his chin and went through his brain. His chest also had a compression, when he was trampled by the tusker’s foot,” said chief conservator of forests Kumar.
The death of the 2001-batch officer of the Indian Forest Service has been widely mourned in the state. He is remembered by colleagues as an officer who revelled in being on the field, in the wild, and was often spotted with a camera in his hand. He had been posted to Nagarhole only in July 2016, but the wildlife enthusiast had, in the space of two years, immersed himself in his work. Ironically, he was working on a photo-archive of tuskers of Nagarhole.
“He had photographed many of them, and he could identify them by the shape, size of their tusks. He often told me that this should be compiled in a book so that we could showcase Nagarhole’s wealth in tuskers,” recalls Kumar.
The Nagarhole tiger reserve has a healthy population of elephants and tigers. “He had also catalogued the tiger population in the reserve. He could tell you, that this tiger has had a second litter, or that one had strayed into that part of the forest,” said Kumar.
Born in Kambam in Theni district of Tamil Nadu, Manikandan is survived by his wife Sangeeta, and two children.
“His efforts to get water to the forest’s tanks and lakes during the dry season through solar-energy-fuelled pumpsets was a first for any forest reserve. He was also very attentive to the welfare of the forest staff. Just two days ago, he had recommended that their meagre special allowance be doubled from Rs 1,000,” said Prasanna.
There has been criticism of the conditions in which he died, with some experts pointing to the fact that not a single person on the inspection was carrying arms. “The thing is, they were out to douse a fire, and so they were carrying water and spray cans. We carry arms when we go out to patrol or for a trek deep inside the forest,” says Kumar.
“Would a gun have saved him? Perhaps he would have had a 50-50 chance. But it is easy to suggest solutions sitting outside. On the field, it is a different situation,” said K K Poovaiah, assistant conservator of forests. “The government can consider appointing a gunman to accompany district-level officers on their field trips,” he said.
Wildlife expert Ullas Karanth said he could not comment on this individual case. “But I have generally observed that field skills have declined among forest officials in the last 50 years I have walked in these forests. Such skills include detecting and avoiding elephants by listening, by observing. It is not just about carrying weapons. Elephants are short-sighted and they attack when they are surprised and if you blunder close to them. Some male elephants can also attack if they are in musth,” Karanth said.