The gruesome death of a 15-year-old pregnant wild elephant in Kerala has triggered shock, sadness and anger among people. The elephant had a part of its face blown up some days ago after reportedly biting into a pineapple stuffed with explosives when it wandered into a farm on the edge of a forest in Palakkad district. Attempts at rescue by forest officials failed and the animal died in great pain in late May. The outrage over the elephant’s death in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which is wrecking lives and livelihoods, is, in part, because the incident has been reported from Kerala, which has projected itself as a model state, setting benchmarks of responsible and sensitive caregiving in the time of the pandemic. While it is not uncommon for farmers across India to target wild animals that poach crops by letting them feed on fruit laden with poison or filled in with fire-crackers, the barbaric practice is punishable under wildlife laws.
The elephant is an important element in Kerala’s cultural memory and traditions — it is an integral part of temple festivals and pageantry. Some of these beasts — there are about 486 of them in the state — have a huge fan base and even dedicated social media accounts. But adulation for the animal does not always translate into genuine concern for its well-being. Stories of elephants being ill-treated by mahouts and owners may be relatively few now because a vigilant civil society, especially the elephant fans, keeps track and is quick to flag incidents of cruelty or negligence. However, genuine elephant lovers could do more: They need to prod people to question if it is human to keep an animal that prefers to be part of a herd and roam in the wild chained alone to a restricted space and subject it to unwarranted attention in the name of faith and culture.
While the outrage at the unintentional killing of the elephant is understandable, some of it has been laced with communal prejudice. The location of crime has been identified, pointedly, as the Muslim-majority district of Malappuram and questions about the incident have been framed in cultural terms. The attempt to draw political capital needs to be resisted.