No end for Arikomban's Trauma

Sangita Iyer

6 min read
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Arikomban on way to a new location | Photo: Mathrubhumi

The weekend of silence has now been broken. The Tamil Nadu Forest Department (TNFD) has apparently captured Arikomban, after this bull elephant entered a residential area at Theni's Poosanampatti on Sunday night. This time, they're moving him into the deep and dense forest of Meghamalai's Vellimalai. In a gesture of empathy and compassion, the TNFD had recently provided him with bananas, his favorite food, rice and other items to prevent the bull elephant from entering human dwellings. It is a stark contrast to the way this majestic animal was bullied and chased out of his own native land of Kerala, notorious for its horrific treatment of captive and wild elephants!

The TNFD has also imposed stringent measures to control people’s behaviours, invoking Section 144 that prevents gatherings of more than four people in the Cumbum area, putting the district authorities on high alert. Nothing of this magnitude was enforced in Idukki where people were running amok, another key difference in the way the insane crowd was brought under control in TN. The TNFD has deployed 16 trackers, three kumki elephants, and almost 200 forest officials to capture Arikomban again, for which he would have to be tranquilized again. The question is, can he withstand yet another capture of this scale, adding more layers of trauma to an already traumatized bull?

Arikomban’s sad saga began in 1984, when the silence of the forest was shattered by the shrieking cries of a baby elephant that echoed through Chinnakanal in the Idukki district of Kerala. According to an online petition, when the bull elephant was just a few months old, he was found grieving next to his mother’s body. Nobody knows how she died. But allegedly, this bull has been frequenting the same spot all these years, perhaps still grieving his mother’s death.

It is believed that elephants mourn the loss of their own kind. They are also family oriented, with their bonds lasting for a lifetime. And despite the fact that bull elephants leave their herd between the ages of 12 and 15, they do return to their family to socialize and check in occasionally. Furthermore, recent cutting-edge research reveals that bull elephants are forming bachelor groups, so they can survive in a dramatically changing landscape. It has also been well documented that elephants have a powerful memory, containing knowledge passed down from their ancestors, which could explain why this elephant took the same path, despite the dangers lurking around. Over the years, he blossomed into a handsome bull and has had a healthy romantic life, fathering many babies, including two adorable ones recently.

Arikomban devours the tasty rice when hungry | Mathrubhumi

He came to be known as Arikomban (literally meaning rice tusker); a lousy name given by humans because they allege, he was “stealing rice”. This bull does not (nor do any wildlife) understand the concept of “stealing”. Arikomban did what he would do naturally – devour the tasty rice when he was hungry. Arikomban did not enter people’s homes nor did he damage them intentionally. It’s the other way around. People encroached his home, uprooted the trees that offered his family shelter, robbed his fodder, and replaced his habitat with their own homes made of bricks, and concrete, obstructing the ancestral migratory pathway imbedded in his mind.

Here’s yet another tragic paradox! After looting Arikomban’s home, the land mafias had the audacity to file a court case to have him captured. Curiously, stories about the number of people that Arikomban had allegedly killed continued to grow during each court hearing. The Kerala High Court justices vehemently denied the ludicrous suggestion to capture him for permanent captivity, and constituted an expert committee comprising veterinarians, elephant ecologists, scientists and others.

However, none of them seem to have considered why Arikomban behaved the way he did. Instead, to quell the dissident voices, they acted impulsively, recommending that Arikomban be translocated to the Parambikulum forest. But a local politician opposed this move, arguing that the bull would enter his village, and created a huge drama to score political points from his constituents. So, the experts caved in, and suggested moving Arikomban to the Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR), once again, bending over backward to appease people. But they hardly cared about the discomfort and suffering it would cause to the voiceless and defenseless elephant.

Arikomban being transported to PTR

For weeks leading up to the darting, and tranquilization of this bull, the media created hype and hysteria, labelling him a “killer elephant” without any evidence. The utterly irresponsible media thrived on sensationalism, calling him a “rogue elephant” “menacing elephant” etc. During the capture the forest officials learned that he was blind in one eye and had sustained injuries, probably during the brutal capture. But still, they dumped him deep inside the PTR as though dumping garbage, hoping that he’d disappear. According to some estimates, the Kerala Forest Department (KFD) had deployed more than 150 forest officials, three kumki elephants and spent hundreds of thousands of rupees.

However, within days, Arikomban emerged on the other side, entering the neighbouring Tamil Nadu landscape to explore new horizons, trying to readjust. Despite collaring him to track his movements, they couldn’t prevent his entry into a town closer to the PTR. As expected, a few recalcitrant men agitated the bull. Among them, a YouTuber flew a drone over Arikomban to gather some footage, distressing the bull even more. Terrified of the buzzing sound, he tried to run away from the drone, and in the process pushed over a man, who later died. The TNFD took immediate action and pressed charges against the YouTuber. But it’s worth mentioning though that the bull walked past an elderly woman without causing her any harm.

Now, the TNFD has executed their plan to tranquilize, capture and relocate him into a deeper forest. The million-dollar question is, ‘will it work’? This bull elephant has demonstrated in the past that he wants to return home and reunite with his family and friends. Perhaps he is desperate to visit the spot where his mother died. Maybe the so called “experts” should’ve considered the trauma that Arikomban has already suffered, and offered a suggestion that would have been good for people and the elephant. But in a human dominated world, driven by greed and selfishness, apparently, Arikomban’s suffering wasn’t even worth considering.

The first layer of trauma was caused by his mother’s death when he was just a few months old. When he became a teenager, his home was ransacked and looted; corridors and ancient migratory pathways were blocked, adding more layers of trauma. Arikomban expressed his frustration by breaking homes, signaling people to get out of his habitat and stop destroying it. But people harassed and bullied him even more. Then, he was captured, darted and torn from his family, friends and mates. He has been trying to return home for the past month.

Arikomban in Cumbum town

All this madness could have been avoided had the KFD moved 50 families out of the 301 Colony, who actually wanted to be relocated. This seems more logical and much easier to do than capturing a massive animal and inconveniencing thousands of people in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. But instead, the court appointed experts suggested removing Arikomban from Chinnakanal where he had a beautiful family and bachelor friends that he hung out with. The resources wasted in capturing and releasing Arikomban in Kerala and Tamil Nadu could have been invested in relocating the 50 families from the 301 Colony, rather than trying to relocate Arikomban. What an inefficient and unproductive use of precious time, energy, and money! It’s still not too late to rehabilitate the 50 human families and prevent future human elephant conflicts in the area. However, it would require courage, moral fortitude, empathy and most importantly, the political will.

Arikomban’s story has been repeated many times over. In 2023 alone, three bull elephants have been captured in Kerala. As such only 4.4 percent of the entire elephant population in India comprises of bulls, i.e., around 1,200/ 27,000. Bull Asian elephants are also targeted by poachers and exploited in Kerala’s cultural festivals, as only male Asian elephants have tusks. More and more bulls are being captured because they are risk takers and venture into the cropland, only to get electrocuted by the illegal high voltage fencing installed by the farmers. The ongoing decline of bulls is causing a significant gender disparity in the wild, threatening the survival of an already endangered species. This will have a cascading effect on other species, as many animals in the forest ecosystems depend on elephants for their own survival. The demise of these mega herbivores will result in the disintegration of forests, ultimately returning to haunt humans.

Meanwhile, this is a turning point for Arikomban, and only he can decide his future. Let’s hope that he chooses to remain inside the new forest, make new friends and live peacefully ever after, never again to venture into human habitats.

(The writer is an award-winning author, National Geographic Explorer, multi award-winning wildlife filmmaker, Founder Voice for Asian Elephants Society)

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