The life of the bull elephant, Arikomban, hangs in the balance, as people across Idukki, Munnar and Chinnakanal districts take to the streets, protesting the Kerala High Court's decision to temporarily halt the capture of this elephant. His crime? He 'stole' some rice from a shop built on a land that was his home once upon a time. It was only in January 2023 that another bull elephant PT (Palakkad Tusker) - 7 was incarcerated for allegedly 'killing a morning stroller' a few months ago and 'terrorizing' people, in a hilly village called Dhoni, 15 kilometers from Palakkad district. After evading the authorities for almost two months, the Kerala Forest Department launched a massive drive to 'capture and train' him.
In 2019 they arrested 'a rogue wild tusker', Wadakkanad Komban, who now languishes in a jail cell in the Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary in Wayanad, after undergoing brutal training. And the story of a handsome bull, Kallur Komban, is still a haunting memory. He was captured in 2017, the third bull elephant in just four years. At 28-years-old, in his prime mating period, he was abducted from the Wayanad forests for 'raiding the paddy fields'. He resisted, but as with all elephant captures, a few kumki elephants were summoned to subdue and push the young bull into a truck. Kallur Komban was also kept in kraal for weeks, subjected to brutal training, and then turned into a kumki elephant.
Then there's the story of a beloved gentle giant called Munnar Padayappa, an iconic elephant, featured even on the BBC News. Tourism operators began exploiting his sweet nature, luring tourists to watch him in close proximity. It could have potentially turned disastrous, and the villagers would have certainly demanded his capture. Fortunately though, a driver was recently slapped with non bailable charges for provoking the tusker.
The question is how many bull elephants will be captured in order to appease the villagers? Contrary to the belief that capturing bull elephants will solve the problems, such indiscriminate actions will only exacerbate human elephant conflict, according to a cutting-edge study entitled, 'All-Male Groups in Asian Elephants: A Novel, Adaptive Social Strategy in Increasingly Anthropogenic Landscapes of Southern India'. It focuses on how the removal of one bull elephant from a bachelor group would have a detrimental impact on other young bulls.
Lead scientist and wildlife biologist, Dr. Nishant Srinivasaiah, has studied around 300 free ranging bull Asian elephants over a decade. “When an elephant, who is probably a key member in his own or her own society is lost, then there are consequences to the society of the elephant itself. So, they don't know how to avoid people necessarily, they tend to become more aggressive because they're inexperienced.” Other studies suggest that the loss of bull elephants will create a significant gender disparity in the wild. As such, of the 27,000 odd Asian elephants in India, only around 1,200 are tuskers, among them, bulls like Arikomban. They have become too familiar with human dwellings, and have a higher propensity to take risks than female elephants, exposing them to dire aftermaths like poaching, electrocution or train or collisions in human dominated landscapes.
Apparently, the elephants are merely trying to adapt to the drastically changing terrains in order to ensure the species survival. “The rate of change has been so much that it's difficult for elephants to adapt quickly, genetically. But what they are showing is phenomenal behavioral adaptability. This is short term behavior responses, what we call as behavioral flexibility in elephants to a given scenario,” says Dr. Srinivasaiah.
Meantime, as the elephants compete for dwindling natural resources and are being squeezed out of their homes, the daunting question is, where will they go? They are doing their best to adjust to whatever is best available to them, even if it is a hard edge of the forests where there are crop fields. “So, if you are squeezing them inside the forests, they will come to a crop field, to forage. It's just because it's their need, and not because of any sort of want. And so, its important for us to keep learning from the elephants, and look how adaptable they are. Can I be adaptable to an extent where it's possible for elephants to share the land with me.”
Sharing the land requires attitude and behavior shifts. Impulsive reactions such as capturing or relocating the bulls can actually backfire. They're the ones who keep the younger bulls out of trouble, especially when navigating through the villages, trying to keep the conflict to an absolute minimum. Time and again, the elephants have shown that they are willing to adapt to the changing world and the dramatically changing landscape. The formidable question is, are humans willing to adapt? A second part on the capture of bull elephants will explore the causes that drive them to take high risks.
(The writer is an award-winning author, National Geographic Explorer, multi award-winning wildlife filmmaker, Founder Voice for Asian Elephants Society)