Arikomban | File Photo: Mathrubhumi
First, they grab his forestland. Then they develop resorts, tea plantations, and houses inside his abode. Next, they steal his precious food and destroy the trees that give him shelter. So, what else can he do? He fights back, reclaiming his lost land. The Saga of Arikomban – a story about a beleaguered homeless elephant – began in February 2023, soon after the capture of two tuskers in Palakkad district.
The Kerala High Court Justices declined to even consider capturing Arikomban for permanent captivity, in response to a writ petition. Instead, a decision was made to translocate the bull elephant to Parambikulum. But the local MLA began flaring the flames of anger and hatred, doing everything he could to prevent Arikomban’s translocation. But the dramatic scenes and intense political pressure did not work. So, they took the matter to the Supreme Court that bluntly declined to intervene, now having to take the matter back to square one.
Caught between the locals and the undeterred Judges, vehemently upholding the constitutional rights of Arikomban, the state government had to find another forest. The forest officials even procured a high-tech radio collar that can function deep inside the forest, so they can monitor Arikomban’s movement. Still, apparently the locals are terrified, and nobody wants this elephant anywhere near their village.
Meanwhile, even as the special committee constituted is deciding on where Arikomban can be safely relocated, another wild tusker, Chakkakompan, entered the same 301 colony near Chinnakanal, destroying part of a house and a nearby shed. Is he the next target? How many more tuskers or elephants will they demand to capture? And where will the government house them? The forests are rapidly dwindling, elephants are losing their habitats to reckless human encroachment, aided and abated by the powers that be.
These facts could shed light on the rampant corruption and reckless land use and allocation:
Elephant corridors and their natural migratory pathways are being blocked by resorts sprouting up around core wildlife habitats. Land fragmentation caused by human settlements, agricultural land and cardamom estates, protected by electrical fencing are blocking migratory pathways. Anayirangal is one of the landscapes that elephants prefer the most. However, a whopping 276 hectares of land near Anayirangal was assigned to 559 families of landless tribes in 2003 as per the Cabinet decision in August 2002. With 85% of the settlements in the region prone to high conflict, people are implementing unscientific approaches to driving elephants, making them more aggressive in response to the aggressive human behaviours.
The crux of the issue is, the insatiable lust for money, land and material wealth, which is decimating a species that arrived on the planet some 80 million years ago. Humans arrived on earth just around 300,000 years ago, and have managed to exterminate 87 percent of the wildlife that play a critical role in sustaining forest ecosystems that humans depend on. How tragically ironic that humans don’t even realize that the obliteration of mega herbivores such as elephants will return to haunt us.
So, let’s explore the benefits that elephants offer humans. Elephants have been linked to mitigating climate change. This is important to understand, as the silent existential crisis unleashing around the world is not only pushing other species to the brink, but also threatening our own survival. Extreme weather events such as wildfires are ravaging human communities across India, and around the world. Who can ever forget the unprecedented amount of rainfall and landslides in 2018 that brought Kerala to its knees? Hurricanes and storm surges are becoming intense and more frequent than ever, as the temperatures continue to shatter historic records.
But nature has provided intelligent solutions. A recent study called, Trophic Rewilding Can Expand Nature Solutions, enlists nine animals, including elephants, that possess unique properties to mitigate climate change. Another ground breaking study of the African forest elephants by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) suggests that they promote the growth of hard wood trees that absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas that exacerbates climate change. Elephants trample smaller soft wood trees that compete for nutrients, sunlight and rain that penetrate to the forest floor. They create space for these vital sources to permeate the ground, and with their dung, fertilize the mature hard wood trees.
The IMF has pegged the carbon sequestration value of each forest elephant at $1.75 million over the course of his or her lifespan. Although similar studies have yet to be conducted on Asian elephants, the ecosystem services they provide is far more valuable than capturing them for human exploitation. But the key here is, their natural habitat needs to be left undisturbed.
A recent study on Asian elephants reveals that they travel 10 times farther than any other land mammal. In the process, each elephant drops approximately 300 lbs. of dung per day, spreading seeds, across the forest floor. What’s even more significant is that elephants discharge undamaged, whole seeds out of their system, of which up to 71 per cent germinate. Seeds become trees, releasing oxygen that we need to survive, and absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Wait a second! This means elephants facilitate the breath of life, even if indirectly. How foolish is it to destroy this life-giving source by removing them from their forests, where they promote biodiversity and help other species to thrive! Not to mention the significant tourism benefits and job opportunities that elephants create for local people, as tourists from around the world flock to see these majestic animals. But these benefits are conveniently ignored by the status quo, who seem to have lost their souls, arrogantly turning their backs on the very source that can provide economic, ecological, and cultural benefits.
In the backdrop of these facts, how can anyone consider capturing even a single elephant, let alone the critically endangered bull Asian elephants? With less than 1,200 tuskers of the total 27,000 elephants remaining in India, the removal of every single bull elephant threatens the species survival
Isn’t it the responsibility of the forest authorities to monitor and regulate impulsive and reckless actions that could have a detrimental impact, not only on these endangered species, but also humans? However, it seems, they are betraying the voiceless and vulnerable animals that they are supposed to protect, and their moral responsibility to protect humans. Doubletalk, sugar coating, misinterpretations, and reframing the regulations created in good faith constitute deceptive tactics.
Elephants are asking for nothing but to be left alone with their families, so they can carry out critical ecological functions and allow other creatures of the forest ecosystems to thrive. These people blockading the translocation of Arikomban, trying to prevent him from roaming freely in another forest, are not only ignorant, but also lack empathy and compassion.
As everyone in Kerala is holding their breath for news on Arikomban’s translocation, the fate of the remaining 27,000 Asian elephants in India hangs in the balance, with the country inching closer to becoming the most densely populated place on earth. One common-sense solution may be to control human behaviours by enforcing the existing laws of the land, and imposing stringent penalties.
(The writer is an award-winning author, National Geographic Explorer, multi award-winning wildlife filmmaker, Founder Voice for Asian Elephants Society)