Kochi:The Kerala government has said it had given farmers permission to kill wild boars, which had been threatening their crop, but only by shooting them, “subject to a number of clauses”.
The comments come days after the death of a wild elephant triggered national outrage as it was reported that the explosive-laden bait, which the elephant bit into and died at Mannarkkad in Palakkad district, was meant for wild boars.
“There have been periodic demands from farmers that they be allowed to protect their crop and given the right to shoot wild boars. About a month ago, a government order was issued that allowed the shooting of wild boars, subject to a number of clauses,” Dr. Asha Thomas, Additional Chief Secretary, Forest and Wildlife, told ThePrint.
“This includes certification by the local authorities that an area is suffering crop loss on account of sustained attack by wild boars and so on,” Thomas said. “And once the permission is granted, only someone from an empanelled group of licenced firearm owners would be allowed to shoot. So far we have had only one such case.”
Police said they have so far filed two cases in connection with the death of the elephant — one for poaching wildlife and the other for illegally storing explosives — against unknown people in the Mannarkkad area adjoining the Silent Valley forest region.
The case of poaching is serious as the evidence gathered so far suggests that the farmers in the region were grappling with elephant incursions and therefore it may not be easy to explain away the bait-laden with explosives as intended for wild boars.
Three farmers were picked up for questioning Thursday in connection with the elephant’s death. One of them, P. Wilson, was placed under arrest Friday. The man, who is from Areecode in Malappuram district, had been engaged in farming on leased land in Ambalappara village of Mannarkad taluk where the elephant was found.
May not have been pineapple
The explosive-laden bait may not even have been pineapple as reported in sections of the media, forest department sources told ThePrint.
“The fact is it could not be established whether the explosive material was hidden in pineapple, jackfruit or jaggery,” the source said. “The reason is by the time the elephant died and we could conduct the post-mortem, the wound was almost about 10 days old, which was affirmed by the size of the maggots found in the totally decomposed mouth.”
“Its stomach was empty, only water was there. The immediate cause of death was drowning by suffocation with water filling its lungs. On the last day, 27 May, the elephant was too weak to keep its trunk above the water and must have tried to gasp for air through its damaged mouth,” the source added. “As we trace the chain of events, the real cause was the cracker bursting in its mouth and it would have died whether it was in water or on land.”
The pineapple theory seems to have gained currency as along with jackfruit and jaggery, it is a common substance used for setting explosive-laden baits. Elephants are often the target in forest areas controlled by mafias engaged in illicit brewing of liquor. And a couple of wild elephants succumbing to such injuries every year is quite well known.
What has shaken the forest department, however, is how the case went out of hand and made national headlines, all because one of its own officers made a social media post of the post-mortem that proved the elephant was a couple of months pregnant.
Kerala struggles to beat elephant murder stigma
It’s been a week since the elephant died but the story is still creating ripples across the country and outside.
The #KeralaElephantMurder hashtag, which began trending on Twitter, has posed some uncomfortable questions targeting Kerala’s pole position on the human development indices.
Attacks against Kerala erupted on social media, like the narrative by BJP MP and animal rights activist Maneka Gandhi that the wild elephant was fed the explosive-spiked pineapple by someone. And she went on to question the Kerala government’s decision to name wild boar a vermin and thus allow anyone to kill the animal in a state where bombs are freely available.
Kerala Government has not taken any action in Malappuram, it seems they are scared. An elephant is killed every 3 days in Kerala. We have less than 20,000 elephants left in India, they are rapidly declining: Maneka Gandhi, BJP MP & animal rights activist https://t.co/hkbRSYSU30
— ANI (@ANI) June 3, 2020
There also came out the Malappuram angle, triggered by both Maneka Gandhi and a tweet from Union minister Prakash Javadekar, that painted the whole incident in a communal colour.
Central Government has taken a very serious note of the killing of an elephant in Mallapuram, #Kerala. We will not leave any stone unturned to investigate properly and nab the culprit(s). This is not an Indian culture to feed fire crackers and kill.@moefcc @PIB_India @PIBHindi
— Prakash Javadekar (@PrakashJavdekar) June 4, 2020
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, while expressing grief over the incident and promising justice, said he was dismayed by attempts by some quarters to unleash a hate campaign and even introduce bigotry into the tragedy. “Lies built upon inaccurate descriptions and half-truths were employed to obliterate the truth,” he tweeted.
In a tragic incident in Palakkad dist, a pregnant elephant has lost its life. Many of you have reached out to us. We want to assure you that your concerns will not go in vain. Justice will prevail.
— Pinarayi Vijayan (@vijayanpinarayi) June 4, 2020
Speaking to ThePrint, Binoy Viswam, member of the Rajya Sabha and former Kerala forest minister, said, “As the former forest minister, I can vouchsafe with total confidence that Kerala’s track record in wildlife protection is far superior to most states. This can be verified by anyone.”
He also slammed those accusing Kerala of being lax in wildlife protection.
“The unfounded charges against wildlife protection in Kerala is coming from a political dispensation that rules states where forest land is surrendered blindly to the mining lobby as the governing concern is not love for wildlife but keeping corporate houses happy,” he added.
“Yes, what happened in Mannarkkad is a crime and the guilty will be brought to book and punished. But that does not justify wild allegations by nationalists who see citizens as Hindus, Muslims, Sikh and so on and not as Indians,” Viswam added. “This vile intention was evident when they tried to forge a connection between the tragedy and Malappuram because of its high Muslim population, not realising the actual location was far away in Palakkad. These people should apologise to the people of Malappuram particularly and Kerala in general.”
More captive elephant deaths in Kerala
The numbers bear Viswam out. In the last five years, 24 wild elephants have died of unnatural causes like poaching (see box).
The irony is that Kerala’s claim to infamy is more on account of the way it treats its captive elephants and not so much man-animal conflict involving wild elephants. Captive elephants, largely used in temple festivals and timber work, are fast dwindling, with deaths mounting over the years and no significant replacement in numbers thereof as captive elephants giving birth has become a rare event in recent years.
According to the Thrissur-based Heritage Animal Task Force, since 1997, at least 1,216 captive elephants have died in Kerala (see box). As on date, the strength of captive elephants in Kerala is 491.
Meanwhile, the statement made by Forest Minister K. Raju in the state Assembly in mid-February that the government would grant permission to farmers with licenced guns to shoot wild boars that invade their farmland may have acted as a salve to those representing the plight of the farmers.
But it is easier said than done as it could easily open up a new set of problems including the butchering of wild boars for meat. Though that happens even now, there is a cloud of secrecy about it, which keeps down the number of such kills. Because, once the wild boars, prey to many jungle cats start getting wiped out, an assortment of wild cats could start invading human settlements with dangerous frequency, experts fear.