Bullet injury claims, protocols not followed: Questions shroud death of
Dasara elephant Arjuna
Coovercolly Indresh, Down to Earth
December 8, 2023
The recent death of Dasara elephant Arjuna was mourned by lakhs of animal
lovers across Karnataka. The majestic Arjuna, believed to be around 64 when
he died, had died during an operation to translocate and radio collar rogue
elephants that had been terrorising villages for months and had even
claimed the lives of farmers.
The tusker’s death is shrouded in allegations that protocols were flouted
during the operation and Arjuna's death was due to a bullet injury. The
incident has also underscored the extent of human-wildlife conflict in the
Arjuna was apprehended in 1968 during the Khedda operations (for capturing
wild elephants) from the forests of Kakanakote in Karnataka’s Western
Ghats. The elephant took part in the famous Dasara (Dussehra) festival
processions in Mysuru 22 times and carried the heavy golden howdah (a famed
elephant carrier made of gold) of goddess Chamundeshwari eight times from
2012 to 2019.
As one of the many elephants in the service of the Karnataka forest
department, also called kumkis, Arjuna participated in many tiger and
elephant capturing operations. One such operation to capture a wild
elephant in Dabbalikatte in Sakaleshapura taluk of Hassan district on
December 5, 2023 led to its death. The forest department was conducting an
operation to reduce the region’s escalating human-elephant conflict.
The operation began on November 24, 2023 in the neighbouring Chikkamagaluru
district and is expected to end on December 10, Sakaleshapura Range Forest
Officer (RFO) Shilpa told this reporter. “The operation in Chikkamagaluru
was successful and senior officers diverted the elephant team to Hassan
district, which has recently been plagued by wild elephants,” she said.
The operation began around 5 am to capture a wild elephant in the Yesalur
reserve forest, said the RFO. The team included forest department elephants
from Nagarahole and Sakrebailu, as well as veterinary doctors, she said.
The team located the rogue elephant around noon. The veterinary doctors
fired a tranquillizer at the rogue elephant but missed their target. The
wild creature, which was in masth, attacked Arjuna while the elephants and
forest staff fled to save their lives. The brave Arjuna fought alone for
nearly 15 minutes but was gored, Shilpa said.
“The injuries were fatal and Arjuna succumbed in a few hours. Forest
department officials fired in the air to chase the wild elephant, but the
tusker was unfazed,” the RFO said.
Arjuna’s handler, Vinod, was inconsolable. “Please give me back my Arjuna.
My wife and children are crying at home; they have not eaten for two days,”
he cried next to Arjuna’s body.
Meanwhile, a recording of a phone call between two mahouts circulated on
social media, alleging that forest officials accidentally shot Arjuna in
the leg, eliciting outrage from animal lovers. Many prominent organisations
and individuals urged the state government to conduct a thorough
investigation into the incident and punish erring officers.
Hassan Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF) B Ravi Shankar refuted the
claims. “The rumours and the audio conversation are far from truth. “The
autopsy was conducted by Veterinary College, Hassan doctors and veterinary
doctor Chittiappa, who is a wildlife expert. No bullet mark was found in
the jumbo’s leg,” Shankar told this reporter.
“While I was in charge of the elephant capture operation, I noticed Arjuna
had a large wound on its right hind leg and was in a lot of pain while
fixing the radio collars. The elephant has stepped on a sharp piece of wood
while fighting with a wild animal and hurt itself,” Deputy Conservator of
Forests Mohan Kumar told this reporter.
“Arjuna fought valiantly, despite the fact that it was bleeding. However,
it was not shot at. When the wild elephant intensified its fight, a forest
official stood at a distance and fired shots into the air to scare it
away,” he added. “For self-defence, forest personnel carry only
double-barrel guns during such operations. Doctors found no bullet wounds
on any part of Arjuna’s body during the postmortem,” he added.
The death of the beloved Arjuna was acknowledged by Chief Minister
Siddaramaiah and former CM HD Kumaraswamy, who expressed condolences on
social media site X (formerly known as Twitter). Mysuru royal Yaduveer
Wadiyar and wife Trishika Kumari Singh Avari offered pooja at Arjuna’s
burial site on December 7.
The tragic incident has forced the forest department to pause the elephant
capture operation. “All the mahouts, kavadis (assistants to handlers), and
our staff are in mourning and have left for home for 15 days,” Shankar said.
The operations are expected to resume after a few days, the CCF said. “We
had planned to fix radio collars on nine rogue elephants in the region and
five have been taken care of,” he said.
Former Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai alleged the government was covering
up the truth about the death of Arjuna. The last rites were done in haste,
he claimed, alleging ‘anarchy’ in the forest department.
“A big herd of Indian Forest Service officers were settled in Bengaluru.
During my tenure, I sent them to the forests. They are now attempting to
return to the city. IFS officers were involved in corruption in Bengaluru
and must be sent back to forests,” he told mediapersons on December 7,
“The forest departments’ lack of expertise is claiming the lives of wild
animals,” alleged environmentalist Joseph Hoover of Bengaluru. “On December
2, 2023, a wild elephant succumbed after it was darted at night in Mudigere
taluk in Chikkamagaluru district during an elephant capturing operation,”
According to guidelines, operations should not be conducted at night, but
the jumbo was darted at 11 pm, he alleged. “After it was darted, the
creature’s trunk struck a tree branch and it suffocated. Supreme Court
guidelines also state that elephants aged above 60 should not be used for
work, but officials had pressed Arjuna into service for the operation that
killed it,” Hoover said.
Moreover, the forest department has no wildlife veterinarians and is using
the services of animal husbandry and veterinary department doctors during
operations, Hoover added. “We have been urging the state government for
years to appoint dedicated wild life doctors to departments to reduce
casualties,” he said.
The state government has announced it will construct a memorial for Arjuna
in H D Kote and Hassan districts. Arjuna was kept in Balle elephant camp in
Nagarhole wildlife sanctuary near Mysuru.