How Elephant-Human Conflict Is Taking Lives And Disrupting Livelihood In
Shahina K. K., Outlook India
March 12, 2023
On February 17, 2023, one hour past midnight, the natives of Santhanpara, a
forest village in Kerala’s Idukki district, woke up hearing the noise of a
building being crushed. The ration shop in the locality was crushed into
pieces. The villagers witnessed the whole thing helplessly as anyone making
any noise would have likely been attacked.
This is not a piece on any crime story and the ‘villain’ who comes in the
wee hours to attack the ration shop is not a thief either. He is a wild
elephant locally known as ‘rice tusker’. He often comes to human
settlements and targets ration shops. The elephant takes one or two sacks
of rice after breaking the walls and roof of the shop and vanishes into the
forest. He has been a habitual offender in targeting ration shops for 10 or
more years and thus was given the name ‘rice tusker’ by locals.
The ration shop broken by the rice tusker in the wee hours of February 17
belongs to Ameer who has been running it for 30 years. He told Outlook that
the shop has been attacked by this tusker 15 times since 2020. Ameer’s shop
is located in the Harrison Malayalam Estate in Idukki, one of the oldest
tea plantations in Kerala.
“This elephant has attacked the ration shop five times since last year.
Every time, I have to shift the sacks of rice and other grains to some
other place and reconstruct the shop. Couple of times, I got the aid of
Harrison Estate to rebuild the shop, but I had to do by my own later,” said
Ameer to Outlook, adding that he had a loss of around Rs 2 lakh by repeated
attacks by the elephant.
Ameer has not reconstructed the shop after the attack in February. He has
not received any aid from the government till date.
Ameer’s shop is not the only target of the rice tusker. Antony runs a
ration shop in Panniar Estate which is part of Harrison Malayalam
Plantations. His ration shop was attacked 11 times since 2018 till January
2023. In January alone, the tusker bulldozed the shop five times.
Antony, like Ameer, has not reconstructed the shop after the last attack on
January 27. On that night, rice tusker broke the walls and got inside. The
roof of the tiny shop also was broken when the tusker entered.
“He took two sacks of rice by the trunk and went back to the forest. Though
the people see the tusker coming the breaking the shop, nobody can do
anything. If someone makes noise, he would turn violent,” Antony told
Ration shops are not the only targets of Rice tusker. The small houses
belonging to the tea estate workers also are subjected to his attack.
Several houses have been fully or partially destroyed by him. He comes to
the back ide of the house, demolishes, the kitchen and takes rice sacks
Idukki District of Kerala has several such wild elephants having pet names
according to their character. Jackfruit tusker is called so because he
comes to human settlements to pluck jackfruits. According to the villagers,
he does not like fallen fruits, but prefers to pluck fresh ones from the
trees. ‘Padayappa’, who is often seen on the roads of Munnar, the hilly
tourist town, is as fearless as the South Indian superstar Rajinikanth and
has been thus given the name of his character in the 1999 Tamil movie.
Padayappa often comes to the Munnar town to walk through the national
highway and push fruit stalls on the roadside. He is a fruit eater not
scared of human presence.
However, all these tuskers have the history of taking the lives of many and
destroying crops. During 2018-22, 105 were killed by wild elephants in
Kerala, according to the state wildlife department. A closer look at the
data also shows that the death toll is only on the rise. The number of
persons killed in 2018 was 20 and the same in 2021 was 27. The uproar among
the people and the high alert at the local level by people’s collectives
had some impact in 2022 as the number slightly came down to 23.
The latest in this series of deaths is that of Shakthivel, a 48-year-old
wildlife watcher in Devikulam forest division. On January 24, Shakthivel
was on duty in a tea estate in Santhanpara to guard the school-going
children in the nearby tribal settlements from the attack of wild tuskers.
It’s suspected he was attacked by a herd of elephants. An elephant and a
calf were seen in the tea plantation and Shakthivel’s scooter was found
lying on the ground. His body was found in the plantation after three hours
Two months prior to Shakthivel’s death, a video of Shakthivel had gone
viral on social media. In that video, Shakthivel was seen scolding the
Jackfruit Tusker who had come towards the road. Shakthivel ordered him to
go back. The elephant looked at him and slowly turned back and vanished
into the forest. However, Shakthivel later told the media that he was not
appreciated by his bosses for what he had done because the public would
think that the wild tuskers would listen to people and the people might
imitate what he had done. However, two months post the viral video,
Shakthivel lost his life in a suspected elephant attack.
Though the panchayats such as Santhanpara, Chinnakkanal, and Suryanelli,
the worst hit areas in Idukki, are part of Munnar wildlife division, there
are several elephants that live in non-forest areas such as in plantations
and grass fields. According to Viji, the range officer of Devikulam forest
division, there are around 20 elephants that often wander around the
plantations and human settlements in addition to the herds that come out of
the forest causing the loss of life and property. The people living in
plantations and forest borders go through sleepless nights, share alert
messages through WhatsAapp groups day and night regarding the presence of
the elephants, and use torches and fire crackers to scare away them.
“The man-animal conflict is as old as the history of the mankind which is
very much part of the evolution,” said Arun Zakkaria, Chief Forest
Veterinary Surgeon specialised in darting wild animals.
Zakkaria holds the view that the expansion of human habitation into the
wildlife habitation is the fundamental problem that needs to be addressed
in a rational and scientific manner.
“Selective culling is one way of addressing the problem. Culling is not
necessarily killing the animal, but bringing it into captivity and
providing the animal the wildlife habitation in designated places,” said
Zakkaria does not encourage killing of the animal whatever be the
circumstances. He also recommends conflict mapping.
“There is a need to do the mapping of the conflicting animals which is an
exercise of spotting the nature of the conflict based on time and space,”
said Zacharia, arguing that sustainable and comprehensive solutions based
on such studies are to be evolved.
Populist Decisions Leading to Chaos
The human-elephant conflict in the Munnar wildlife region has escalated
since 2003 for a particular reason. The then Congress-led UDF government
provided land to 300 odd tribal families in the Anayirankal dam site in
this region which used to be a natural habitat and corridor of elephants.
This resettlement programme was the result of a 45-day-long struggle by
Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha, the tribal organisation demanding land.
The struggle had turned blood as police firing caused the death of five
people. The then Chief Minister AK Antony decided to allot land for 301
tribal families in the Anayirankal dam site after ignoring the contention
raised by the then DFO who warned the government that encroaching elephant
corridor would be deadly. The place is known as 301 Colony since then.
Around 35 people have been killed in elephant attack in this region since
Majority of the tribal families, who were shifted to 301 Colony left the
place. They either went back to their native places or shifted to some
other place. Now the government is considering reversing the decision by
relocating the remaining families to safer locations and converting the
area into an elephant sanctuary. However, a wrong decision taken 20 years
ago caused heavy loss of life and property and resulted in the complete
disruption of the harmonious co-existence between human beings and wild
The data shows that the number of wild elephants in Kerala used to show a
steady increase. The stringent rules against hunting wild animals and the
strict implementation of the same play a major role in increasing the
elephant population. According to the 2011 census, Kerala has 7,490 wild
elephants. This figure was 4,286 in 1993, 5,737 in 1997, and 6,965 in 2002
On the contrary, the spike in human-elephant conflict has also led to the
death of elephants over the past few years. According to the figures
provided by the forest department, 64 elephants were killed either by being
electrocuted or after being hit by vehicles or by the explosion of fire
crackers that are used by farmers to scare away wild animals.