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Kerala: Protest marches, road blockades, endless poster campaigns on digital platforms, legal wrangles, vociferous discussions in television channels, poetry readings, music albums, cultural resistance and much more — Kerala is caught in jumbo debate over problem tusker Arikomban, the Rice Tusker

Known for his aggressive attitude and extreme fondness for rice and jaggery, the 35-year-old pachyderm was named Arikomban by local people. The animal is recorded as having caused the death of more than 10 persons and injuring 30, apart from raiding more than 60 shops, the majority of which were ration shop, in remote jungle hamlets. His rampage was a nightmare for poor plantation labourers when the animal’s midnight raids for rice destroyed their fragile huts.  Given the mounting protests from the forest dwellers, the animal was captured by a 150-strong team of the Kerala forest department from Chinnakkanal in Idukky district of Kerala on April 29, 2023, fitted with a radio collar, and relocated deep in the forests of the Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR).

However, the tusker returned to raid habitats and re-surfaced in Theni in neighbouring Tamil Nadu less than a week later. Tracked on 4 am on May 4 at Theni, the magnificent tusker had travelled about 40 km from the Churuliyur area of the Meghamalai Wildlife Sanctuary in just four days. His raids on provision and ration shop and homes set off a fresh clamour for his capture. On May 28, the animal’s jaunt through Cumbum town sparked panic. Balraj, a security officer fell down from his scooter in the bedlam and later succumbed to injuries in the Government Medical College Hospital, Theni.

The incident sealed his fate. Following an order from Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin, a 75-strong team from the state forest department captured Arikomban near a banana farm at Poosanampatti near Theni. A team of four veterinary doctors monitored the movement of the elephant and also assessed its health. The animal was shifted into a specially designed elephant ambulance-truck, with its legs ties and later released a few days later in the Manimuthar forest area in the Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve in Thirunelveli district.

His rampage was a nightmare for poor plantation labourers when the animal’s midnight raids for rice destroyed their fragile huts

However, visuals of a trussed-up Arikomban, with his injured trunk hanging outside the elephant ambulance amid a heatwave, triggered a furore among the tusker’s fans, animal rights activists and green campaigners, with worries about his safety. Facebook was flooded with photographs of Arikomban with captions speaking of his cries for safety and freedom. Activists alleged that relocated some 200 kms from his home range, the water-rich and cool climate of Idukky district of Kerala, the poor animal was now forced into an arid forest region. The volley of FB posts forced the Tamil Nadu forest department to post a video of the elephant having water from the Manimuthar reservoir.

But that has done little to cool media temperatures with the world now clearly divided into pro- and anti-Arikomban camps. The two ‘captures’ in the presence of Kumki elephants, hundreds of forest department personnel and a platoon of media personnel who jostled to provide the ‘latest’ news on the errant tusker has made him a superstar.

Also Read: Kerala farmers oppose leaving ‘problem’ elephants in wild

Facebook is awash with posts —videos, photographs, posters and poems —uploaded by many groups from both camps. The social media war over Arikomban is furious and vitriolic. ‘Arikomban Fans Association’, ‘Arikomban Fans’, ‘Save Arikomban’, and ‘Justice for Arikomban’ are some of the pro-tusker pages on Facebook. But concern for the elephant is not limited to the online world. A group of autorickshaw drivers formed the fans’ association at Anakkara in Palakkad district. At Kannur, a private bus was named Arikomban and a photograph of the tusker was pasted in front.  A photo of Arikomban sleeping in a tea plantation near Chinnakkanal, went viral a few weeks ago.

A photo of Arikomban sleeping in a tea plantation near Chinnakkanal went viral a few weeks ago.

Posters for a music video Arikomban: Kalam Marupadi Thannu Kollum (Arikomban: Time Will Give a Befitting Answer) in praise of the animal are out.  The shooting for the album has started, with lyrics by Kollam-based poet Pramod Kannan Pillai and the music composed by Kavalam Sreekumar, who has also sung the song.

Legal Wrangles
The capture and translocation of Arikomban also triggered a series of legal wrangles. The High Court of Kerala on March 29 intervened in the attempt of the Kerala Forest Department to capture the problem elephant, staying the move. A division bench of HC comprising Justice A.K. Jayashankaran Nambiar and Justice Gopinath P rejected the government’s plea to capture the animal. The verdict was a sequel to the petition filed by a resident of Thiruvananthapuram against the move to capture and relocate the animal.

The Kerala HC had constituted a committee of Experts (CoE) to suggest measures to prevent it from straying into human habitats. The five-member CoE was also directed to submit its suggestions by April 5. The entire operations of the Kerala Forest Department had come to a grinding halt after the HC order. The court had also directed the forest department personnel to check any movement of the animal into human habitats using the trained Kumki elephants and the forest personnel. HC also said that if the animal further creates problems, it should be tranquilized and immobilized temporarily for fitting a radio-collar to track its movements in the future.

The Kerala HC had constituted a committee of Experts to suggest measures to prevent it from straying into human habitats

However, as elephant lovers heaved a sigh of relief at the HC intervention, it was the turn of farmers activists and human rights groups who organized a protest march to the forest office at Chinnakanal. A 12-hour ‘hartal’ also was called against the HC order. Though the three panchayats, Bison Valley, Senapathy, and Rajakkad of Idukky district, had later withdrawn from the hartal protesters blocked the Kochi-Dhanushkodi National Highway NH 85 at Pallivasal. Joining the chorus Kerala Minister for Forests A.K. Saseendran had even dared the judges ‘to live in areas roamed regularly by the elephant’.

Meanwhile, a division bench of the Tamil Nadu High Court had issued a stay order for one day on June 6 to the TN forest department for relocating the animal as a petition filed by Rebecca Joseph, a native of Ernakulam, Kerala, was pending in the court. The complainant had demanded relocating the animal to the forest zone adjacent to Mathikettan Shola National Park in Idukky district. As the court decided to post the case on the special forest bench of HC, permission was granted to the forest department to release the animal which was kept in the elephant ambulance for an entire day.  The court also rebuked the petitioner for seeking publicity at the expense of the court.  The Madurai Bench of HC had also considered another petition filed by a Madurai native Gopal who demanded sending back the problem animal to Kerala.

Also Read: Handling a rogue wild elephant: Two paths by two states

Unaware of the fire and fury among humans caused by his adventures, Arikomban is hopefully getting acquainted with his new home in a different geography – its grasslands, fodder zones, and water sources. The forest department officials believe the animal will not cause further concern as the new habitat is far from human settlements. But friends and foes of Arikomban haven’t called it quits.

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