Arikomban: How two states are battling a rice-loving elephant
A wild elephant in India has been captured twice, tranquilized several times, and transferred nearly 280km (173 miles) away from its natural jungle in an attempt to keep it away from human settlements in search of food in less than a month.
Arikomban (Malayalam for “rice tusker”), known for his raids on local businesses for rice, has been relocated in the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, even as officials struggle to guarantee a permanent habitat. The elephant has also been at the center of legal conflicts and animal rights debates.
Arikomban has become a “symbol of resilience in the face of injustice,” according to activist Sreedevi S Kartha, in Kerala.
“Events have shown how brutal the process of translocation can be for an elephant,” she said to the BBC. “It has sparked the conscience of the people in the state.”
A group of residents near Arikomban’s natural home, Chinnakanal in Kerala’s Idukki district, demanded his removal earlier this year after repeated run-ins with humans sparked protests.
Officials allege that the elephant has murdered multiple individuals over the years, but local tribal communities deny this.
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The Kerala Forest Department announced plans to capture Arikomban and train him as a captive elephant. Rights campaigners petitioned the Supreme Court for intervention to secure the animal’s safety.
According to Ms Kartha, a member of People for Animals, one of the organizations that filed the court petition, the government supplied no evidence of the elephant killing humans.
A court-appointed expert group concluded in April that the tusker should be relocated.
Over the course of two days, 150 officers conducted a large operation in Chinnakanal to capture Arikomban. The elephant was relocated to the Periyar Tiger Reserve, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) away, on April 29.
Only a month later, forest officials in Tamil Nadu, the neighboring state, were engaged in a similar effort to move the animal.
On May 27, the tusker was spotted in the state’s Cumbum town. Social media videos showed the beast rushing through the densely populated town, causing damage to buildings and automobiles. Three persons were hurt, and one of them, a 65-year-old man, died from his injuries two days later. As authorities attempted to capture the elephant, a curfew was enforced.
Arikomban was now at the center of legal squabbles. A politician petitioned the Kerala High Court to get the elephant returned to the state. In the Madras High Court, a suit was filed seeking compensation for the losses he had caused in Tamil Nadu.
AK Saseendran, Kerala’s forest minister, said the situation validated his government’s intention to turn Arikomban into a caged elephant and blamed campaigners for the elephant’s relocation.
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Ms Kartha claims that the Cumbum event demonstrated that Arikomban was not a threat to human life. “He was traumatized and chased, but he did not attack people there.”
On June 5, forest workers in Tamil Nadu tranquilized and caught the tusker. Images of Arikoban’s latest capture aroused questions about how many times the tusker had been tranquilized and the injuries the animal had sustained while being transported in an open truck by officials.
According to Stephen Daniel, a wildlife campaigner, the animal was paying the price for government policy decisions that resulted in human settlements in the line of elephant paths.
“The mental and physical agony the animal was in is incomprehensible, and the forest departments of both states have a lot to answer for,” he said.
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Back in Kerala, indigenous tribes in Chinnakanal want the elephant to be repatriated to its natural habitat. They intend to pursue the courts in order to reclaim the tusker.
“What is the point of capturing and transporting the elephant to the tiger reserve if it is made to suffer in this way?” one protester asked Malayala Manorama.
Arikomban has been transported deep within the Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve, approximately 200 kilometers (124 miles) away from Cumbum, according to Tamil Nadu’s forest administration.
According to reports, residents living nearby rejected its removal, fearing that the tusker would cause chaos in their communities.
According to Supriya Sahu, a Tamil Nadu forest official, the relocation was “successful.” She said in a Twitter update that his new environment featured “dense forest and plenty of water” and that the elephant was eating well.