100 elephants killed in 2 years across south

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Kunjumon has lived most of his adult life in the forests of Kerala — as a government watchman and then as a cook for poachers. Going by his confessions to the police, he didn't find the transition any dramatic: both his roles have been passive.

But an incident sometime early last year changed his life. He was witness to poachers shooting down a baby elephant. Kunjumon later told some foresters that he couldn't bear the sight, but kept mum — till it became unbearable. In June this year, the 62-year-old walked into a forest office and poured his heart out.

When they called him a mad man, he went to another office and detailed his association with the poaching gang and the killings the gang had carried out in the forests of Vazhachal, Munnar and Parambikulam. What emerged in the probe was a massive poaching operation for tusks (ivory) in not just Kerala, but neighbouring Tamil Nadu and Karnataka as well.

While investigators in Kerala found that the gang had killed more than 20 elephants in 10 months, forest officials told TOI that the toll in the southern region in the past two years could be as high as 100. And this would be the gravest of periods for elephants in the south after forest brigand Veerappan was gunned down in 2004.

Investigations in the past two months have led forest officials as much to elephant carcasses as to a rotten nexus of poachers and some forest officers. No wonder, among the 40 people arrested in the case so far is a forest range officer and a deputy range officer. They also found poachers' dens in the Vazhachal forest and at least 17 country-made guns.

The latest of seizures came on Tuesday, when a team raiding the Adimali area in Idukki recovered more guns, suggesting that the racket had spread from Malayatoor to the Munnar forests. Across the border, in Tamil Nadu, officials found rampant poaching in Sathyamangalam and Mudumalai tiger reserves, and Bandipur in Karnataka.

With inputs from Kunjumon, forest officials identified the mastermind, a man called Aikaramatton Vasu, but before they could reach him, he was found dead in a farmhouse in Dodamarg in Maharashtra. There was a suicide note. So now, it's mostly stock-taking of the quantum of poaching that has been silently happening. "We have recovered some 50kg of ivory, but we aren't sure if they all came from wild elephants," said a Kerala vigilance officer. Curiously, they found that some of the ivory was more than 10 years old, suggesting that poaching had been happening for a long time.

In Kerala, the rugged terrains of the Malayattoor -Vazhachal forest ranges remain inaccessible for even forest guards, and poachers strike mostly in unmonitored territorial forest divisions outside the protected elephant reserves. "Here we found that a few forest officials had connived with the poachers. The officials would open the check posts for the poachers to cart away the ivory once the killings were done," said a senior vigilance official with the forest department.

The recent incidents have shocked elephant watchers like Raman Sukumar, a professor at Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. "It's kind of puzzling because in the last 15 years, there was not much of a demand for ivory. The recent incidents of poaching indicate that the demand has gone up," he said.

The investigation is looking in this direction, focusing on rich collectors of ornate ivory artefacts, possession of which is illegal under the Wildlife Protection Act. Till Kunjumon's confession, they weren't too tough to find. An officer involved in the investigation said he found an artifact shop selling ivory products close to a forest office in Kerala.

It's not just the demand for illegal artifacts that aids poaching; medical myths have contributed to the latest spurt. "We suspect some ayurvedic drug makers are part of the illegal business chain. Some of them have been selling potions with ivory content as a magic remedy for baldness," a Kerala forest officer said.

If the trend is not checked, experts warn, the elephant sex ratio can get dangerously low. Poaching between 1970 and 1990 claimed more than 350 tuskers (males are targeted for the tusk) in Kerala. Sukumar notes that poaching had brought down the adult elephant sex ratio in Periyar tiger reserve to 1:100 in the 1980s. Poaching in the Western Ghats has serious consequences as the forests, along with the Eastern Ghats, house the single largest Asian elephant population of about 15,000. The four elephant reserves in Kerala — Wayanad, Nilambur, Anamudi and Periyar — have counted 3,520 elephants which move across state borders.

The recent forest ministers' conference in Thiruvananthapuram discussed the need for urgent intervention to save elephants. Before identifying vulnerable elephant corridors and preparing a database of offenders, the first step would be a fresh census of elephants in the southern states. According to the survey protocol, each herd spotted will be given a specific name on the basis of physical identification marks of its members, a torn ear and short tail for instance.

One such easily identifiable elephant that used to be frequently sighted in Munnar was Padayappa, named after the 1999 Rajinikant blockbuster. "The majestic animal with giant tuskers was the cynosure of many eyes," said an officer. "For a few months, he has not been sighted."

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