Poachers killed at least 10 wild elephants in Kerala in the last 10 months, the government discovered on Sunday after a former forest department official admitted to accompanying the killers during their hunt.
Three forest officials have been suspended and a high-level probe ordered but the administration was able to recover car casses of only two elephants, often targeted for their tusks by ivory-seeking poachers.
The wildlife loot was revealed after the arrest of K Kunjumon, a former watcher of the forest department, last week.
“The forest department’s vigilance wing is probing the case. The number of elephants killed is a bit exaggerated. We will be able to figure out the exact number after getting enough evidence,” said Kerala forest minister Thiruvanchur Radhakrishnan.
But sources alleged the forest officials initially didn’t investigate the poachers and their buyers in spite of getting details of the gang — including their mobile phone numbers — from Kunjumon, who was also dubbed “mentally-deranged” by some.
Kerala is part of the Western Ghats region, a favourite habitat of the Indian elephant whose numbers have spiked in recent years following concerted conservation efforts.
According to a 2011 elephant census, 3,520 jumbos remained in protected areas of the state that has one of the highest pachyderm populations in the country.
Though revered in the southern state, the elephant has faced widespread poaching in recent years owing to skyrocketing prices of ivory in China and east Asia.
Kunjumon reportedly told officials he was paid 57,000 for accompanying the gang in Idukki and Pathanamthitta areas at least five times because of his expertise in forest routes.
He said ivory was sold to residents in the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram by the gang, which also killed animals in neighbouring Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
There was also some confusion about Kunjumon’s arrest. While some said he approached the department upset with the mindless killings, others said he was picked up from his hideout.