The Karimbani elephant poaching case took an adverse turn with the key accused, Aikkaramuttom Vasu, being found dead in a farmhouse at Dodamarg in Maharashtra on Monday morning.
Vasu was a native of Koovappadam in Kuttampuzha. Though the local police have recovered an alleged suicide note from his room, Forest Department officials probing the case have not yet confirmed the death as a case of suicide.
The elephant poaching came to light when one Kunjumon, a member of the group, gave a statement to the Karimbani Forest Station Deputy Range Officer on June 21. In his confessional statement, Kunjumon told enforcers that he had accompanied a squad of poachers headed by Vasu to hunt elephants in the Vazhacal Forest Division in Thrissur.
Investigators, following up on Kunjumon’s statement, located the carcasses of at least five wild elephants. They suspect that Vasu had allegedly led the poaching operations in the Thundathil forest range and had killed more than 20 elephants, including calves.
56 kg ivory seized
With the reports of rampant elephant poaching, the forest department had appointed a high-level team under Surendra Kumar, Additional Principal Chief conservator of Forests (Vigilance) to probe the case.
Three forest officials were suspended following Kunjumon’s revelations. So far, 19 persons including have been arrested and about 56 Kg of ivory seized.
“Vasu had been hiding in the farmhouse, owned by a native of Airapuram in Perumbavoor, under the guise of a labourer, for the past month. He was found hanging from the ceiling,” said K.M. Sajeev, Circle Inspector, Kothamangalam. His relatives left Kothamangalam to identify the body at the Dodamarg Taluk Hospital.
The investigations so far have revealed that the farmhouse owner, Manoj, had asked Vasu to leave on learning about his alleged involvement in poaching.
“Vasu’s death has come as a surprise, but in no way will it affect the probe. We are hopeful of apprehending the others in a few days and getting details of the racket from them,” said Mr Kumar.
However, the death, coming as it does after the investigators zeroed in on him, is indeed a blow. “Even as Vasu was planning to surrender, we had deployed personnel to nab him en route. The four other accused have also been traced to similar hideouts in the neighbouring States,” official sources said.
Officials said Vasu had handed over elephant tusks to clients from Thiruvananthapuram thrice since January this year. “The first transaction took place on January 17 at a lodge near Kalady, while the other two were held in the residence of Ambika and Laxmanan, Vasu’s sister and brother-in-law,” they said.
Vasu’s death comes two days after the Forest Department arrested Ambika and Laxman on charges of abetting the trade.