Surprisingly, during my boyhood in Munnar in the 1950s we seldom saw wild elephants though there was evidence of their presence. Now with vital forest cover—their natural habitat—disappearing alarmingly, they have been literally forced into the open, resulting in frequent man–elephant conflict.
Seldom does a day pass without an elephant-related incident being reported. Recently locals got a chilling reminder of the popular saying that elephants can remember. A resident who had often driven a wild tusker away from his farm was singled out and fatally attacked by the same pachyderm in broad daylight as he prayed at a wayside shrine, with his wife waiting in their car. I saw the video footage of the horrifying incident. Such vicious attacks are not uncommon.
Last month, a tusker held up traffic on an arterial road for over two hours as it gorged on fruits and other goodies in a wayside stall, unmindful of the cacophony of impatient horning. With its head stuck inside the stall, all one could see was its monumental posterior. Knowing its surly disposition, no driver dared sneak past it.
Vegetables and fruits are an irresistible attraction for the jumbos who are the bane of local cultivators. One night I observed from close quarters an elephant raiding a vegetable garden—it had slipped in very quietly. Fascinated, I watched it tear out clumps of carrots, tap them against a foreleg to knock off the earth and then gorge them. Unmindful of barking dogs, wild elephants regularly barge into estate workers’ colonies at night to feast on the luscious plantain groves and vegetables that they raise to supplement their income. Besides endangering their lives, this naturally results in much ill will and frustration among the workers who see months of hard labour ruined in seconds.
With the heavy influx of tourists, the problem is bound to worsen. In a bid to ease it, the Forest Department has introduced a system to alert local drivers, through SMSs, of the whereabouts of dangerous tuskers. One such tusker is known as ‘Padayappa’ after the popular Rajnikanth-starrer while another with needle-like tusks is nicknamed ‘Oosikomban’.
Unfortunately, in Munnar, humans and elephants find themselves thrown together on an inevitable collision course—about which little can be done.