How the Tragic Death of a Pregnant Elephant in Kerala Birthed Rumours and a Communal Campaign

Chandrakanth Viswanath

The villagers of Thiruvizhamkunnu, a sleepy hamlet in Palakkad district, 56 kilometres away from its headquarters, had an unusual sight on the morning of May 25. The sight of wild elephants in the village with rubber plantations and areca nut trees, bordering the buffer zone of Silent Valley National Park, was not rare. However, this was not so common as the cow elephant was standing in Velliyaar, a rivulet passing through it. Soon they found something wrong with the animal's mouth and hence called the forest officers. "We tried to send the animal back to the forest and partially succeeded in getting it out of the river. However, it returned the next day and refused to leave. Hence, we had to take the help of the forest and veterinary officials. Then came the trained elephants for rescue. However, it died standing in the water on May 27," Sheemer, a native, told News18.

It was not the end, but the beginning of the story of the 15-year-old as the postmortem on May 28 had a shocking piece of information other than the cause of death: "water filled in the lungs". She was pregnant. However, the world came to know about this with an emotional note in a Facebook post by Mohan Krishnan, a forest official from Palakkad division on May 31. "She had eaten something similar to a pineapple with a firecracker inside. After the postmortem, the doctor, while trying to console himself, told me she was not alone. Though he wore a mask, I could realise his mood and what he meant exactly," said the officer in his post, which soon turned viral.

However, a national media which picked up the news committed two errors. First, it said the place of occurrence was Malappuram, the bordering district, and secondly that someone fed the animal a pineapple stuffed with a firecracker. This created a wrong narrative as the focus shifted to Malappuram, with a communal flavour, rather than the tragedy of the animal.

Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan has warned that the self-respect of the state cannot be challenged by creating a wrong narrative on the elephant issue. "It is only a desire of a section to malign the prestige of the state earned by conquering Covid-19. The case is under investigation with a focus on three persons. The reference to Malappuram is with some agenda as you all may be well aware of," he said on Thursday evening.

Incidentally, the other side of the hill bordering Thiruvizhamkunnu is Karuvarakundu in Malappuram district, which is some 20-25 kilometres through the forest. Though it is illegal, in many parts of the state farmers use firecrackers to chase away animals.

"We faced the threat from wild animals, including elephants. Crops were also destroyed. However, we never used any methods to kill them. There were drums as well as solar fencing as prescribed by the forest department," said Afasal Babu, another local resident.

The Mannarkkad forest division has started an investigation after it registered a case into the killing. There will be a joint investigation by the police and forest department.

"We have some clue about the culprits of this heinous act. However, we cannot reveal anything now as the case is under investigation. The injury was already a few days old when we saw the elephant for the first time,” said KK Sunil Kumar, divisional forest officer, Mannarkkad.

Though such incidents are rare, another female elephant met with a similar fate last April in Pathanamthitta district. "We found her in the Karippanthod forest division on April 9 and she breathed her last on April 11. Her jaw was smashed by some violence similar to that caused by a firecracker. She too was standing in a rivulet as in the latest case from Palakkad. I know of only these two incidents in the last two years in the state," said Dr Easwaran, who retired as Kerala's chief forest veterinary officer on May 31.

According to him, a herd of elephants will be travelling between 10 to 20 kilometres a day. "However, the tuskers, who are searching for food and mates, may go 40 to 50 kilometres a day. An injured animal will be out of the herd soon and will start travelling alone. As in the two cases I mentioned, the injured animals will seek a water body. This may be to alleviate the pain or to feel less weight while standing in water due to the buoyancy," said Dr Easwaran.

(With inputs from Prasad Undumbissery in Palakkad)