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The Elephant Who's A TV & SM Star

June 08, 2023 10:24 IST
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As media phenomenon, Arikomban is in a different league.
Efforts to capture the elephant were telecast live.
Local three-wheeler drivers started a fans association for the pachyderm.
A film has now been announced based on Arikomban's life.

IMAGE: Arikomban is transported by forest officials to the forest of upper Kodayar in Tamil Nadu's Kanyakumari district, Monday, June 5, 2023. Photograph: PTI Photo

Less than a month after he was relocated to a new home in an operation that was telecast live, Kerala's marauding elephant Arikomban was back on TV in an even more dramatic fashion on Saturday, May 27, 2023.

This time the location was Cambam in Tamil Nadu.

The elephant, which had been relocated to the Periyar Tiger Reserve from Chinnakanal in Idukki district following complaints of it raiding ration shops and becoming a nuisance there, could be seen on television running on Cambam's roads, damaging vehicles and periodically finding refuge in groves.

Saturday's high drama was after days of concern that the elephant in its wanderings, may be reverting to human proximity.

Some even speculated that it could be picking its way back to Chinnakanal.

A rice-loving tusker, Arikomban's name is a combination of the Malayalam word for rice (ari) and tusker (komban). His raids on ration shops have been attributed to his craving for rice.

The tusker is also alleged to have killed people. According to R S Arun, chief conservator of forest (high range circle) with the forest department in Kerala, of seven deaths Arikomban has been linked to, he is the confirmed culprit in three.

The original decision of the forest department was to capture the elephant and send it to an elephant rehabilitation centre, which is the general remedy for rogue tuskers in India.

But it didn't sit well with animal lovers. The animal welfare organisation, People for Animals, filed a petition in court. Their action was prompted by a few reasons.

To begin with, they felt that the picturisation of Arikomban as a killer of many people wasn't supported by credible evidence.

Then there was the backdrop of Chinnakanal as a place long associated with elephants.

There is even a locality called Anayirangal (literally meaning a spot where elephants descend) there.

So, is the Arikomban problem a case of animals in the way of people or people in the way of animals?

Settlers, political undercurrents and the presence of businesses that count on land ownership, fuel the suspicion.

In Kerala's hills, livelihood issues and commercial interests are present.

Amidst such an architecture of priorities, trading the primacy of the human being for wildlife, is not an easy proposition.

IMAGE: Forest department and police officials on May 28 tried to capture Arikomban in Surulipatti village in Tamil Nadu's Theni district. The forest department took a kumki elephant as part of the mission to capture Arikomban. Photograph: ANI Photo

Shifting Arikomban to a rehabilitation centre was another point of disagreement.

Not everyone has a high opinion about Kerala's elephant rehabilitation centres or the process, which breaks down and trains captured tuskers into 'kumki' elephants (kumkis are trained elephants used in operations to trap wild elephants).

According to Latha Indira of People for Animals, when a news report appeared in which the forest minister pointed to removing a clutch of troublesome tuskers from the trouble prone area and not just Arikomban, the animal welfare organisation decided to act.

Subsequently, a court-appointed expert committee supported relocation and monitoring Arikomban's wanderings using a radio collar.

The tranquilising operation of April 29 was the third such instance with rogue elephants in Kerala in 2023.

In January, two elephants -- Palakkad Tusker-7 (PT-7) and Pandalur Makhna-2 (PM-2) -- had been tranquilised and removed from the areas they troubled. PT-7 was a crop raider; PM-2 wasn't a crop raider, but liked rice.

Dr Arun Zachariah, chief veterinary surgeon of Kerala's forest department, was involved in both these operations. He categorises such elephants as habitual conflict animals.

"Theirs is an acquired trait," he said. Because they have access to nutritious food, these animals also tend to be healthy and well-built.

The tranquilising of Arikomban was among the most challenging assignments he had handled. Veterinary surgeons like him call on their longstanding experience dealing with wildlife in the field, to decide tranquilizer dosage.

Observation and judgement are critical. That aside, what made the task in Chinnakanal particularly difficult was the steep terrain and the fact that an elephant for relocation must be transported standing.

"I couldn't afford to have the animal stumble and fall anywhere," he said.

On April 29, the second day of their search for the tusker, the team found Arikomban engaged in a fight with another tusker called Chakkakomban, named so after his love for jackfruit (chakka in Malayalam means jackfruit).

It took 3-4 hours for the team to disengage the battling elephants, separate the targeted animal, tranquilise it progressively and move it to a spot of their choice, where a truck could be brought to load the animal.

All this while Chakkakomban kept an eye on the unfolding drama. The operation wasn't an easy task. In such situations, an irritated tusker may charge at the forest personnel.

'One had to monitor and manage the risk to both the animal and the team,' Dr Zachariah said.

He had elected to do "topping", wherein mild doses of the tranquiliser are repeatedly administered to get the targeted animal to a sufficiently sedated state by the time it reaches the point where it is loaded onto a truck.

Causing additional concern was that the loading spot was between a hill and a dam. If a sedated animal accidentally hits the water, it will drown.

Things went well. Once the sedation took effect, the carefully chosen kumkis (they had been trained for the task) got the tusker onto the truck.

For Dr Zachariah, this was his second tryst with tranquilising and capturing the animal. Back in 2017, he had been part of a team that attempted the same.

On that occasion, the kumkis brought for the task had retreated, seeing Arikomban's aggression.

Rogue elephants are not new in Kerala. Years ago, a tusker called Kolakolli had been a headache in the Peppara region of Thiruvananthapuram district.

In 2006, Kolakolli was captured. It died in captivity.

Wikipedia's page on the tusker says it was accused of killing a dozen people.

In his hey days, Kolakolli's activities were often reported in the print media. There are videos of it after its capture, on YouTube.

PT-7 had its share of limelight and live telecast.

Capturing PM-2 was a comparatively quiet affair. But nothing compares to Arikomban.

As media phenomenon, he is in a different league. Efforts to capture the elephant were telecast live.

In the months the tusker hogged media attention in Kerala, it split those tracking news about it into different camps.

There were those who wanted Arikomban taken off to an elephant rehabilitation centre (as the government planned to do) or relocated (as animal welfare activists opposed to the government's plan, suggested).

There were also those who made it a pop hero.

At Anakkara, in the aftermath of Arikomban's relocation, local three-wheeler drivers started a fans association for the pachyderm.

In a video available on YouTube, they can be heard voicing their disapproval of the elephant being uprooted from familiar surroundings and cast far away. Forming the fans association was a form of protest, they said.

Arikomban crept into daily conversation and banter, an inadvertent emblem of what happens when humans encroach onto spaces meant for wildlife. Then, there was the analogy it conjured with its ways; cocking a snook at the imagination of humans.

The animal found traction on social media (eventually this would include a WhatsApp group that came under investigation because it sought to raise funds in the name of feeding the wild tusker).

IMAGE: Mission Arikomban is underway in Kerala's Munnar to capture the rice-eating elephant, who has become a menace in the area. Photograph: ANI Photo

In Kerala, where rice is synonymous with food, a rice-craving elephant may have felt that much human.

There have been media reports featuring people who remember Arikomban growing up alone after his mother's death and returning every year to the spot she died.

The late April-telecast of Arikomban being tranquilised and captured, mentioned that while the elephant was being cornered, Chakkakomban had hung around in the vicinity. Also cited was a female elephant with calf in tow.

The sum total of such imagery and how it was processed by the public added to the Arikomban lore.

Meanwhile in Chinnakanal, some people voiced their approval at the removal of Arikomban from their backyard.

A few admitted that they would miss the rogue, who had become a familiar presence in the region.

One person I spoke to in Thiruvananthapuram, remembered an elderly woman interviewed by the media in Chinnakanal, who seemed to nurse no grudge against the tusker despite her house damaged when the elephant tried to get rice from the kitchen.

On May 8, 2023, The Indian Express reported that actor turned director Sajid Yahiya had announced a film based on Arikomban's life.

Dr Harikumar M S is a journalist turned academician, who is currently assistant professor at the department of communication and journalism, University of Kerala. He put the Arikomban episode in perspective.

To begin with, there is the long-standing affection for elephants in Kerala culture, which always made narratives around them popular.

"In the decades gone by when only print media was around, the elephant Guruvayoor Keshavan was often written about," he recalled.

Closer to the present, human-animal conflicts have escalated in Kerala, a state with sizable high range-farming practised close to forest areas.

Within this context of human-animal conflict, a few additional factors influenced the evolution of Arikomban's story, Dr Harikumar said.

There was the court's involvement (the litigation went all the way to the Supreme Court), the longer time taken for the government to act given the multiple angles opened up and finally, an eyeballs-led media/digital media approach that made the elephant's story seem quite human.

Creating a human impression was not without its accompanying problems. Some of the imagery generated, contradicts the real nature of elephants.

Adult male Asian elephants are known to prefer solitary life and they are not monogamous, Dr Zachariah said.

As Arikomban became more and more human in the public mind, the science of capturing and managing the tusker failed to impress people as much.

When technical aspects of the operation -- like tranquilliser dosage for instance -- got bandied about without due seriousness, Dr Zachariah felt disappointed. "Where's the science?" he asked.

Compared to the case of Arikomban, capturing and shifting PT-7 and PM-2 had featured much less distraction, he said.

Shyam G Menon is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/

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