When elephants help in the efforts to reduce human-animal conflict - Hindustan Times

When elephants help in the efforts to reduce human-animal conflict

Jan 24, 2024 06:55 PM IST

The Odisha government recently sought the help of the Tamil Nadu to transport four Kumki elephants in a bid to resolve the man-animal conflict. Here’s why

To train elephants who can be used to lessen human-elephant conflict, the Odisha government has sought four Kumki elephants along with their mahouts from Tamil Nadu given the southern state’s successful programme. When wild elephants create chaos, frighten people in inhabited areas, the forest department deploys kumkis who are trained elephants to tame other wild elephants to keep the animal and humans safe. In a letter to Supriya Sahu, additional chief secretary, environment, climate change and forests department of Tamil Nadu, her Odisha counterpart, Satyabrata Sahu, additional chief secretary said that kumki elephants could be effectively used in the eastern state to mitigate human-animal conflicts.

A herd of elephants gathers near a rice field at Borkala village, in Nagaon district, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023. (PTI Photo) (PTI12_07_2023_000196B) (PTI FILE/REPRESENTATIVE IMAGE) PREMIUM
A herd of elephants gathers near a rice field at Borkala village, in Nagaon district, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023. (PTI Photo) (PTI12_07_2023_000196B) (PTI FILE/REPRESENTATIVE IMAGE)

It’s a temporary deployment and the two governments will have to work out the time required for the training, Supriya Sahu said. In the past 1.5 years, Tamil Nadu has conducted eight kumki operations and none of the stray wild elephants remain captured permanently. In all operations, the pachyderms were translocated. “That is what I think Odisha is looking at,” said Sahu. “In a human-wildlife situation, to capture an elephant and leave it at the zoo is an easy operation. Translocating is a different ball game altogether in which Tamil Nadu has been successful. Capturing is neither a sustainable solution nor is it good for conservation."

Tamil Nadu has 12 kumkis and 90 mahouts and kavadis (a mahout’s assistant). The training camps for an elephant to become a kumki is conducted inside Tamil Nadu’s two elephant conservation camps at Anamalai Tiger Reserve and the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. The elephant camp in Mudumalai is one of the oldest in Asia. “Kumkis are elephants which are trained to tame wild elephants and this practice has been in Tamil Nadu for a very long time,” said Sahu. The process involves an elaborate team of kumkis, veterinarians, and forest officers.

“The presence of kumkis, according to mahouts, provides comfort to the wild elephant because they are able to see that there are other elephants in the vicinity. Kumkis surround the wild elephant from all sides which keeps them tamed," the officer said. The wild elephant is sedated by a veterinarian and put on a truck and later translocated to a safe location. “It’s a highly complicated, sensitive and specialised operation,” she added. All experts together have several meetings to decide the strategy, the time of the day the animal has to be sedated, where the animal will be sedated, and how much dosage of sedation, how the animal will be translocated. “To track a translocated animal, a digital collar is also used which transmits signals,” Sahu said.

Last May, a 35-year-old elephant nicknamed Arikomban (named for his love for rice-in Malayalam, rice is ari and komban is male elephant) was tranquillised and captured twice–first in Kerala and again in Tamil Nadu. Two kumkis — Udayan from Mudumalai and Murthy from Anamalai — were brought for the operation. When Arikomban was darted in the early morning hours, a large crowd gathered along the road route and cheered while he was being transported on a truck. He was later translocated to an undisclosed location given the public interest that followed him. He had strayed into human habitats and ration shops creating chaos. A 56-year-old man had died in Theni last May after being trampled on by the elephant while in neighbouring Kerala, in two years, Arikomban, has reportedly killed eight people and destroyed many houses and shops. He strayed into Tamil Nadu last April. For a month, he had instilled fear among the locals so much so that Section 144 had to be imposed by the district authority.

Read about Arikomban here


Another legendary kumki, Kaleem from Annamalai, retired last May after completing 99 rescue operations across Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. The retirement age of kumkis is 60. Kaleem was 7-years-old when he was brought to the camp in 1972 from the Sathyamangalam forests and trained as a kumki elephant. The mahouts chose the elephants to be trained as kumkis and also named them.

The two communities who are predominantly elephant caretakers for generations are Malasar tribes (who live in neighbouring Kerala and Tamil Nadu) in Anamalai and the Betta Kurumba tribe in Mudumalai. They communicate and give commands to the elephants to train them to move forward, backward, trumpet and bring another wild elephant under control.

These camps were set up when elephants were captured for logging in the forest areas as far back when the British cut trees for transportation. Over a period of time, when conservation efforts started gaining momentum, the nature of these camps changed from being a centre to bring captured elephants to conservation centres. “It now provides a free-ranging area for elephants where they are being protected, taken care of,” says Sahu. There are no boundary walls so the elephants are left to forage inside the forest at night but there is a chain on their leg which helps the mahout to bring them back in the mornings. The mahouts give them elaborate baths, check for infections and they are fed a diet of rice, ragi, coconut, jaggery, mineral mix, sugarcane, horse gram prescribed by doctors specifically for each elephant based on the age, weight and behaviour.

Tamil Nadu recently developed two standard operating procedures (SOPs)--operating protocol for care taking of elephants and second, care taking of elephant calves particularly in uniting them with the herd. “Perhaps we are the first state in the country to have these standards,” said Sahu. “We have protocols, we have trained our people and we have a team of experienced IFS officers so it helps.”

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