Wildlife & Biodiversity

Tranquilised wild elephant dies after falling off lorry; autopsy indicates cardiac arrest cause of death

Wildlife activist alleges negligence by forest department during capture operation  

By Coovercolly Indresh
Published: Saturday 03 February 2024
20-year-old jumbo Tanneer Komban had to be shot with tranquilising darts twice. Photo by special arrangement: Coovercolly Indresh

A elephant that created panic in parts of Kerala died after it was captured and was being transported to Ramapura Elephant Camp in Bandipur Tiger Reserve, Mysuru district, Karnataka on February 2, 2024. The incident has sparked outrage among environmentalists, who are blaming the alleged negligence of forest department staff for the tragic outcome.

Over the past year, the heightened human-elephant conflict in Hassan district, Karnataka has resulted in the tragic loss of six lives. Responding to intense protests from farmers, the state government in November decided to capture eight rogue elephants. The department’s strategy included capturing and translocating six elephants, as well as equipping them with radio collars. 

The 20-year-old jumbo Tanneer Komban, was first captured near Belur in Hassan on January 16, 2024 and was taken to Ramapura Elephant Camp after briefly being released into the Bandipur forest. However, it re-entered human settlements in Kerala, prompting another capture operation.

Read more: No food in forests: Invasive species and altered habitats in Karnataka’s Western Ghats are creating a food crisis

Komban was spotted in Wayanad earlier on February 2, 2024. Additional Deputy Commissioner and Wayanad Sub-collector Vishal Sagar Bharath had imposed prohibitory orders in the area from 10 am on February 2 to ensure smooth operation of the elephant capture. However, the situation could not be brought under control till 5.00 pm.

The elephant had been equipped with a radio collar after its initial capture in Hassan. But despite efforts to release it into the Bandipur forest, it ventured into Mananthavady town in Kerala’s Wayanad district, sending the locals into panic for over 10 hours. However, according to a local eyewitness P Vijayan, the elephant did not attack anyone. 

Kerala forest department launched another capture operation and with the help of three Kumki elephants, hit Komban with a tranquilliser dose at 5.30 pm. However, there was no effect on the elephant so it was darted again at 6.18 pm. 

Kumkis and heavy machinery were used to place the unconscious Komban in a lorry. However, the elephant fell from the vehicle at a stop while being taken to Ramapura and died, according to forest department officials. Vijayan also told local reporters there was swelling on the side of one of Komban’s legs. 

Kerala Forest Minister A K Saseendran expressed shock over the incident. “The post-mortem was conducted jointly by a team comprising veterinary officers from Kerala and Karnataka,” he said.

A high-level committee has been formed to investigate the matter, he added. “There are no lapses in capturing the elephant. But there has been a delay in getting the necessary order to capture the elephant,” he said.

Read more: No food in forests: Lack of food is driving Kerala’s wild animals into human settlements

The post-mortem examination was conducted on February 3, 2024 in the presence of Wayanad North Deputy Conservator of Forests (DCF) Martin Lowel, South DCF Sajina and Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary DCF Dinesh. 

The autopsy revealed blood clots in the elephant’s heart, indicating a possible cardiac arrest, Bandipur Wildlife Sanctuary field director P Ramesh Kumar told this reporter. “However, we are waiting for the autopsy report to know the exact reason for the death,” he said.

Speculation surrounds the role of excessive anaesthesia or other factors, with the results of further examinations awaited to provide clarity on the circumstances leading to the tragic incident.

Wildlife activist and former member, Karnataka State Board for Wildlife Joseph Hoover accused Kerala forest officers of negligence, asserting that the tragic end was a result of their actions. According to Hoover, the forest officials should have taken immediate steps, such as providing water to the elephant after it was darted.

Hoover highlighted the delays in the transportation process, stating that the elephant did not drink water for the entire day as people chased it. The lack of prompt action led to the animal’s exhaustion, and despite being darted at 5.30 pm on February 2, it was loaded onto a lorry at 8.30 pm for transportation to Bandipur. Komban likely succumbed to dehydration on its way to the Ramapura forest camp, he alleged.

The activist emphasised the need for accountability, urging authorities to punish the erring officers.

A source, on condition of anonymity, said that capture operations should not be carried out late in the evening. “Since the operation began in the evening, the forest officials could not spray water on the tranquilised elephant. The elephant was shifted to a wildlife ambulance around 10.30 pm,” they said.

Read more: Good step, but not long-term answer: Activists on Odisha’s request for ‘kumkis’ & ‘mahouts’ from Tamil Nadu

A huge crowd had also gathered in the region. “The Chief Conservator of Forests issued an order at 2 pm on February 2 to capture the elephant if attempts to drive it back to the forests failed. However, the officials failed to do so,” the source said.

Hassan district is facing a severe human-elephant conflict problem. Last year, 67-year-old HH Venkatesh, popularly known as ‘Aane’ Venkatesh for his expertise in firing tranquilliser darts during elephant capturing operations, died in an elephant attack.

On December 4, 2023, Arjuna, a 64-year-old Kumki elephant known for carrying the golden howdah, lost its life in a confrontation with a wild elephant at the Yesalur range forest in Sakleshpura taluk of Hassan district.

The incidents have highlighted challenges in managing and relocating wild elephants, emphasising the need for enhanced protocols to ensure their well-being during such operations. 

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