The rubber plantation with a now in disuse poultry farm right next to where the pregnant and injured elephant died
The rubber plantation with a now in disuse poultry farm right next to where the pregnant and injured elephant died|Photo credit: Jeff Joseph
Environment

Negligence & Lethargy By Forest Officials Killed Kerala Elephant

In this exclusive ground report, The Lede finds out how the narrative of an explosive filled pineapple & coconut took shape and how the department is trying to validate the same

Jeff Joseph

Jeff Joseph

“We don’t know who Vinson is,” says Joshy Aimanam, a rubber tapper who lives in the vicinity of where the pregnant elephant is alleged to have eaten the cracker filled snare.

Vinson, who was wrongly reported as “Wilson” by various media organisations, has been arrested by the Forest Department for his alleged role in preparing the explosive-filled snare.

Vinson has been remanded into judicial custody for 14 days.

“Where I stay is less than two kilometres from this place,” says Joshy standing next to the private overbridge connecting either side of the Velliyar river bank. It was under this overbridge that the elephant met with its eventual painful death.

“It was when he was shown on TV that I saw him for the first time,” says Joshy.

Vinson is a known unknown for most people in Ambalapara.

More on Vinson later.

A Restive Ambalapara

Ambalapara is a small hamlet with a few colonies of Scheduled Tribes (ST) situated at a corner of the village. Most of Ambalapara comprises a small bus stand with a handful of shops catering to the needs of the people living in the vicinity.

It falls under Kottopadam panchayat which comes under Palakkad district and is where the rubberised roads from Mannarkadu towards Kottopadam panchayat end.

While the death of the pregnant elephant hit national and international headlines, none of it reflected what happened on the ground. For the people of Ambalapara who suffer routinely from straying wild animals, the coverage felt unfair.

“First they said that we have encroached forest lands and then they said we are in Malappuram,” says Nazar TM, a resident of Ambalapara and a rubber planter.

Nazar TM
Nazar TM Photo credit: Jeff Joseph

“Even the death of an elephant has to be communalised and people made to fight each other. This is not what people who are concerned about animals should be doing,” he rues. “There are a lot of people sitting in AC rooms who profess to be environmentalists and intellectuals. They have no clue as to the realities on ground.”

Joshy Rathapillil’s land lies on either side of the Velliyar river. It is at this spot that the pregnant injured elephant eventually came to die.

Joshy says there were things that could have been done, a claim often repeated by villagers The Lede spoke to.

The Injury: Why Didn’t They Do Anything?

“The entire episode came to attention through a Facebook post written by Mohan Krishnan who we understand was the RRT (Rapid Response Taskforce) officer in charge of the operation here,” says Aysha Nazar a resident of Ambalapara.

News reports cited Mohan Krishnan, the RRT officer, as being part of the Nilambur division, which comes under Malappuram. While Krishnan did do a stint at Nilambur, he is currently posted at Mannarkadu division which comes under Palakkad.

Krishnan's posting is another point that led to confusion over whether the elephant died in Palakkad or Malappuram.

Aysha continues about Mohan Krishnan’s Facebook post at her house, a few hundred metres from the Ambalapara Sectional Forest Office which administratively comes under the Silent Valley National Park.

“All his emotions for the animal came to the fore once he realised that it was pregnant,” says Aysha about Mohan Krishnan’s emotional post asking for forgiveness.

She calls it “hollow”.

Aysha N
Aysha N Photo credit: Jeff Joseph

“If he cared so much for the animal, why didn’t he do anything to save the animal by giving it treatment when he could?” she asks. “Instead, all they did was to try and shoo it away into the forests. Only after that failed and a full three days went by that they brought in the Kumki elephants. I feel that, had treatment been given to the elephant on time, it could have been saved. Even if it couldn’t be saved, as they now claim, couldn’t they have reduced the pain under which it spent the last three days here?” she asks.

“Why didn’t they try to tranquilise the animal and try and get it treated on time? The times today are not like the earlier days when one had to travel out of here in person to get permissions. There is easy phone accessibility and the officers can contact their superiors or even ministers to get permissions if they want to. Why wasn’t that done?” she asks.

“The procedure to give treatment to an injured elephant involves tranquilising it first. This was told by the same doctor who had visited our place, when sitting on TV after the death became an issue of animal cruelty. Why didn’t they try to tranquilise it then?” she asks.

Aysha’s questions are valid.

Ambalapara Sectional Forest Office: Locals don't hold the forest officers highly and say they don't do their duty
Ambalapara Sectional Forest Office: Locals don't hold the forest officers highly and say they don't do their duty Photo credit: Jeff Joseph

The Forest Department showed what it was capable of well after the pregnant elephant died.

On June 03 another injured elephant which was found standing motionless in a farmland near Karuvarakund with injuries in its mouth and belly was tranquilised and two guards were appointed for watching over its health after treatment.

Similarly, a leopard, also injured, has been tranquilised and treated on Sunday in Wayanad.

The leopard which had escaped the trap while being tranquilised was recaptured by vigilant forest officials.

Officers of the department suddenly seem to be responding efficiently to injured wildlife.

And this is probably thanks to the pressure brought about by the attention this case generated.

Forest Post Without A Veterinary Officer

The use of tranquilisers, as admitted by Range Officer Ashik Ali heading the investigation, can be authorised by a DFO (Divisional Forest Officer) rank officer.

But the tranquilisers can be shot only by a veterinary officer.

Veterinary officers are posted according to sanctioned strength and Palakkad had none posted despite there being a sanctioned post.

For the 14 districts of Kerala there exists, one Chief Forest Veterinary Officer, one Veterinary Doctor. Apart from this, there is a sanctioned strength of 12 Assistant Forest Veterinary Officers (on deputation) of which 11 posts have been filled.

One post lies vacant. And this vacant post is in Palakkad.

The doctor who had reached Ambalapara to evaluate the pregnant elephant’s condition Dr David Abraham was the Assistant Forest Veterinary Officer posted at Thrissur, the nearby district.

When asked why there was a vacancy in Palakkad district, the Chief Forest Veterinary Officer (in-charge) of Kerala, Dr Arun Zacharia told The Lede, “There is a vacancy in Palakkad district as no one has applied for the post of Assistant Veterinary Officer there. It is a position filled by officers coming under deputation from department of animal husbandry. In the case of the death of the elephant in Palakkad, the veterinary officer after inspection had said that the wound was too developed for it to survive. I have seen pictures and chances of it surviving weren’t much. Using tranquilisers wasn’t possible as the elephant was inside water,” he explained.

Asked if there were delays caused by the non-availability of an assistant Veterinary officer in Palakkad, Ashik Ali, the Range Officer investigating the case was categorical in his denial. “There was no delay whatsoever. The veterinary officer reached the location on May 25 itself.”

This gels with the locals’ version as well.

But the rest of the account does not align with what locals say.

A Timeline Of The Elephant’s Movements

Let’s go over what the locals say about the elephant’s movements until the forest department officials arrived.

Timeline of the elephant's movements
Timeline of the elephant's movements Source: Accounts of locals

This timeline given by the villagers who were continuously monitoring the elephant’s movements, shows that there were at least two instances when officials could have helped rescue and treat the elephant.

The first instance was on May 23 when forest department officials, by their own admission, sighted the elephant.

There are reluctant and conflicting accounts of what took place on that day. One officer said they had tried to shoo the elephant back into the forest. “Talk to my senior” was the more common refrain. The seniors never talked.

If a veterinary officer had been posted in Palakkad, and if the forest department officials had found out about the elephant’s injury on that day, it could have been tranquilised and treated. Perhaps a life could have been saved.

The other opportunity was on March 25, when the elephant came out of the water and roamed around the Ambalapara settlement for a number of hours. It returned to the river only around midnight.

“Everyone except the officers who were keeping watch near the river saw it moving around,” says Nazar. “It was the villagers and later the officers who heralded it away from the settlement.”

“The elephant still had strength to move around at that time,” says Joshy Rathapillil raising questions over the claims of the forest officers. “When I asked the forest officers here as to why they weren’t treating the elephant, they told me that the elephant was too weak to be treated.”

“When the elephant came to the settlements, people could smell the wound,” says Nazar TM. This point is corroborated by Joshy too.

“By May 25 there were maggots visible on the injury,” says Joshy.

“The fish in the river were eating the maggots when it stood in the water,” recounts Aysha.

Clearly the injury was known and visible when the elephant ran out of the river on the night of May 25.

That it entered the habitation is also accepted by Mohan Krishnan in his eloquent Facebook post.

Nowhere in his post though, does he care to explain why nothing was done to treat the elephant at the time.

The Arrest

After the hullabaloo in the media, something had to be done by the forest department. Arrests had to be made.

“Udayan and Vinson were called for questioning first,” says Salam, a resident of Ambalapara who runs a shop in nearby Alanallur panchayat.

Both Udayan and Vinson are rubber tappers who live in the plantations uphill, next to each other.

The Lede spoke to Udayan who was later let off by the police.

“They asked me questions as to what I knew about the elephant’s injury. I answered them and they let me go,” said Udayan.

Seemingly in his sixties, articulate and confident, Udayan refused to be photographed saying, “I don’t want to be news.”

Officers of the Kacheriparambu Forest Office under which the case was registered and which administers the private lands of Ambalapara jurisdictionally, said that the reason for calling Udayan for questioning was his previous history.

A missing finger, they said, was from a previous cracker accident.

When asked if Vinson would set explosives for wildlife, Udayan said, “I knew Vinson. We used to tap rubber in nearby plantations and we occasionally cross paths too. But what each man did inside the plantations I have no time or interest to ponder over.”

Naushad, also a rubber tapper and who rides an auto rickshaw in the afternoons, says it seems implausible that Vinson would do such a thing as keeping snares.

“He barely talks or interacts with people,” he says.

The Velliyar river
The Velliyar river Photo credit: Jeff Joseph

Inspite of his silence in public Vinson is known to many due to a perceived scandalous relationship.

Now 37, Vinson, according to his brother-in-law Appukuttan, came to Ambalapara as a worker in a poultry factory uphill.

“My sister also used to work there,” explained Appukuttan.

It was there that Vinson met Seetha, a few years older to himself. But Vinson was unknown to anyone in Ambalapara and remained thus because of his silent nature.

The two married and it did not go down well with Seetha’s family who still know little about Vinson.

“It was only recently that we started talking to each other,” says Appukuttan. “It is unclear to us also where he came from. We know it was somewhere in Malappuram district. Until yesterday, I also thought that he was an ST.”

Asked if he thought Vinson could be behind the making of a snare filled with explosives, Appukkuttan says, “That is what we are also thinking. He doesn’t seem the type of person who can do anything of the sort. My sister had some kind of mental health issues which was why her first husband abandoned her. Later when she got together with Vinson also, we suspected him as having some issues himself. He wouldn’t talk much and would keep to himself. If we talk roughly to him, he will go sit in a corner and cry. He definitely cannot talk well like a normal person.

My sister insists that he wouldn’t have done anything like this. She is saying that he goes for tapping rubber and returns back home. Even she doesn’t go out much herself,” says Appukuttan.

“We went to the forest station at Kacheriparambu and were kept waiting till late after being given black tea,” says Appukkuttan. “This is the first time I was going to a forest station.”

Appukuttan who works as an ST promoter under an annual contract says he is the most travelled from his colony.

“We belong to the Kattunaykan community which is a primitive tribe. We are the most under developed of all scheduled tribes in Kerala. Even I don’t know much about the procedures,” he said.

No Legal Aid

“We didn’t hire a lawyer,” says Appukuttan about Vinson’s defence.

While Vinson was presented and later remanded to custody for 14 days on June 06 within a week of the story going viral, neither Appukkuttan nor anyone else could extend any legal support.

“We don’t have that kind of financial strength to hire a lawyer,” says Appukkuttan. “While sitting there for hours waiting for what they had told us was just a five-minute procedure to sign witness, we heard sounds of him being beaten up. They were beating him with bare hands is what I could make out from the sounds.

This went on till 9, 10 even 11 pm. Everyone going in would beat him. We could only hear sounds.

The Range Officer told us that Vinson wasn’t saying anything to which I told him that he doesn’t talk usually, especially if someone gets angry,” recounts Appukuttan.

The Lede has not been able to independently corroborate Appukuttan's claims of custodial violence.

Asked if they had been given a copy of the statement or the case details, Appukuttan says, “We don’t know the details of the case or what we can do. We signed where they asked us to and returned home. We always suspected that Vinson suffers from similar (mental) problems as my sister herself. He just sits silent.

We don’t know what happened. If they have tricked him as he can’t talk or if someone else is trying to trap Vinson’s plantation owner to settle some scores, we don’t know.”

Asked as to why Vinson had been picked up for questioning, the officers at the Kacheriparambu Forest Station told The Lede that they had received a tip-off.

A senior officer explained that Vinson had stayed silent the first day and talked only the next morning after repeated questioning.

“By that time the other accused went absconding. They haven’t taken their phones with them. So it is difficult to track them. We are hearing that they are trying to get anticipatory bail.”

Abdul Kareem, locally known as Kunjaaka, is accused number 1. Riyasudheen, better known as Maanu, is accused number 2. Vinson is the third accused in the case.

Funnily enough, locals insisted that Maanu was the one who had been at the forefront of the rescue operations, helping forest department officials.

Kunjaaka, it is suggested, was the first to call up the forest officers about the elephant.

Given how fast the arrests were made and how the story changed from a pineapple stuffed snare to a coconut filled snare, locals are grappling with many questions.

A Snare That Kept Morphing

“There are no pineapple plantations here, so possibility of a pineapple snare was always unbelievable,” says Joshy Rathapillil. “It was a theory I heard being propounded by an officer sitting by the river when the rescue operations were still going on. How did he know it then?” he asks.

“If it is a coconut, what smell does a coconut have which can attract an elephant?” asks another villager who has lived in Ambalapara for 18 years but did not want to be named.

“If it was de-husked, it is understandable as a possible snare for pigs. If not de-husked how will an elephant directly put a husked coconut into its mouth? Elephants always stomp a coconut before eating. Any injury should have been on the feet.

The pigs on the other hand leave behind the bigger coconuts with husks as they cannot rip them open. They prefer the younger supple coconuts.

So if it was for meant for pigs as the forest officers seem to be suggesting, it had to be a coconut which has been opened up and filled with explosives with their hard shell removed.

But for pig snares, meat is what is filled inside coconuts to attract them. An elephant will not be attracted by that smell,” reasons the villager.

Joshy Rathapilli says these are not practices in vogue any longer.

“Such practices were used maybe 15 to 20 years back when we had no access to solar electric fencing. Today, we all install private electric fences and leave it at that. They don’t give full protection but they do a good job of sending them away,” he says.

Asked if any other evidence had been collected to support the claims of a coconut or pineapple snare filled with explosives, there was no response from the officers at Kacheriparambu Forest Station.

The officers stated that Vinson had admitted in his statement that Maanu had confided in Vinson that a snare kept by Maanu for wild boars seems to have been eaten by an elephant. Maanu allegedly told Vinson to shoo the elephant away.

And the whole case of the forest department rests on this alleged statement by a man, who by all accounts, is likely to have some sort of mental illness and who is too poor to access legal counsel.

When asked about what other evidence had been recovered to support Vinson’s “statement”, Range Officer, Ashik Ali, in charge of the investigation, indicated that some recoveries had been made – materials used to make crackers. He did not specify what these were.

A request to make accessible details of Vinson’s statement was answered by, “We will make accessible to you a press release.”

Until the time of publication, no such details have been released.

Villagers Furious With Forest Officials

Meanwhile, the sectional forest office in Ambalapara has a bunch of worried officers.

Some officers had, by villagers’ accounts, plucked coconuts from private lands insisting that it was all forest land. This had led to a tiff with villagers. In another incident, villagers allege, a few of these officers had beaten up an accused who got bail in what they call a false case. None of this has helped public sentiment toward the department.

“What are they saying about us?” an officer asked after refusing to speak openly to The Lede.

“Moideen is going to get beaten up,” is the message a villager had for the station. “That much is sure no matter how much he hides or however long he takes leave,” he said alluding to an absent officer who they claim had "terrorised" locals.

Meanwhile, as the anti-climax of an unfortunate elephant death meanders into obscurity, Vinson lies in custody with no defence.

The forest officials seem to be biding time before public attention shifts and the case itself becomes insignificant.

If this is indeed their plan, it certainly appears to be working.

(Note: Vinson was erroenously spelt as Winson and this has been corrected. The error is regretted.)

The Lede
www.thelede.in