Initial suspicions of explosive bait turned out to be false in this case
A 12-year-old wild elephant died carrying injuries in its mouth on the morning of June 22 in Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu.
With allegations that it too had died after eating an explosive filled bait in a manner similar to the pregnant elephant which died in neighbouring Kerala, The Lede in this exclusive story reports what led to the elephant’s death.
"It is impossible for an elephant to hurt itself in the mouth by eating bamboo,” said a former wildlife veterinarian, speaking on condition of anonymity, raising doubts over the preliminary explanations given by the Tamil Nadu forest department officials. The officials had initially said that the elephant had seemed to have injured itself while eating bamboo or a sharp object.
“The Forest Department has most likely not provided proper treatment for the elephant," the person added. The initial explanation drew sharp reactions and suspicions from activists too.
“I do not know of a single case of an elephant having mouth injuries die due to eating bamboo,” said Mac Mohan, a wildlife activist.
“There have, however, been many cases of elephants, goats and cows dying due to eating avuttu kai. Usage of this explosive bait is quite common in these areas from Thadagam to Anaikatti. A few years back, an elephant calf died because it ate avuttu kai. The farmers here use these explosives to prevent wild pigs from entering their fields and destroying the crop. They get the explosives from stone quarries, mines or matchstick factories. These explosives need to be banned,” he added.
But as the forest department began getting flak, the department has now taken back their simplistic explanations and subsequently taken pains to explain that bamboo might not be how the elephant got injured.
The below video was shot by The Lede just before the post mortem.
The plight of the injured male elephant was brought to the attention of the Forest Department on the evening of June 19 when it was first sighted in Jambukandi village lying on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border.
Subsequently, the wildlife department headed by the forest ranger of Periyanaickenpalayam range, Suresh P, tracked the elephant the following day. It was found that the male elephant had been carrying an injury near its the mouth and had strayed out of the forest.
“We tried to give it some fruits to eat and it ate them,” says Venkatesh, District Forest Officer, Coimbatore.
“So then we gave it some medicines through the fruit. The elephant ate those as well. The elephant was active that evening. Then it went back into the forest.”
Dr Sukumar who treated the elephant said that the elephant had seemed to be carrying the injury for more than 10 days.
“To the surprise of all, though a wild elephant, it was very supportive of the treatment being given,” says Dr Sukumar. The doctor then ascertained that its health could be reported only three days later. That the elephant went back into the forest was held as a good sign by the DFO too.
The following day, on June 21, the elephant was sighted near Anaikatti in Coimbatore district. Its condition had deteriorated.
“Yesterday when we arrived, we saw that it was lying down. We gave it 30 bottles of glucose. Still it was not able to get up. We went close and saw that it had pus oozing from a wound in the left jaw. This morning at around 5 am the elephant died,” said Venkatesh on June 22.
“Post mortem revealed there were no injuries elsewhere,” says DFO Venkatesh.
“When we opened the mouth area, there was a 9 cm wide piercing in the left jaw. It was 15 cm deep. There are male to male fights that take place between elephants. A number of people said this could have been due to avuttu kai. But if it had been the explosive, its tongue would have been damaged. The fleshy parts would have been damaged. The piercing too looks smooth and round. So it is definitely another male which has injured the elephant,” he says.
"The elephant is likely to have been injured in a fight with another elephant,” says Dr Perumal JD, the Veterinarian.
“The elephant lost today ranged in age from nine to ten years and it seem to have been struck by the tusk of another elephant while fighting or playing with the elephant. That said, we cannot confirm that until the test results are out. Pus from the wound and other tissues have been sent for detailed tests,” he said.
“The other elephant's tusk may have gored the mouth of this elephant and caused a wound which got infected over time. We are not able to determine whether there was any use of explosive bait like avuttu kai,” he says.
“If the elephant had eaten an explosive, the whole jaw and mouth region would be shattered. This injury does not appear to be that way,” says Dr NVK Ashraf, Senior Director at Wildlife Trust of India who took a look at the photographs and videos shot by The Lede.
“You can see pus coming out. It could be due to even intraspecific aggression. Being a young tusker, this is very much possible. Being a sub-adult male, grown up adults would have attacked, piercing their tusk. This issue raises the larger question about Forest Departments being reactive rather than proactive. They swing into action only when an elephant is hurt. We have to have a clear cut policy and implement it. We need to have landscape management. Either we don't allow people to cultivate in forest areas or close to forest areas or we give them compensation. It is high time we had a proactive policy to protect people and wildlife.”
That the department chose to send the elephant back to the forest without full recovery after giving medicated fruits raises questions as to the methodology of treatment and the protocols being followed. A similar chronology had also led to the death of the pregnant elephant in nearby state of Kerala where delayed treatment and the protocols followed seemed to have worsened chances of survival.
Attention also needs to be laid to ascertain whether increased intraspecific aggression is a result of increasing population density of elephants. Within days of the pregnant elephant’s death in Kerala this month, an elephant had been reported dead in Karuvarakundu in Malapuram district because of tusk induced injuries after being treated by the forest officials in a similar manner. In the same week, another elephant was sighted injured near Munnar.
While the injury in this case seem to have been caused by non-anthropogenic reasons, that the death couldn’t be prevented in spite of the injury becoming known should concern activists and forest department alike.