How the tragic death of a wild elephant in Kerala was twisted & turned into a communal propaganda against Muslims
In a normal scenario, the place of death of a wild elephant is important only for intra-departmental jurisdictional squabbles amongst those officers who will eventually carry the responsibility of investigations.
But the recent death of an elephant in Kerala’s Velliyar river morphed into something else altogether in a week’s time.
Online trends, aided by statements made by MP Maneka Gandhi, irresponsible sensationalist reporting by media and social media campaigns tweeting identical misinformation en masse all meant that the death of an elephant was communalised by pinning blame on the Malappuram district.
But the origin of the brouhaha is traced to a series of reports, seemingly done without care and with no cross verification with the sources on ground which twisted the incident out of context.
Given the emotional pull of the exaggerations, the story found willing takers everywhere and people swiftly came forward condemning cruelty against animals which soon became condemnation of the people of Malappuram and by association, all Muslims.
Sadly, the twists in the tale of the deceased pregnant elephant also came to serve the needs of daily online campaigns done by IT wings of political parties to suit their narrative.
By the night of June 03, a good 11 days after the injured elephant was first spotted, it became clear that animal love and human cruelty against animals were not the core issue for many who initially bemoaned the elephant’s fate.
Lord Ganesha was invoked, the demography of Malappuram was dusted and taken off the shelf and the communal hatred started doing rounds in classic social media ways.
But what actually happened?
The elephant died on May 27 and the news was limited to the local media circles for around six days before The New Indian Express carried the story.
What was seemingly an unfortunate incident in which the elephant had injured its mouth was twisted by a series of interpretations.
The likely explanation of what could have happened was given by a forest officer Mohan Krishnan who had written an emotional Facebook post.
The post, when translated from Malayalam, was twisted by the use of the word “fed” in the initial English report. The poor translation suggested that the elephant had been fed with intent to kill.
The moving Facebook post added to the emotional appeal.
Mohan Krishnan in his obituary also mentioned how the elephant had also been in its early stages of pregnancy, as was later discovered during the post mortem.
This account, as given by Mohan Krishnan, Section Forest Officer of Nilambur range, when later carried by others, began to stress on the pregnancy of the elephant and the cruelty of the people who “fed” it the pineapples filled with crackers.
The post by Mohan Krishnan itself did not anywhere mention pineapple with certainty. Mohan in his post mentions how the animal could have died by injuring herself when eating what could possibly be a pineapple or some other fruit filled with some kind of explosive.
Mohan’s post also mentions how it was during post mortem that the team realised that the elephant was carrying a foetus which had 18 to 20 months’ growth left. Elephants which have the longest gestation period of all mammals, carry their young for 18-22 months before giving birth.
While it could have been an innocent mistake and the title of the article was not sensational, The New Indian Express in its headline also mentioned the place of death as Malappuram.
When translating from Malayalam, in which the original post written by Mohan Krishnan, Section Forest Officer from nearby Nilambur range who had the RRT (Rapid Response Taskforce) duty was quoted by all and sundry, the mistake in the TNIE article was carried forward in what can only be called as lazy quarantine quick job.
Rephrasing, throwing in a little extra masala on their own to the TNIE story, news aggregator sites and even mainstream media houses provided the emotional impetus which caught maximum eyes.
The original post which had appeared in The New Indian Express had correctly quoted the Wildlife Warden of Silent Valley as saying the elephant died in Palakkad. But the paper did not cross verify what another source told it – that Malappuram was the final resting ground for the elephant.
Mohan Krishnan ended his post asking forgiveness from the dead elephant but does not mention the precise place of death. He only says the elephant died in the Velliyar river.
The Velliyar river originates in Thiruvizhamkunnu in Palakkad and flows into Kadalundi river. The river flows through the panchayats of Alanallur, Melattur and Keezhattur.
“The elephant was first sighted injured on May 23,” says Samuel Vanlalngheta Pachau, IFS, Wildlife Warden of Silent Valley National Park located in Palakkad. He is in charge of the jurisdiction where the elephant died. “The elephant was sighted injured in Ambalapara village and its surroundings at first.”
Ambalapara village falls under Palakkad district of Kerala.
“The area where it died on May 27 was also in the vicinity of Ambalapara village,” he says. “So you could say the place of death is Ambalapara itself. As such the place would fall under Alanallur panchayat or Kottopadam.”
The Lede spoke to the Panchayat president of Alanallur, Jinesh S.
According to him the incident, as it happened, is a bit different.
“When we found the elephant it was not clear that it had been injured. It stayed on without going into the forests. That was when the forest officers were called in. They found it standing in the water of Velliyar river near Ambalapara,” Jinesh told The Lede.
Ambalapara falls under Palakkad district.
“It was still not clear that it had been injured. The injury was in its mouth and the trunk hid it from our view which was why villagers weren’t aware of its injury first. Anyway nobody dares to go close to a wild elephant. So it lingered on without anyone knowing of its injury. Once the forest officers came in, they tried to move the injured elephant using Kumkis (tame elephants) but it didn’t budge and it died standing in the water itself,” he said.
According to forest officials, the elephant had stayed in the water to get rid of flies which flock to a wound.
Asked to explain the confusion regarding Malappuram and Palakkad, Jinesh said, “The Velliyar river and just a bit beyond it is where the Silent Valley Mannarkad range ends. On the other side is the Nilambur range falling under Malappuram. But the elephant’s injury and death both happened within the confines of the Mannarkad range in Palakkad. The officer in charge of investigation is the Mannarkad DFO. The jurisdiction is clear from that. This entire stretch of the Velliyar is known to have animals straying into human habitations,” said Jinesh.
“Two years back we had sighted two leopards frequently straying into human habitations in our panchayat and the forest officers had managed to nab one of them and release it to the wild further away. There were no further problems of leopards since then. But elephants come by very frequently. When it gets dry inside the forests, we have 3-4 elephants straying to our areas almost daily. But there has never been any attacks from either side. Nobody has died from animal attacks either,” he added.
Salam, who lives near where the elephant was found and died eventually, gives a clearer picture. The timelines and details run a bit deeper.
“The forest officials were informed once people spotted the elephant loitering near the deeper parts of the river, not budging or moving. We informed them on May 24. At the time the elephant was standing atop the hills of Chali, barely 1.5 km away from the Ambalapara forest station. It was Udayan, a plantation worker, and Vinson, a local Adivasi who first saw the elephant.
(Video credit: Salam)
But nobody from the forest department came to check that day. The elephant stayed on top for the entire day. The next day, on May 25 at 6 am, the elephant was spotted at Kakkapara area of Ambalapara by Adivasis. Again the forest officials were informed. The same day at 7 am the elephant reached Theyakund.
It was then that the forest officials came. When they first found it, the elephant had been closer to the shore. Once the forest officers came, they tried to scare it away using crackers but the elephant would alternate between the banks and the water. They tried to scare it away to the forests as is their norm.
There is a hanging bridge nearby from where we could see it more closely without any risk. Once it was spotted that the animal was carrying an injury, locals had urged the officers to give the animal treatment.
Even the Kumki elephants were brought in only on May 27. The Kumkis reached by 12 pm or 1 pm but the officers didn’t do anything to help the elephant out of water till it was 4 or 5 pm. The elephant died by then having been standing in water for so long.
It was pretty much pointless by then. The villagers had offered it bananas and other fruits. But it was in too much pain and couldn’t eat anything. We kept many things by the river bank to no avail. Forest officers also did the same. But the elephant couldn’t eat.
At least some treatment should have been given by the forest officers. They didn’t. They never do that. All they were concerned about was to prevent the elephant from running into human habitations which was very close by.
They should have used tranquilizer and then given some kind of treatment. They didn’t do that. Villagers had asked them to do that. They didn’t,” said Salam.
The reasons for the delay should ideally come up prominently in the investigations as much as the other aspects.
Locals say they know what will happen next.
“They will just pin the blame on someone and close the chapter. Usually some or the other Adivasi is picked up. Yesterday itself they picked up three Adivasis. Both Udayan and Vinsen are also with them. Usually they don’t have anyone to go ask for them so the cases sit well on them,” said Salam.
Salam also has doubts about the origin of the pineapple story.
“I have heard stories of using crackers in pineapples when in my childhood. I have never seen them myself. There are no pineapple plantations in this area. All we have is rubber. So really I don’t know on what basis all of a sudden pineapple came up.
I was there all the time, I never heard anyone say anything about pineapple. It is possible that it could have been something sweet, something which elephants like. Maybe they know better. But there are no pineapple plantations in the vicinity,” he insists.
The Lede also spoke to the Panchayat president of Kottopadam panchayat who confirmed that the place where the elephant was first spotted and where it died was both inside his panchayat.
“The whole story of our place being in Malappuram is funny in itself. There is a whole other panchayat in between Kottopadam Panchayat and Malapuram district - Alanallur Panchayat,” he says.
As for the elephant’s death, he says it was unfortunate. “The forest officials tried to help but wasn’t enough.”
But locals like Salam have other details about why the delay in response happened.
“For a few days, there were no officers in the Ambalapara Forest station. They had picked up 3-4 people accusing them of hunting deer and beat one of them. This person vomited blood after which he was let off. Later, people came asking for the officers to beat them up by which time they had all vacated the premises. In one way we can say it is because of this elephant’s death that the officers are now back in the station. Else they were hiding.
Another reason for the delay is that RRT needed to rescue the elephants are not made available from nearby stations. It delays matters.” The RRT duty in this case was done by Mohan Krishnan who is attached to Nilambur Range.
As for the higher officials of the forest department, there is no confusion as to where the death happened.
Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) & Chief Wildlife Warden Surendrakumar IFS says, “This happened in Palakad district. Any news report quoting otherwise is untrue.”
The Hindu has reported that the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) & Chief Wildlife Warden said that this happened in Malappuram district.
The misreporting in this case unfortunately has given fodder for other elements to push their own narratives.
How do you start a polarising trend using an elephant?
First twist the narrative and then get bots to tweet the exact same messages.Once done, all it takes is for a union minister to spout a rather wild theory with no factual basis, setting the ground for mass communalisation.
Once that is done, all it takes is for an MP and a union minister to spout a rather wild theory with no factual basis, setting the ground for mass communalisation.
The Twitterati then take over, spewing hate on Malappuram, a Muslim-dominated district in Kerala.
The fact that Malappuram and its residents had little to do with the elephant’s death, is conveniently ignored and the by now twisted tale goes “viral”.
Click on this link to view the incessant spewing of communal hate, targeting Muslims over the death of the pregnant elephant.
Mainstream media, of course, reacts to this polarising debate on Twitter.
Despite having large networks of journalists all over the country, organisations like India Today, carry unverified reports which spread the twisted version of the narrative further.
The stars and “influencers” must react of course, and they do!
The Hindu pantheon of Gods is dragged into the melee.
And probably the most ludicrous and nauseating of the lot.
Rest in peace, elephant.