When the majestic mammoth was suddenly seen emerging from the dark and turned to his estate grocery shop silently in the wee hours, frightening anxiety and helplessness gripped Punyavel, who woke up hearing the dog barking.
As the female elephant tried to break into the tin-roofed building after destroying its wooden-panel door, the terrified vendor and his family could do nothing but make some feeble sounds staying within their house, which was just a wall away from the shop.
It was for the 14th time that the man with origins in Tamil Nadu and his family, who makes a living by running a shop at a local estate, had a narrow escape from the clutches of wild elephants last week in Munnar, one of the most sought-after hill stations in Kerala widely called the “Kashmir of the South” by travel buffs for its scenic beauty and cool climate, in the last 10 years.
Not just Punyavel but Ouseph, a fruit and vegetable vendor whose shop was attacked seven times by the pachyderm, and Palraja, who fell into death trap due to the frequent jumbo raids at his outlet, are among the hundreds of ordinary people who bore the brunt of the jumbo menace in this hill station.
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For them, Munnar is not just about vast tea plantations, pristine valleys, scenic mountains and expansive grasslands but also about endless elephant fury, fear for life and debt traps.
Punyavel said he initially had a sigh of relief seeing the female jumbo vanish into the dark after her hours-long shop raid but plunged into gloom suddenly after realizing that he had to pick up pieces to rebuild the destroyed shop and bring back life in order again.
“The female jumbo was part of a herd of wild elephants straying into the estate last week. Throughout the time the pachyderm was destroying my shop, a tusker and two calves could be seen waiting for her outside the building,” he told PTI.
His ancestors had settled in this Kerala tourist town years ago and the family has been running a grocery shop at Chokanad Estate, located about 1.5 kms away from Munnar town, for the last several decades.
The hapless man said he does not know the reason why the animal was particularly attacking his shop.
From the CCTV visuals of the shop, it was clear how the angry jumbo was taking each cardboard box from the shop with his tusk and crushing it after throwing it on the cement floor.
“I have no issue if it takes something from the shop and eats it. It may be due to its hunger pangs. But, here, the jumbos are destroying everything in my shop. As our house is also just near the shop, we are living with extreme fear and anxiety every day,” he said.
The 50-year old man and his two sons had a close shave from the wild jumbos some months back when they tried to chase them away making noise. The pachyderm had also broken the compound wall of the house another day.
Each time the jumbos attacked his shop, Punyavel would fall into a debt trap again.
The man said he had not got any compensation from the Forest Department so far despite repeated filing of requests and complaints.
When the 62-year old K Palraja had rebuilt his fruit shop near Grahamsland Estate, over two km away from the town, again after the jumbos destroyed it last year, the elephant came twice in a gap of two weeks and gulped down the fruits again.
Shibu, a local journalist residing in Munnar, said the COVID pandemic also seemed to have a role in the increasing instances of wild elephants straying into human settlements in the tourist town in recent times.
“After the imposition of lockdown curbs, the human intervention was very less in the otherwise busy areas. The decreased presence of men and unusual silence may also be a reason that persuades jumbos to stray into settlement areas,” he told PTI.
Leading wildlife expert Dr P S Easa also agreed to the “lockdown factor” to some extent for the recent spurt in the straying of wild jumbos.
He, however, said the increased animal intrusion in places like Munnar was not the fault of wild creatures but that of humans who have claimed its traditional territory and constructed houses and resorts there.
A host of reasons including shrinking habitat of elephants, the tendency to travel through their traditional route, the secondary growth of flora in fringe areas due to less human intervention during the lockdown period and so on might be the reasons for the increased jumbo presence, he said.
“Jumbos generally like the areas having secondary growth, where plants and shrubs grow like forests. Waste management is also an issue as garbage always attracts them,” Easa told PTI.
Besides fruits, articles like salt, stored in grocery shops, also an attraction for jumbos, which can be a reason for its constant raids at Punyavel’s shop, the expert added.
Meanwhile, despite all these spine-chilling incidents, the people of the high range were keen to give unique names to these frequently straying pachyderms.
While a constant crop-raiding jumbo was named “Padayappa”, after Tamil superstar Rajnikanth”s macho character in a 1999 year film, another one, expert in breaking metal fences around farms, was christened as “4G.””
A jumbo roaming around with a piece of hose stuck to its tusk was known as “Hosekomban” and another one, known for his love for ”ari” (rice), was called “Arikomban”. “Chillikomaban”, a tusker with twig shaped tusk, the highly dangerous “Murivalan ” and well-behaved “Sugunan” were some of the wild jumbos having unique names in this high range district.
Located 1,600 metres above sea level in the biodiversity hot spot of the Western Ghats, Munnar was once the summer resort of the erstwhile British government in South India.