The Hindu

Poachers play deadly ivory game in Kerala forests

Artefacts carved from “fresh tusks.”Artefacts carved from “fresh tusks.”

13 kg of elephant teeth and ivory artefacts seized, exposing resurgent trade linking Thiruvananthapuram and Kolkata

The word on the street early this April about a hair loss remedy, an oil which contained ground wild elephant teeth kindled the curiosity of forest officers in Kerala.

Their investigations into the rumour led them to “Hasthadantha” Mashi, an ancient Ayurvedic salve that is said to aid hair growth. Word spread and so did the demand for the hair oil. This was bad news for wild elephants. Along with ivory, their teeth were also now in demand.

In pursuit of the poachers, investigators tapped into a network of wildlife traffickers in south India and learnt that animal trappers in Idukki Wild Life Sanctuary had elephant teeth to sell. An enforcement official, posing as an Ayurvedic practitioner and a buyer of wildlife trophies, met with the suspects a few times, dropped names of wealthy buyers, showed them money and gained their trust.

Fresh kills

A deal was struck. He could buy elephant teeth, for ₹7,000 per kg. A delivery spot was identified. The official notified other investigators, who arrested the suspects and seized 13 kg of elephant teeth on May 26.

The faint odour of putrefaction and dampish bone marrow residue indicated that the teeth could be from a fresh kill.

In March 2017, officials similarly seized 10 kg of elephant teeth from Anchal forest range in Kollam. But at the time, they could not see the connection or recognise what fuelled the bizarre demand for the animal part.

On March 29, 2018, another undercover operation led to the seizure of ivory figurines from wildlife traffickers operating in Paruthipally range in Thiruvananthapuram. An investigator said their shine indicated that the statuettes of Hindu gods had been carved recently from “fresh tusks.”

It seemed that after a lull of two years, once again, there was a growing market for magic cures while ivory artefacts also witnessed renewed demand. Since January 2017, forest officers say they have seized more than 50 kg of ivory from traffickers in Kerala. Yet, the provenance of much of the impounded ivory remained unknown. Investigations often hit a dead-end because forest officers, dreading departmental action, were loath to admit wild elephant killings in their jurisdiction.

An elephant tooth seized by Forest Department officials.

An elephant tooth seized by Forest Department officials.

To dodge departmental enquiries, some incorrectly certified that the tusks were from elephants that had died due to natural causes. In 2017, at least three carcasses of wild elephants were discovered by chance in Chithalathu, Nagaranpara and Pariyaram in Wayanad, Kottayam and Thrissur districts respectively.

The post-mortem examinations on the decomposed bodies were inconclusive. They were found disintegrated and in at least one case burned, possibly in a forest fire or by wildlife traffickers themselves.

Officials say that elephants are vulnerable to poaching in at least 20 forest localities in the State, especially during monsoon. The areas also include forests contiguous to Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

A review conducted by Chief Conservator, Dr. B. S Corrie after the killing of at least a score of wild elephants in Malayattoor, Vazhachal and Munnar forest divisions in 2014-15 helped the forest department map the poorly protected sites.

The slaughter of at least 18 tuskers for their ivory in the deep forests had come to light when one of the gang members, a forest watcher who moonlighted as a guide for the poachers, had a change of heart and disclosed the killings.

Operation Shikkar

K. D. Kunjumon’s confession on May 21, 2015, to officers in Athirapally forest range had prompted “Operation Shikkar”, that resulted in the seizure of 464 kg of ivory and the arrest of 73 persons. The probe that unfolded across the country revealed how poachers shot elephants dead on order, hacked their tusks with camp axes and delivered the ivory to Thiruvananthapuram-based middle-men.

Thiruvananthapuram is the hub of ivory trade in South India because of its vast pool of traditional artisans who are adept at carving wood, animal bone and also ivory. Traffickers offer them higher wages than what they get for working on wood or camel bone.

Operation Shikkar relied heavily on the personal journal of an ivory trafficker targeted a secret warehouse in New Delhi, which had operated under cover of a handicrafts shop.

It showed how the poachers led by Aikkaramattom Vasu alias Varattupara Veerappan — a sobriquet the hunter earned for his skilled shooting with locally made muzzle loaders — remained off the forest department’s radar for years and ranged freely in dense forests, killing tuskers. It also led to the seizure of 28 guns hidden in forest locations.

In the thick of woods

Vasu’s method was to camp in the forest for days with few aides. They survived mostly on dried rice balls to avoid lighting fires. Vasu enlisted the help of tribals and corrupt forest watchers to shoot tuskers. He was then found dead, hanging in a remote pineapple farm in Sindhudurgh district in Maharashtra in 2015, and thereafter ivory seizures dwindled with his collaborators on the run.

However, now officials fear that front-persons of Thiruvananthapuram-based ivory traders have recommenced their operations.

Officials say the accused have now shifted their operations to Kolkata. Now, a woman from Thiruvananthapuram, who goes by the moniker “Calcutta Thankachi” heads the illegal operations.

She has hired artisans from Thiruvananthapuram to carve ivory and accommodated them in West Bengal. Investigators say that she along with her Mumbai-based associate, who goes by the name “Pi Mundi” are responsible for the resurgence of the ivory trade.

Officers say they have partly responded to the threat by identifying and naming big herds and counting them in their home range with particular emphasis on photographing and documenting tuskers.

They also have suggested equipping forest watchers with GPS to track their movements, and placing camera traps and other remote sensors to deter poachers.