Environmentalist website Conservation India is reporting on the rise of a new and disturbing spectator sport that has emerged in south India's Coimbatore forests. It's the practice of "elephant taunting," a bizarre and incredibly dangerous activity in which onlookers harass elephants to the point of retaliation. The activity has likely contributed to the dramatic rise in Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) over the past couple of years, prompting locals and environmentalists to call upon the authorities to put a stop to the ridiculous practice.
The Coimbatore Forests are home to a significant population of elephants. The region, which extends from Walayar in the South to Sirumugai in the North, provides six major corridors for the elephants to travel. But it's also home to hundreds of factories and multinational corporations. This collision of nature with human activities has increased the frequency of interactions between the two species, and not for the better.
To understand what was going on, Conservation India sent two reporters, Aritra Kshettry and Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan, to the area to investigate. Soon after their arrival, they were greeted by the sight of a trumpeting, distressed elephant running scared at the edge of the forest.
On the outskirts of Coimbatore city, brick kilns stand in the place of what used to be an elephant corridor used by generations of these gentle giants. It appears that ‘elephant-taunting' has become a spectator sport in the region. A well-connected network of local informants sends messages to people interested in the ‘game' when elephants are spotted. As soon as word spreads about a herd's location, the crowd pours in on motorbikes, cycles and on foot. Our enquiries revealed that although there are local residents involved in such acts, most of the people who take part in the ‘game' are migrant brick kiln workers from faraway places.
One day, we received news from our local contact about a herd of elephants coming to the edge of the forest. By the time we reached the spot, we were shocked to find ourselves amidst a mob of local youths, about a hundred strong, who were jeering and howling at a herd of elephants and provoking them. The matriarch positioned herself between the crowd and the herd, trying in vain to calm the young members of her family. Sometimes the men, mostly youths trying to prove their machismo, walked right up to the elephants to instigate them and induce some reaction. The elephants reacted by mock charges now and then, when the men came too close. The poor animals did not know how to respond to the audacious advances of the unruly mob.
The elephants were clearly traumatized, as reflected by their constant distress calls. These seemed to goad the people further to amplify their howling. The elephants appeared to be waiting for nightfall to cross the clearing and move into the next forest patch, which is contiguous with the Nilgiris landscape. The barbaric spectacle we witnessed seems to be a regular affair, and the crowd seems to draw a sadistic pleasure from confronting the gentle giants and elicit some sort of distress response.
Once nightfall arrived, the crowds dispersed, and the elephants tried to make their way into an adjacent forest patch. But the episode left Kshettry and Vijayakrishnan convinced that it was a disaster waiting to happen. And indeed, a week after they observed this taunting, the Hindu reported the death of two persons as a result of similar incidents.
Images via Conservation India.