Murthy had killed 28 people when the Kerala government issued an order that he could be shot on sight. Within a week, the serial killer who’d been terrorizing the South Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu fled into deep forests nearby. When the forest department tracked him down that summer of 1998, they chose to spare his life … and convinced him to join the police force. Murthy, a 9-foot-tall Indian elephant, would soon go from a killer to a kumki, a trained pachyderm who helps capture and chase away wild elephants who wreak havoc on human settlements.
Between 2015 and 2018, human-elephant conflicts led to 1,713 human deaths and 373 elephant deaths in India, according to official data. While electrocution and poaching remain primary causes of death in elephants, encroachment on elephant habitats has led to increased attacks on humans. Wild elephants in musth (a periodic condition in males where hormones rise and the animals become aggressive) are known to be extremely dangerous both to humans and to other elephants. Murthy had trampled and gored his way through the region, even as locals shot at him.
When the forest department decided to capture Murthy alive, it took six kumkis, explains Dr. K. Ashokan, a veterinarian who attended Murthy during his capture. They sent him to the Mudumalai elephant camp in Theppakadu, Tamil Nadu, which had been used to rehabilitate murderous elephants for decades. For several weeks, doctors worked to earn Murthy’s trust, while they fed him antibiotics and removed 15 bullets from his body, treatments that cost roughly $7,000. After two months of nutritious food, proper medication, care and training, Murthy was a whole new elephant.
“Elephants are extremely sensitive. So, we first set up a division in their cage. We enter and touch them from the other side of the partition to help them get over their sensitivity,” explains Kirumaran, the mahout, or trainer, who tamed Murthy. “We then train them using simple-sounding commands and condition them using treats like sugar cane or jaggery. They are like children, and we treat them so.” After two months of training, Murthy was ready for the outside world.
Or so they thought. As they were walking through the jungle, Murthy suddenly bolted. Dr. Ashokan and his team froze … but the elephant simply ran past them to a small pond, where he started playing. He came back to his trainer on his own accord. “We were stunned,” says Ashokan. He also remembers ducking between Murthy’s legs to give him an injection when a dog ran by, making the elephant turn … with his foot hovering directly over the doctor’s head. “He sniffed me and gently moved his leg without touching me,” Ashokan says. And what they say about elephant memories proved true for Murthy: Thirteen years after they’d parted, he still remembered his doctor.
But some think the training process is tantamount to torture for the wild elephants. “From using speakers near the forest to setting up farms within the jungle, it is we who trespass and disturb the elephant’s territory,” says lawyer and animal activist N. Paneerselvan. Earlier this year, he ran a campaign to free Chinnathambi, a wild elephant captured by the Tamil Nadu forest department after it raided human crops, but a court eventually ruled that Chinnathambi was unfit to return to the wild and would have to go to elephant camp instead.
Paneerselvan suggests that if the forest department would protect ponds, which elephants use for drinking and as a respite from the heat, the animals wouldn’t bother human villages. Wildlife activist Surya says villagers also try to woo the wild elephants using jackfruits, so they can take selfies. Interacting with wild animals isn’t a good idea, he says, but he’s been impressed by the bond trainers have with their elephants. “I have seen an elephant refusing to eat till it’s mahout returned back from a trip,” he says.
Forest officials say their primary aim is always to get the elephant back into the forests, and that only elephants who are orphaned, hurt or have trampled crops or people are captured. Of those, just a few are trained to be kumkis: There are five kumkis in the Mudumalai camp, which is the oldest in Asia, and they’re used only to rescue wild elephants or to chase away those trying to encroach on human habitats.
“Killer elephants like Murthy that would have been killed otherwise get a second chance here,” says a forest official who wished to remain anonymous. Wild elephants that do not react to the siren sounds used to scare them away from fields head back to the forests when they see a towering kumki approaching.
Murthy, now 55, is retired and still lives in the camp. His kumki duties behind him, his life is spent eating and occasionally posing for pictures. In the evenings, his trainer bathes him. He and the other camp elephants lead semi-wild lives, roaming the jungle at night and returning for food in the mornings. While elephants are wild animals and should be left alone, the kumki system has provided a second chance for at least a few of the animals, protecting them from encroaching humans … while ensuring that nobody gets trampled.
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