Churuli Komban, a wild elephant easily identified by his bent right tusk, is becoming an icon of harmony and human-elephant coexistence in Palakkad, Kerala
In summer, Churuli swims across the reservoir every evening after the sun goes down, to feast on ripe mangoes and palmyra fruits. Under the gorgeous setting sun, his dark silhouette is barely visible above the water's surface as his trunk sprays water up in the air. Elephants use their trunk like a snorkel to breathe underwater.
The forests of Palakkad, in the Western Ghats, are home to a tusker known as Churuli Komban. The male elephant, in his thirties, has been seen in these parts for about a decade and more. Nobody knows where he came from or if he has been around all his life, just keeping away from human-dominated spaces. Since 2010, when the human-elephant conflict intensified in Palakkad, Churuli Komban, named after his bent right tusk, has been a well-documented presence in the region.
Most of his companions are no more to be found, some of them disappearing back into the Ghats and other unfortunate ones getting hit by speeding trains on the busy Palakkad-Coimbatore railway line. But Churuli continues to traverse this landscape, joining the herd during musth (a periodic condition in bull elephants characterised by a rise in reproductive hormones), otherwise always seen around human habitations. Every day, Churuli carefully crosses the Palakkad-Coimbatore railway line to access the crop fields nearby. He knows the area better than any human inhabitant. He knows where to look for water during the dry summer season, which mango trees will bear fruit first, when the palmyra fruits ripen, and sometimes, I wonder if he even knows the train timings by heart.
Earlier, due to his identifiable right tusk, Churuli always took the blame for all the human deaths and injuries caused in the region by unfortunate interactions between humans and his brethren. But once people started seeing him regularly, and many even escaped unscathed from close encounters with the bent-tusked giant, at least a small portion of the local population has accepted him as a part of their lives. Even the forest department believes that Churuli is the one who cooperates the most during an elephant driving operation, never charging back. It will take some more years for us to accept that human-elephant coexistence is the way forward. Yet, Churuli is slowly but steadily transforming into an icon of harmony.
I have been lucky enough to witness and document parts of Churuli’s life in the last few years. Like the others, I have also had close, unexpected encounters with the tusker. Once, unaware of his presence behind me in a bush, I had wandered too close, and if not for his benevolent warning growl, I wouldn’t be here to write this story. Human-elephant coexistence is a journey, and I believe it depends on our attitude towards these gentle giants.
Friday, 20 January, 2023
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Aneesh Sankarankutty is more of an elephant photographer than a wildlife photographer. Lucky enough to have seen them from his early childhood, he developed a passion for photographing wild pachyderms. Aneesh's area of work is more focused than diversified, and it has helped him document some key natural history moments of the Indian Elephant.