Moorthy k.il.led 21 people and terrorized entire villages in southern India for years before being captured and retrained to repel similar at.ta.cks by other wild elephants starved by deforestation.
The 58-year-old gray monster, recognizable from the bright pink spots on his face, has been spared the d.ea.th penalty after trampling nearly a dozen people in the southern state of Kerala.
Despite an official order to shoot him d.ea.d, Moorthy escaped across state lines to neighboring Tamil Nadu, where he went on to ki.l.l 10 more people.
But the state government there “forbade harming the elephant,” and in 1998, he was instead sent to Theppakadu camp for taming, said Kirumaran M., his trainer.
The diminutive 55-year-old said: “Ever since I coached Moorthy, for many years, he’s been like an innocent child and hasn’t hurt anyone.”
“He’s so calm that whether a small child comes to play with him or hugs him, he will never hurt them.”
Established in 1927, Theppakadu Elephant Camp is India’s largest elephant camp.
Semi-wild but cared for by human hands, “Kumkis” like Moorthy are brought there each morning by their caretakers for a thorough bath and released into the nearby forests each evening.
They have been trained to support manual labor – their ability to carry up to 150 kg (330 pounds) makes them valuable workers.
Herbivores are also “ecosystem engineers” who spend up to 16 hours a day foraging in their surroundings, leaving behind a trail of seeding debris and helping forests to thrive.
– Hand-in-trunk defense –
But most importantly for the communities surrounding the camp, they help prevent increasingly frequent and aggressive incursions by wild elephants venturing into settled areas in search of food, leaving their inhabitants fearful of a.tt.ack.
Shanti Ganesh, a woman living near the Theppakadu camp, said: “The wild elephants that come to the village and our children are very vulnerable.
“They (the children) have to go to the main street to get to school, so we’re always worried they might be a.tta.c.ked.”
Working hand-in-trunk with their “mahouts” or their handlers, the Theppakadu herds are trained to confront and repel elephants outside from villages.
They also sometimes help surround and capture the interlopers to get into the camp and train to serve the surrounding community.
“Sankar here had at.t.acked and ki.l.led at least three people in the village and so we were ordered to capture him,” said Vikram, an elephant handler at Theppakadu, gesturing to the monster behind him.
“We caught him with the help of other kumkis and now we are also training Sankar.”
– ‘Because they’re hungry. –
According to the Worldwide Fund for Nature, India is home to about 25,000 elephants – about 60% of the wild elephant population in Asia.
But human encroachment on their forest home has brought them into conflict with humans.
“The reason elephants a.tt.ack people or property is because of habitat loss,” said Kirumaran, the trainer.
“All the forests where they once lived have turned into human towns or villages – they a.tt.ack because of hunger.”
According to Indian government figures, more than 2,300 people were k.ill.ed in elephant a.tt.acks between 5 and 2019.
During the same period, the figures show more than 500 elephants d.i.ed, including 333 from electric shock and about 100 from po.ach.ing and poi.son.ing.
Ananda Kumar of the Nature Conservancy of India said that any elephant involved in the d.e.a.dly stampede could be provoked by violent confrontations with humans trying to ward off the creature away.
“That elephant could have been chased and driven away for months,” he said.
“It’s the kind of torture that elephants go through and has to be stopped.”
He said he had witnessed with his own eyes an elephant being s.h.ot so many times that a veterinarian was able to remove almost 100 bullets from its body when it finally di.e.d.
Experts say preventing conflict between elephants and humans depends on protecting and expanding elephant habitats and linking up isolated patches of forest to create corridors that give them more space to wander.
Kumar added: “When a development project is planned, it must take to consider the impact on … species like elephants, and the people who depend on these forested areas.