Amid Upsurge of Animal Attacks, India’s Catholic Church Speaks Up for Kerala Farmers

A series of recent trampling deaths caused by rampaging elephants has focused attention on the issue.

Padamala torchlight protest.
Padamala torchlight protest. (photo: Courtesy photo / Deepika Daily)

Various elements of the local Catholic Church in India are mounting an unprecedented chorus of protest amid a recent surge in wild animal attacks, especially in the forest district of Wayanad in the southern state of Kerala.

According to Church representatives, the incidents — which include two trampling deaths caused by rampaging elephants — reflect an attitude among government officials that improperly downgrades the priority of protecting human lives below environmental protection and other concerns.

“The series of shocking elephant killings has terrorized the people. They are even scared to go out now,” Bishop Jose Porunnedam of Mananthavady, in the district of Wayanad, told the Register March 4.

The clamor over wild animal attacks followed the fatal trampling of a Catholic by a radio-collared wild elephant on Feb. 10. The huge animal broke through a gate before trampling 47-year-old Ajeesh Panachiyil, in the Padamala parish of the Diocese of Mananthavady. 

Bishop Porunnedam, who led the funeral service of the Catholic farmer, pointed out that another Catholic farmer had been mauled by a tiger in January.

Four days after the deadly trampling, on the evening of Ash Wednesday, Feb. 14, a road leading to St. Alphonsa Church in Padamala was the site of unprecedented protests. Angry residents, including some nuns, participated in a torchlight procession demanding the protection of people from wild animals.

That same day, not long after the recording of Panachiyil being trampled went viral, Vennamattathil Lissy of Padamala was lucky to escape a potential mauling by a tiger when she was going to morning Mass. As she heard a roar behind her, she ran toward a nearby house, believing it was coming from an elephant, as Panachiyil  had been killed less than 200 yards from the location.

“But later, I was told that it was a tiger,” Lissy recounted to the Register March 4.  A driver who witnessed the scene from his vehicle told her that as the tiger was pursuing her as she fled into the house of her neighbor Joy, a cat came out and distracted the tiger, which went after the feline instead.

“I still shudder when I think about what had happened,” Lissy said. 

On Feb. 16, 52-year-old Paul Vellachil, an Orthodox Church member and guide at the Kuruva Island ecotourism center in Kerala, was trampled to death by another wild elephant that forayed into the park. According to a forest ranger working there, the center had been closed for the previous week because of the deadly attack in Mananthavady that claimed Panachiyil ’s life, The New Indian Express reported.

On the night of Feb. 25, the Hindu driver of a three-wheeled vehicle was trampled to death by an elephant after it overturned the vehicle in a mountainous area of Kerala’s Idukki district, causing the driver to fall under the elephant’s feet.

On March 4, 70-year-old Indira Ramakrishnan was fatally gored and trampled by a wild elephant on her family’s rubber plantation as she was taking tea to her husband, who was overseeing the work of rubber tappers. Two more people were killed in separate incidents two days later, one by an elephant and the other by a wild Indian bison.

 

Church Leaders Speak Out

Several major Catholic organizations, including the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council (KCBC), the Laity Commission of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India and the Kerala-based Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, have issued statements calling for the prioritization of protecting human beings from marauding wild animals.

“One more life has been lost due to the failure of the responsible authorities to take effective measures to prevent wild animals from attacking human habitations,” Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil, who heads the Syro-Malabar Church, said in his statement. 

“An approach that does not value human life over animal life does not belong to a civilized society,” he said.

“Over time, Kerala has seen a rise in the quantity and intensity of wildlife attacks. There has been a noticeable rise in wildlife attacks in Wayanad and neighboring districts in the past year,” noted the KCBC in its Feb. 18 statement.

Urging officials not to opt for an “easy solution” by suppressing people’s concerns and fears, the KCBC requested prompt measures to devise policies allowing for the culling of wildlife that pose significant threat to the lives and property of citizens.

“The forest and environmental laws give preference to wild animals over human lives. The laws do not permit people to shoot or kill attacking animals in human habitations,” Bishop Porunnedam said.

“The Church has been repeatedly raising this issue, as the government follows pro-environment policy without protecting the farmers living in peripheries of mountain areas to which marauding animals foray, often seeking food and water.”

Although the government has an existing provision to provide one million rupees (US$12,000) in instalments for the family of an individual killed in such an attack, Bishop Porunnedam said a “much greater compensation package is required,” as the lives of hundreds of farmers have been compromised by hordes of elephants that demolish crops like bananas and uproot coconut tree saplings that could be sources of solid incomes for decades.

Short of food and water in drier periods, the wild animals foray into human habitation frequently, with insufficient forest guards and other resources available to alert residents and provide shelter when they are overrun. Recently, after a wild elephant came into the center of the town of Mananthavady, offices and schools were forced to close while officials mobilized to chase the elephant back into the forest 15 miles away. 

In another incident, Bishop Porunnedam recounted how a bear generated havoc for days by breaking into kitchens of homes hunting for sugary foods and attacking people before it was tranquilized. “Human life and habitation cannot be left at the mercy of wild animals,” he said.  

More than 200 families in parishes bordering forests in the diocese, the bishop said, “have moved out due to frequent crop destruction by wild animals and threats to human life. They are scared to send small children to school, and young men find it difficult to get married, as brides’ families desist from marrying those living in vulnerable areas.”

 


Governor Meets Bishop

More than 30% of Wayanad district’s population of 800,000 are Catholics, alongside of additional Christian denominations. 

This large Christian presence induced Kerala Gov. Arif Mohammad Khan to travel to the Mananthavady bishop’s house to discuss the situation. And it was reporting by the local Catholic newspaper, Deepika (“Light”), the oldest of all daily newspapers in Kerala, that took the lead in terms of focusing the attention of public authorities on the wildlife attacks.

On Feb. 22, Deepika filled its entire front page with photos of 85 “martyrs” killed in recent wild animal attacks.

Front page of the Deepika Daily. courtesy
Front page of the Deepika Daily.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

As a follow-up a week later, on Feb. 29, the Catholic newspaper published a second page full of photos of “living martyrs” to the silent suffering of those injured and disabled by wild-animal attacks. 

“We have a list of 650 deaths from wild-animal attacks from the forest department of Kerala [during 2019-2023],” Father George Kudilil, Deepika’s editor-in-chief, told the Register. “That is why we decided to put in in an innovative way.”

The Catholic newspaper’s efforts earned praise from M.K. Sanu, an eminent local Hindu author, who publicly “thanked Deepika on behalf of Kerala society.”

“In many countries, permission to shoot or kill marauding animals lies with elected people’s councils,” Father Kudilil said. “But in India, it lies with the government. That is a serious problem. There must be a review of the policy.”

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