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Syro-Malabar bishop demands 'exemplary action’ over elephant attack

The head of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church criticized authorities in the southern Indian state of Kerala Saturday after a man was trampled to death by an elephant.

An elephant in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Athul Iyju Jacob via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil, who has led the Syro-Malabar Church since January, said in a Feb. 10 statement that the death of Ajeesh Joseph Panachiyil, a married father of two in his 40s, was “a disgrace to Kerala.”

Closed-circuit television footage recorded Saturday morning showed an elephant crashing through the gate of a compound in Kerala’s Wayanad district, which borders Karnataka state. Indian elephants are up to 10 feet tall and can weigh as much as 11,000 pounds.

Adults and children fled from the animal, but Ajeesh was unable to find refuge. He was taken to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead. 

In response to his death, thousands of people protested in the local town of Mananthavady. Protesters carried Ajeesh’s body, wrapped in a black body bag and laying on a stretcher, through the streets, stopping traffic. They demanded that officials shoot the elephant and compensation be paid to the deceased’s family.


According to local media, the elephant, known as Belur Makna, had been captured in October 2023 by forestry department officials in Karnataka state, following reports that it had raided crops and disturbed human habitats. The elephant was reportedly fitted with a radio collar and released in a forest range near the border with Kerala.

Major Archbishop Thattil said that Ajeesh had been “tragically killed as his loved ones watched.” 

“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,” he said. 

“A radio-collared elephant got loose in a residential area. Exemplary action should be taken against the defaulting officers in this regard.”

Thattil added: “The government should take a serious approach to this issue in view of the increasing number of killings and destruction of crops by wild animals. An approach that does not value human life over animal life does not belong to a civilized society.” 

Bishop Jose Porunnedom, head of the Syro-Malabar Diocese of Mananthavady, presided at Ajeesh’s funeral Feb. 11 at St. Alphonsa Church in Padamana.

The diocese had published a report Feb. 6 describing as “totally inadequate” the allocation of funds in the state budget for the prevention of harassment by wild animals.

“In Kerala, people are being killed and agricultural lands are being destroyed every day due to wild animal encroachment,” it said. “In this situation, appropriate and necessary compensation should be taken by the government.” 

Kerala Forest Department officials reportedly accused their counterparts in Karnataka state of failing to provide the technical support necessary for locating an animal with a radio collar.

The news portal Onmanorama quoted an unnamed official as saying that there was a lag of five to eight hours in tracking an animal’s movements.

“Only if we are provided with the right equipment and it is antenna-supported and tuned to the right frequency, we would be able to track the elephant movement at the right time,” the official said.

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Kerala is the heartland of the Syro-Malabar Church, the second-largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome after the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. 

There are more than 6 million Christians in Kerala, the largest Christian population in any of India’s 28 states. Christians account for around 18% of the state’s total population of roughly 35 million people.

The Syro-Malabar Church’s members include farmers living on the edge of the Western Ghats, a mountain range running approximately parallel to India’s western coast. The Western Ghats ecoregion is home to around 11,000 wild Indian elephants. 

Kerala state authorities have identified more than 1,000 locations prone to conflicts between humans and animals.

Cheriyan Joseph, a farmer in Kerala’s Idukki district, told UCA News that he believed state laws were designed more to protect animals than safeguard human life and property.

“We are unable to protect our farms,” he said.

More than 900 people are reported to have been killed by animals in Kerala since 2016, a rate of more than 100 a year. The danger is not only from wild elephants. Tigers, wild boars, and gaurs (Indian bison) have also attacked people.

In recent years, the Western Ghats forest area has suffered from the effects of climate change. Observers suggest that rising temperatures may be reducing the amount of available water, leading to an increase in human-animal conflict.

Local media reported that experts were seeking to track down Belur Makna with the help of trained elephants, with the aim of translocating the animal to an elephant camp.

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