Two Indian tourists from Ahmedabad in Gujarat have been trampled to death by an elephant during a trekking expedition in the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala.
One of the dead is a 50-year-old woman, a scientist working with the Space Application Centre of the Indian Space Research Organisation. She and her husband, 52, were part of an eight-member group that had gone with a guide on a two-hour trekking expedition organised by the state forest department. The guide suffered injuries.
According to media reports, the flash of the camera as the couple tried to take a picture of a herd of elephants is said to have provoked an elephant which charged at them from the path that ran through a cardamom plantation. They are reported to have died on the spot.
Sanjayan Kumar, deputy director of Periyar Tiger Reserve, told IBTimes UK that the reserve's tourism programmes are safe, with treks in risk areas including armed guards.
"The visitors are told the do's and don's prior to their programmes. Life jackets are compulsory for undertaking the bamboo rafting. Leach socks are provided for protection while walking in the forest, Most important we should respect wildlife and should not disturb them by going very closely to them. But when tourists do not listen to the accompanying staff and guides, they may face such eventualities," he said referring to the recent tragedy.
Wildlife observers agree to the lousy forest manners that most Indian tourists display. "We don't know how to behave in forests. It is riskier as elephants have/ are becoming touchy in the presence of people. This is probably due to conflict issues with people firing at them and pellets getting embedded," said a forest department official.
The Periyar Tiger reserve spanning roughly 1000 sq km won the UNDP award for the best managed Protected Area in the country in 2012.
Two years ago, a software engineer was found dead in the Bannerghatta National Park in Bangalore's suburbs. He had wandered into the forest with two friends and was trampled by elephants.
Trekking in buffer zones of tiger reserves comes with huge risks as elephants routinely frequent these paths which are part of their migratory routes.
In 2013-14, 19 people, mostly tribals living in areas around the forest, were killed in encounters with wild elephants in the reserved forests of Kerala. The tribals go into the forest in search of firewood and minor forest produce.
Tourist numbers high
Gavi, where the recent incident took place, is a popular tourist destination with its undulating grasslands and teak forests. During the peak season, over 1,000 tourists visit Gavi daily.
The Periyar Tiger Reserve has a healthy elephant population which is a major crowd-puller. As part of its conservation programmes the forest department has organised many eco-programmes which include day and night treks besides stays at the anti-poaching camps for hardy trekkers.
The increasing number of visitors in Gavi has been a source of concern for the department which wants to restrict the numbers and reduce disturbance to wildlife.
Gradual encroachment of forest land that is turned into tea estates or farm lands have led to increasing human- elephant conflicts in southern and north eastern parts of the country.
With less than 3% of the country's geographical area falling under protected area, experts have been calling for the need to ensure that connectivity is not lost amidst fragmented pieces of land.
Organisations like the Wildlife Trust of India have been working to facilitate wildlife movement across landscapes dominated by human habitations, agricultural lands, busy roads and railways.
Every year, around 100-300 humans and 40-50 elephants are killed in human-animal clashes across various parts of India.
Last year the southern state of Kerala alone reported the death of 106 elephants in nine months, with poaching for ivory, loss of habitat, poor protection and violation of animal rights being the major reasons.
The number of Indian elephants in the wild has been estimated to be around 26,000, down by 50% in less than three decades.
The Asian elephant was declared an endangered species in 1986.