In a cruel irony, a man credited with reducing incidents of man-animal conflicts, among many other achievements, suffered a tragic death on World Wildlife Day after being attacked by a wild elephant.
On Saturday, Conservator of Forests and director of Nagarhole Tiger Reserve for two years, 45-year-old S Manikandan (IFS) along with other officers had ventured into the forests of Dodda Byranakuppe by the Kabini backwaters to inspect a minor forest fire.
According to reports, the 2001-batch officer was briefing his colleagues when a lone tusker came from behind and charged at the group. Unfortunately, Manikandan lost his balance while trying to escape and was trampled by the jumbo. Another officer in the group, RFO Subramanya, sustained minor injuries.
Doctors at the HD Kote Hospital declared him brought dead. Following his demise, the Karnataka government presented state honours to the departed soul in the presence of senior forest officers. His mortal remains were sent to Madurai.
Manikandan had previously served in the northern districts of Ballari, Bidar, Raichur and had even been part of the BMTC as the conservator and director (IT) in Bengaluru.
He had studied Agricultural Sciences at the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University before pursuing a master’s and then PhD in Agricultural Entomology. Before securing a rank in the IFS, he served as a faculty in the Institute of Wood Science and Technology for a brief period.
Manikandan, who hailed from Tamil Nadu’s Theni district, was a favourite among villagers from the surrounding areas for his efforts to conserve nature and in the process reducing incidents of man-animal conflicts. He had worked extensively to limit instances of cattle smuggling and elephant killing.
It was not only locals who took a liking to Manikandan, to his colleagues he was an inspiration.
Incidentally, questions have been raised if the foresters followed the standard protocol of carrying firearms while entering the forest.
Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) Punnati Sridhar told TNM, “This is an extremely unfortunate incident. He was a sincere, honest, hardworking officer. More than that, he was totally committed to conservation. He contained most of the problems in Nagarhole. Earlier too he did an excellent job in Ballari despite political pressure. He would go only by the rulebook.”
“He was very good with people, and also bridged the gap between the locals and the department,” Sridhar added.
"Yesterday’s incident was unfortunate. These are hazards which are part of the job. Yes, there were no weapons with them but it’s hard to say if that would have helped. It was a sudden attack by a lone male elephant. There must have been a strong camouflage… we usually keep a distance from wild animals. I would not say there was any neglect on anyone’s part, but I have sought a report,” he said.
“It is by god’s grace that the RFO was spared and unfortunately Manikandan slipped. These sort of incidents happen in the wild despite all precautions. It was a core area, it was only because there was a fire that he had gone to inspect,” he explained.
Dipika Bajpai (IFS), currently posted as the Deputy Conservator of Forests, remembers Manikandan as an honest, upright officer who never compromised on rules.
Speaking to TNM, Dipika said, “I worked under him for a year when he was the Conservator of Forests in Bengaluru in 2015. Initially it was difficult to work with him since he was very strict; slowly with time I realised that he was also a warm person.”
“He was an honest officer who stuck to the rules whatever happened. He was very academic but also someone who always smiled,” she added.
Similarly, Mallapa Puttanna, a retired forest officer (DCF rank) who worked with Manikandan for some time, expressed shock over the tragedy. Terming the officer’s contribution invaluable, he said his death was a loss to the IFS fraternity.
“It is very sad. He was a very good officer and used to manage wildlife very well. He was especially able in handling elephants. It is strange that there was a 15-member party present when this happened. But it will be wrong for us to speculate sitting here,” Puttana told TNM.
An activist and forest department volunteer, Sunil Baber, who has worked with Manikandan termed him as a man of humility.
“He was extremely humble, a down to earth and simple man who believed in leading from the front. Although he was the CF, he was the person who was always on the ground. He could have easily asked the concerned field staff to do the job,” Sunil said.
Sunil claimed it was people with ill intentions who were responsible for this tragedy, “All these forest fires are actually manmade. The animals are in constant stress, on one side there are electrified fences and then there are these fires. When unprovoked, elephants are the most peaceful animals. It is extremely unfortunate that a man who had been protecting the forests and wildlife had to suffer this,” he said.
A source close to the Kabini Forest Division said, “Manikandan was one of those rare senior officers who would go on the ground to work. Otherwise most senior officers conveniently take postings in Bengaluru.”
It was not only those who knew Manikandan personally that had words of respect for the man. Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, former CM Yeddyurappa and President Ramnath Kovind tweeted messages of condolences to his family while Tamil Nadu CM Edappadi Palaniswami gave a media statement.