Indian police have arrested a plantation worker and are hunting two others after a pregnant elephant died after eating fruit laced with explosives, officials said Saturday, in a case that shocked the country.
The elephant died in agony last week in the southern state of Kerala, the latest casualty of a growing conflict in South Asia between nature and humans as ever more forest is lost to urban expansion.
Footage of the animal standing in a river for hours with its badly injured mouth and trunk in the water as it slowly weakened went viral, triggering horror online.
P. Wilson was arrested on Friday after he allegedly placed fruits filled with explosives to keep creatures - mainly wild boar - away from his rubber plantation.
"The man has admitted that they used the explosive-filled coconuts to target the wild animals," Surendra Kumar, Kerala's chief wildlife warden, told AFP.
Two of his associates were still at large, the officer said.
Kumar said the men made several "coconut bombs" in the second week of May, and left them near the plantation boundary.
Officials said it was unclear when exactly the 15-year-old elephant consumed the rigged fruit but it was found injured on May 25, two days before it died.
Forest officials said the explosion caused severe damage to its mouth, leaving the creature unable to eat or drink for days.
Villagers across India often use explosive or firecracker-filled fruits - which act like pressure-activated landmines - as bait to target wild animals that threaten crops and homes.
A similar incident was reported last month in a nearby Kerala district, when a female pachyderm was found with serious mouth injuries.
If convicted, the men could face up to seven years in jail for killing an elephant, a protected animal under Indian wildlife laws.
The latest incident caused widespread outrage on social media, including from several sports and Bollywood celebrities, who condemned the "inhuman act" and called for harsh action against the perpetrators.
But it stirred another controversy after several Hindu right-wing figures on social media turned the death into a hate campaign against Muslims, falsely claiming that the community were behind the incident.
Many right-wing Hindu figures alleged online the creature was specifically targeted because the animal is an embodiment of Lord Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu deity.
Members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party, including environment minister Prakash Javadekar and parliamentarian Maneka Gandhi, also claimed the event happened in Malappuram, a Muslim-majority district.
The incident took place in Palakkad district, some 80 kilometres away.
India is home to nearly 30,000 elephants, equivalent to 60 percent of the world's wild Asian pachyderms.
But urban expansion has put the animals in conflict with humans.
About 2,360 people were killed in elephant attacks between 2014 and 2019, according to Indian government data.
In the same period about 510 elephants died, including 333 from electrocution and roughly 100 from poaching and poisoning, the figures stated.