The Lede
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Saving Chinnathambi
Tamil Nadu

Saving Chinnathambi

Anand Kumar

Anand Kumar

How villagers and wildlife enthusiasts in Tamil Nadu stopped a wild elephant’s capture and taming

“In the land of humans who destroy forests
Elephants that create these forests are caged.

Is Chinnathambi to be punished
For crimes committed by people?

Let Chinnathambi live.

#SaveChinnathambi”

Banner in Kondanur village put up by villagers demanding that Chinnathambi be brought back
Banner in Kondanur village put up by villagers demanding that Chinnathambi be brought back

Large banners such as this one in Kondanur, Coimbatore district dot the neighbouring 30-odd villages as well. The epicentre of this unique protest is Thadagam village and others such as Anaikatti, Mangarai and Anuvavi have joined in as well.

What began as a demand by villagers to the Forest Department turned into a mini uproar on social media with a trending hashtag #SaveChinnathambi, finally forcing the state government to acquiesce.

All of this, for a friendly young elephant called Chinnathambi (younger brother in Tamil). An elephant that the Tamil Nadu Forest Department felt could be trained easily to become a ‘kumki’ (tame elephants used to capture wild ones).

Gentle giant Chinnathambi at the time of his capture Picture courtesy: Abraham Raj
Gentle giant Chinnathambi at the time of his capture Picture courtesy: Abraham Raj

“The ‘kumki’ elephants belonging to the Forest Department have all become old and so we need younger ‘kumkis’,” said a Forest Department official based in Coimbatore who spoke to The Lede on condition of anonymity. “Young elephants like Chinnathambi can be good ‘kumkis’ for the next 25 years. It is also easy to train an elephant like him who gets along well with humans,” he said.

The Forest Department currently has over 30 elephants in its camps, of which only around six can actively be used as ‘kumkis’. The rest of the elephants are used for safaris and for conducting surveys. Of the six active ‘kumkis’, only two are used frequently.

Kaleem, of Anamalai Tiger Reserve, is an active well-trained ‘kumki’, but he is around 55 years of age. An ageing elephant is tough to transport and maintain. Kaleem also finds it increasingly difficult to handle the stress of such operations, say Forest Department officials.

Pari, another ‘kumki’ in the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve is also over 50 years of age. These two are the main ‘kumkis’ deployed to deal with wild elephants entering into human habitations.

The other four ‘kumkis’ are not as obedient as Kaleem and Pari, say officials. Some are afraid of getting into trucks and others are difficult to control during their mating season locally known as ‘masth’.

With the two stars in the ‘kumki’ herd of the Forest Department flagging in performance, the need for a younger ‘kumki’ appears to have landed Chinnathambi in trouble.

How Chinnathambi Was Captured

Early this January, the Tamil Nadu Forest Department managed to upset the villagers living around Anaikatti and Thadagam in Coimbatore district. The Department decided to capture Vinayagan, a 22-year-old wild male elephant that had frequented the area for over a decade. He was caught and sent to the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve.

At the time itself, some villagers demanded to know why Vinayagan, a peaceful wild elephant, was being taken away from his usual habitat.

Later that month, on January 26, the Forest Department captured another young male elephant, 24-year-old Chinnathambi and sent him to the Anamalai Tiger Reserve.

Chinnathambi’s capture horrified the villagers. He did not want to be taken away from his home. Forest Department officials, with the help of ‘kumki’ elephants had to use force on Chinnathambi to make him get into the truck.

Chinnathambi’s capture with the help of ‘kumki’ elephants Picture courtesy: Abraham Raj
Chinnathambi’s capture with the help of ‘kumki’ elephants Picture courtesy: Abraham Raj

Chinnathambi’s tusk was broken as a result of the Forest Department using a JCB to prod him and the puncture wounds inflicted by the ‘kumki’ elephant’s tusks to goad Chinnathambi into the truck, were visible for all to see.

JCBs used to prod a reluctant Chinnathambi into a truck for translocation Picture courtesy: Abraham Raj
JCBs used to prod a reluctant Chinnathambi into a truck for translocation Picture courtesy: Abraham Raj

Horrified villagers requested the Forest Department to let the animal be – stating that he was peaceful and had not harmed anybody.

The Forest Department said that the operation to capture Vinayagan and Chinnathambi was predicated by complaints from villagers and farmers about the elephants being a menace. But villagers denied having made any such complaints. They insisted that both Vinayagan and Chinnathambi had been wandering in the area for 10-15 years but never caused any trouble.

Chinnathambi captured by Forest Department officials after a long struggle Picture courtesy: Abraham Raj
Chinnathambi captured by Forest Department officials after a long struggle Picture courtesy: Abraham Raj

Despite the protests, Forest Department officials took Chinnathambi away, fitted him with a radio collar and let him loose in the protected Anamalai reserve.

“Chinnathambi was brought from Thadagam and let free in Varagaliar,” AS Marimuthu, Deputy Director of the Anamalai Tiger Reserve, Pollachi told The Lede. “The elephant stayed quietly in the forest for three days and left the forest on the fourth day. Despite being driven back into the forest repeatedly, the elephant kept leaving the forest and has now permanently decided to settle in agricultural lands. Now the only solution is to capture the elephant and tame him,” he said on February 03.

Chinnathambi had left the forests of Anamalai and travelled around 100 kilometres to a sugarcane field in Udumalaipet, Tirupur district where he was found. He continues to stay in that field now, behind the Amaravati Sugar Factory.

Forest Department officials want to turn captured wild elephant Chinnathambi (left) into a ‘kumki’ Picture courtesy: Abraham Raj
Forest Department officials want to turn captured wild elephant Chinnathambi (left) into a ‘kumki’ Picture courtesy: Abraham Raj

The Tamil Nadu Forest Department decided to turn Chinnathambi into a ‘kumki’, sparking off protests across the area where the elephant once used to reside. This is because, according to the Forest Department, a wild elephant which has turned into a ‘crop raider’ (a wild elephant that frequently enters agricultural fields) will not go back into the forest in search of food. No matter how many times such an elephant is driven into the forests, it will always come back to agricultural fields, said officials in the Forest Department who did not wish to be named.

On February 02, state Forests Minister Dindigul Sreenivasan told reporters in Coimbatore – “There are no options left. It (Chinnathambi) has to be tamed.”

Protests To #SaveChinnathambi

But the anguished villagers of Thadagam and another 30 villages surrounding it wanted Chinnathambi to be brought back home safe.

“Our village’s elephant left the forests in an attempt to come back home,” said R Mohanasundaram, a resident of Mangarai village, an area frequented by Chinnathambi. “If the Forest Department stops obstructing the elephant, he will find his way back to us.”

“There is a baby and a female elephant here who are searching frantically for Chinnathambi,” he continued. “The Forest Department has already killed a wild elephant called Madhukkarai Maharaj when they tried to turn him into a ‘kumki’. They must not do this to Chinnathambi,” lamented Mohanasundaram.

Wildlife activists and enthusiasts were also upset at the Forest Department’s decision.

“Normally the Forest Department will only relocate wild elephants which cause harm to humans but neither Vinayagan nor Chinnathambi has hurt anyone,” said Abraham Raj, a wildlife photographer who has been taking pictures of both these elephants for the past 10 years.

“It is because he caused no harm that the villagers affectionately named him Chinnathambi,” said Raj. “Despite villagers objecting to the elephant being translocated, the Forest Department was adamant in sending him away. The elephant which was roaming free here, is now going to be turned into a ‘kumki’,” said a visibly upset Raj.

The wildlife photographer shared a number of photographs he had taken over the past ten years with The Lede. He explained that this was proof that both Chinnathambi and Vinayagan had been dwelling in the area for 10 to 15 years without causing any trouble.

Chinnathambi and Vinayagan living peacefully in Thadagam eight years ago Picture courtesy: Abraham Raj
Chinnathambi and Vinayagan living peacefully in Thadagam eight years ago Picture courtesy: Abraham Raj
Chinnathambi and Vinayagan wandering in Thadagam four years ago Picture courtesy: Abraham Raj
Chinnathambi and Vinayagan wandering in Thadagam four years ago Picture courtesy: Abraham Raj

In the absence of Vinayagan and Chinnathambi, new herds of wild elephants are descending into the Thadagam area. Residents of the area say that in the past two weeks alone, three people have been attacked by wild elephants.

“Wild animals are territorial in nature,” explained Abraham Raj. “The males in a herd ensure that they keep other herds away, particularly those which include tuskers. Now because Vinayagan and Chinnathambi have been translocated, seven new elephants have arrived in the area,” he added.

Wildlife activists offered suspicions about whether Vinayagan and Chinnathambi had been deliberately labelled as ‘semi-wild’ and captured by the Forest Department in an effort to bolster their ‘kumki’ force which currently mainly comprises the ageing Kaleem and Pari.

Questions were also raised by activists as to how Chinnathambi was allowed to travel 100 kilometres and exit the forests of Anamalai Reserve, when Forest Department officials were monitoring him through the radio collar he was wearing.

The protests by villagers and by activists on social media with a variety of hashtags #SaveChinnaThambi and #BringBackChinnaThambi among others seems to have made an impression upon the state government in an election year.

The government, wary of protests, has told the Madras High Court that there are no plans to convert Chinnathambi into a ‘kumki’. This response was part of a PIL (Public Interest Litigation) in support of the young wild elephant.

Chinnathambi has been saved. And the villagers of Thadagam are eagerly awaiting their friendly jumbo’s return.