The Lede
Saving Chinnathambi But Not Exactly With A Trending Hashtag
Tamil Nadu

Saving Chinnathambi But Not Exactly With A Trending Hashtag

Anand Kumar

Anand Kumar

Wildlife conservation experts say that sentiment has ruled over science in the issue of the young wild elephant who is camping near Udumalaipet

Hunger can ruin the best of highs and even Chinnathambi, the elephant turning into the mascot of a new kind of man-animal conflict in Tamil Nadu, is proving to be no exception to this.

After consuming the alcohol effluent from the Amaravati Sugar Mills in Krishnapuram village for five days, Chinnathambi gave in to his hunger pangs. But more trouble is brewing.

Chinnathambi left the sugarcane factory on the night of February 06 and roamed around for two kilometres, raiding coconut and banana fields. He also ate vegetables planted in the area.

Villagers of Krishnapuram who were earlier keen on keeping Chinnathambi in their village, are now beginning to protest against the elephant destroying their crops. They are demanding that the Forest Department capture Chinnathambi and take him away.

Vinayagan Versus Chinnathambi

Vinayagan and Chinnathambi were partners in crime for over a decade. These ‘crop raiders’ would storm into agricultural fields together in Thadagam and surrounding areas.

In early January Vinayagan was translocated by the Tamil Forest Department to the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve.

“Vinayagan was dropped off near a small pond in Mudumalai forest,” said a veterinarian who is part of the operation but does not wish to be identified. “For a week, Vinayagan did not move about much. He stayed where was dropped off and drank water from the pond. After that Vinayagan slowly began to track the path of other elephants and walked up to Bandipur looking for the herd. He walked around 80 kilometres,” he said.

Near Bandipur, there is a human habitation. When Vinayagan attempted to leave the forest and get into the village, anti-poaching watchers of the Forest Department burst firecrackers and drove Vinayagan back into the reserve.

Vinayagan retraced his path back to where he had been dropped off initially.

“Vinayagan continued to explore that area and about two weeks ago, he managed to find a herd and join it. It is the nature of the elephant to follow the tracks of others and Vinayagan has managed to get integrated in his new home,” said the veterinarian.

But the case of Chinnathambi is very different.

On the night of January 26, Chinnathambi was taken to Varagalaiyar in Anamalai Tiger Reserve. Two anti-poaching watchers were deployed to watch over Chinnathambi’s movements and the rest of the team that captured him went home.

Food rations and provisions for the anti-poaching watchers were stored in a trekking shed at Varagalaiyar. Chinnathambi was dropped off at around 1 am on January 27. Before 3 am, Chinnathambi had broken into the trekking shed and eaten the rice, tamarind and salt stored there.

This, despite the trekking shed being surrounded by a deep trench to keep elephants away. “But Chinnathambi was very clever in somehow managing to get to the shed and steal the food,” said the veterinarian.

The Lede verified this account with the anti-poaching watchers who were actually there. They explained that there are two structures at the location – one, a British-era wood house and the other, a more modern kitchen made of brick.

“We were sleeping in the wood house when we heard noises at around 3 am,” said one anti-poaching watcher who requested not to be named. “We went out to see what was going on. It was Chinnathambi raiding the kitchen,” he confirmed.

The last time the kitchen was raided was around 10 years ago and the Forest Department had cut trenches around the new building that came up two years ago and taken every precaution to protect it from elephant raids, said the watchers.

“We have seen a clear difference in the way Vinayagan behaved and in the way Chinnathambi behaved after being released in the wild,” said the veterinarian. “Vinayagan did not move anywhere for a week and ate whatever he got in the forest. But Chinnathambi went straight to the kitchen in the trekking shed.”

The veterinarian added that elephants that are translocated are first tranquilised and upon release in the forest, they are given medicine to bring them back to consciousness. These elephants are generally groggy and tired for a few days due to the effects of the medicine. “But Chinnathambi did not behave in any such manner,” said the veterinarian. “He did not try to eat any of the forest produce, leaves or grass. He went straight for the food that he has become used to in Thadagam – rice and other provisions,” he said.

Chinnathambi also did not attempt to follow elephant tracks like Vinayagan did. He headed straight for human habitations. “Varagalaiyar is also a dense forest like Mudumalai. There is the Parambikulam dam on one side, grass hills on another side and it is a forest that is home to a large number of elephants. It is an area of rich vegetation. But leaving all of this behind, Chinnathambi found his way to the tar road that leads to humans,” said the veterinarian.

“Chinnathambi does not display the behaviour of a wild elephant,” he continued. “Since he has lived near human habitations for a long time in Thadagam area, he seems to have lost his wild nature. That is the reason we feel Chinnathambi needs to be kept captive,” he said.

Sentiment Versus Science

“For the first time, we are seeing mass support in Tamil Nadu for wildlife conservation and we are very happy to see this. But this mass support is based on an emotional response. Conservation and emotion need not necessarily go hand in hand,” said the veterinarian.

The reason, according to Forest Department officials, is that if Chinnathambi is not captured, he would be more likely to pose a danger to himself as well as to other wild elephants. “It is only in the past three to four decades that we have slowly managed to bring in some awareness among human habitations living in the buffer zone,” said an official who did not wish to be named. “Even if we send Chinnathambi back into the forest now, he will continue to come back to agricultural lands, destroy them and anger farmers and people living there.”

Additionally, there is a danger of Chinnathambi even befriending and bringing back other wild elephants to the plains, thereby causing further destruction. Forest Department officials are concerned that angry farmers and villagers could well poison and kill elephants like Chinnathambi.

“Wild elephants scatter seeds as they move around the forests and they trample paths for smaller wildlife,” said Mohammed Ali, wildlife expert who has authored a number of books on wild elephants. “This is why we need to protect elephants in the forests. For this, the elephant needs to stay in the forest and eat the forest produce. If the elephant comes into villages and eats the food there, it will not perform its natural function,” he said.

But wildlife activists and supporters of the #SaveChinnathambi social media campaign insist that the young elephant must be given a second chance to re-acclimatise to the wild.

“This is not about Vinayagan and Chinnathambi alone,” said Abraham Raj, wildlife photographer. “In 2012, a wild elephant called Periyathambi from Thadagam area went across to the Ashok Leyland factory in Hosur. It refused to move from there. The Forest Department translocated Periyathambi to Bannergatta area and it adapted to the wild there. Vinayagan has managed to adapt to Mudumalai. It is possible that Chinnathambi has not found a herd or a clan that matches him and that is the reason he is returning to human habitations. Forest Department officials should release Chinnathambi at the same place where they left Vinayagan so that there is a greater chance that these two friends might join the herd that Vinayagan now roams with,” he said. “If Chinnathambi still comes out of the forest, then officials could capture him and keep him captive,” he added.

In Chennai, another PIL has been filed, demanding that the brick kilns of Thadagam area be closed down so that Chinnathambi can be released back in his own forest. While hearing this PIL by animal rights activist Muralidharan, the Madras High Court directed the State Forest Department to observe Chinnathambi keenly until February 11 and hand over a report of his movements.