COIMBATORE/ CHENNAI: The story of Chinna Thambi is perhaps unlike any in recent memory. The jumbo has survived capture and multiple attempts to chase it back into the forests, before finding a place in the hearts of the Tamil people. The 25-year-old bull, who has been roaming around in Anaikatti and Mangarai, for the past seven years, has inspired a hashtag (#SaveChinnaThambi), multiple memes and hours of television reports focused on its every move.
But Chinna Thambi, whose behaviour has baffled experts, was not always the crop-riding, sugarcane chomping king of hearts, he is today. It is believed that Chinna Thambi started raiding crops after he started spending time with Periya Thambi, another wild elephant, in Thadagam which falls under the Coimbatore forest division.
Periya Thambi too had his share of fans. A bakery shop (now closed) at Thaneerpandal in Thadagam Pirivuhad had even proudly displayed a photo of both the animals. However, after Periya Thambi died some five years ago, Chinna Thambi befriended another wild elephant named Vinayaga. Vinayaga was captured from the Coimbatore forest division and relocated to Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR) in December 2018. After Vinayaga was captured, Chinna Thambi was seen with a female elephant and a calf. Some believe the public should also be blamed for ‘befriending’ the elephant, as people used to feed him bananas and other food items when he started frequenting Anaikatti Road in the evenings.
Both Chinna Thambi and Vinayaga were only relocated following pressure from representatives of the Tamilaga Vivasayigal Sangam. The farmers even visited Chennai and demanded the Chief Wildlife Warden have the elephants relocated.
Chinna Thambi’s popularity truly soared only after his capture at Somayanur on January 25 when he even broke his tusks resisting capture. However, to everyone’s surprise, he was back to visiting human habitations at Angulakurichi three days after being released into the Varagaliyar reserve forest in Anamalai Tiger Reserve (ATR).
So what explains the animal’s fan following? According to GPN Joshwa, a resident of Anaikatti, Chinna Thambi has always been “calm” and has never attacked humans despite living in the Anaikatti and Periyathadagam areas over the last five years. Rangasamy, a forester, said he feared the worst when he fell to the ground while trying to chase off the jumbo but the animal didn’t attack him. “I am lucky to be alive,” he said. Other ‘fans’, who include villagers, said Chinna Thambi rarely blocked traffic like other animals, and made way for passing vehicles whenever he strolled down a road.
“We are hoping that he will return to Chinnathadagam on his own so that he can lead a stress-free life. The farmers’ association filed a wrong complaint against Chinna Thambi and had him relocated,” Joshwa said.
Elephant expert Ajay Desai, who is submitting a report to the Madras High Court with his recommendations on what could be done with Chinna Thambi, noted that a male elephant had a home range of 100 sq.km, which could extend up to 600 sq.km during masth period.
“So, the elephant will eventually hit the forest boundary and indulge in crop raiding. The behavioral pattern of Chinna Thambi is extreme and I have not seen anything like this before. This wild elephant is not differentiating between a forest and human habitations,” Desai told Express, without giving insight into his report, as the matter is sub judice.
Desai said Chinna Thambi, who moves with herds, could influence other younger bulls and turned them into crop raiders. This would pose a bigger challenge for forest department in future and also threaten the safety of people living in border areas.
“In my first report submitted to forest department before the capture and release of Vinayaga and Chinna Thambi in December, I specifically said that translocating Chinna Thambi would fail considering his abnormal behavior. This has come true now. The elephant is taking food from people and moving royally along human habitations, unlike any wild elephant,” he said.
On the possibility of making Chinna Thambi a Kumki elephant, Desai said every wild elephant captured had to undergo basic routine training like being put in a kraal. However, a Kumki should have a strong temperament, be well-built and agile. “Though Chinna Thambi is well-built, he moves very slowly and his temperament can’t judged now.”
When contacted, H Malleshappa, Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF) and Chief Wildlife Warden, told Express that a team of experts was monitoring the elephant’s movement around the clock. “We will present the facts of the case before the Madras High Court. Our endeavour will be towards pushing Chinna Thambi into the forest. Any decision taken will be in the best interest of the animal as well as people,” he said.
Officials said Vinayaga was currently amidst a good patch of forests, where water and fodder were abundant. “The elephant seems to have gotten acclimatised to new environment. TN and Karnataka forest departments are continuously tracking his movement,” an official said.