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Exclusive: Bringing In Chinnathambi

World Wildlife Fund India consultant and elephant expert Ajay Desai speaks exclusively to The Lede on his report to the Madras High Court on Chinnathambi and how conservation works

As the Madras High Court hears public interest litigations to decide on the fate of the wild male elephant Chinnathambi, elephant expert and consultant to WWF-India Ajay Desai is all set to appear before court on Wednesday to testify. Some want Chinnathambi to be relocated to the forests, while others want him to be taken to a camp as he keeps returning to areas of human habitation.

Desai, who has already submitted an exhaustive report to the court on February 8, spoke extensively to The Lede about the science behind the option of sending Chinnathambi to an elephant camp.

Q: People of Tamil Nadu appear to be sentimentally attached to this elephant and support its release into the forest. What is your reasoning behind why Chinnathambi should be captured and taken to elephant camp?

Desai: See, the main problem is the people who are suffering are the farmers. People living inside the town have nothing to do with the elephant and they are the ones who are taking photographs of it and complaining against the elephant’s capture.

So there is a complete disconnect between those who support Chinnathambi and the people who are really affected. The government has to take into account the problems of the affected people.

Chinnathambi is not only going inside the villages but is now also entering towns and agricultural areas, so it is a problem. If we leave the elephant alone, the issue becomes more complex. From what I have seen, Chinnathambi doesn’t care about people, doesn’t care about crackers and such elephants can be extremely dangerous because they can do huge damage to crops and property and can also bring along other elephants to do the same thing. We call this a learning process between different males. That learning process will create problems in future.

It is not merely about a problem created by one elephant, but this potential it creates for new elephants to come into human habitations. In future we will have more elephants coming here, causing more problems, because already there are several large elephants which are following Chinnathambi. These elephants have killed two people, though Chinnathambi has not killed anyone.

Now these are problems that people are facing will only increase in another 5-10 years if we ignore it now. The (Tamil Nadu Forest Department) now has two options – one is to bring Chinnathambi into captivity and the other is try to give it a second chance. We try to put him in a large forest habitat and then hope that he will settle down there.

But unfortunately this episode has shown that Chinnathambi keeps coming into human use areas and there is not much anybody can do about it.

Again it left the forest, entered a sugar factory and ate all the sugar stock.

So essentially you can’t mix Oedipal emotions and concern. If your thambi (younger brother) is stabbing your neighbour, or beating up a neighbour, you can’t be watching it and enjoying it, taking photographs and saying he is beautiful while more people get beaten.

You cannot say we don’t care about the farmers, because more than 300 farmers went to the Collector and held a dharna. Based on that, the Collector gave an order to the Forest Department to take action and remove the two elephants which were causing the complaints.

So this is what we call negative conditions. We drove Chinnathambi back to the forest to change its behaviour, but nothing worked. Then 600 farmers from Coimbatore went all the way to Chennai to protest again. And it started to become a political issue. It had to be treated as a law and order issue and consequently there was no option but to take action.

The local farmers are saying if you bring Chinnathambi back, then we are not responsible for it. So there is a threat to him. They can do anything.

Also, if elephants come downhill into towns, they will get hurt by electric wires. Our electrified wires aren’t at a height; many are low hanging.

There was once another large elephant called Periyathambi (big brother). No one is talking about Periyathambi now. It had gotten electrocuted in a town.

Q: Is it? Wildlife enthusiasts say that Periyathambi was captured in 2012 at an Ashok Leyland factory?

Desai: No, no that was a completely different elephant. Periyathambi was another elephant who operated in the same Coimbatore area and it was electrocuted. Of course it was not intentional but what I am saying is that there are chances for such accidents to happen.

Then there was another elephant Sidda, outside Bannerghatta on the outskirts of Bengaluru. It put its leg into a concrete structure near a stone quarry, suffered injuries and died.

And there was another makhna elephant (elephant without a tusk) which stepped into a sewage pit, broke its leg and died. So these elephants today end up dying tomorrow. What people don’t understand is that we care about elephants. We are losing 100 to 120 elephants due to retaliatory killing every year.

What it comes down to is do we leave Chinnathambi alone and let the people suffer to the point where they are so angry that they electrocute it or do something else to it? Or should we do something about Chinnathambi?

It is essential to balance all these issues. In fact in my first report, written much before, I made this point. I said this elephant does not know the difference between forest and human use area. Everything is the same to it.

This is similar to people like me who have been trained to work in forests. If I come to Delhi or Mumbai or any other urban area, I am perfectly at home. I don’t have any problems, I can work anywhere. I not only work within Indian forests, but I also work in south east Asian nations – Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, Sri Lanka – everywhere. So this elephant has become like me. It can master the forest, it can also master the urban areas.

Chinnathambi is a very nice elephant. I don’t want to see him brought into captivity, but we have to think realistically. By chance tomorrow if Chinnathambi dies or kills anyone, then what will we do?

So I want to remind you that we need to take all aspects into account for public safety.  People’s support is also essential. Support the elephant, but be a little bit more aware.

I am not against NGOs or animal rights activists – they also have a role to play. We need them to monitor everything. But we also have to become scientific, we have to build our knowledge.

Q: Why can’t Chinnathambi adapt to the wild when Vinayagan happily adapted?

Desai: Vinayagan is much older than Chinnathambi and Vinayagan went less into towns. But Vinayagan understands that forest is forest and people’s area is people’s.

Chinnathambi had started roaming into villages much earlier, at a much younger age. He got used to humans photographing him over the years and became comfortable. Again, it is man alone who is at fault, not the animal. We are at fault for enabling it to get comfortable among humans.

You don’t need to go and take a photograph of the elephant. But you see that is what has made the animal what it is today. If we don’t stop this now, he will become a role model for the younger males.

Q: What is core reason behind this issue? Desai: See the elephant is an animal. You can’t restrict an animal to the forest. We also have to realise human beings have changed the environment. We have fragmented habitat and we are now using 80% of land for ourselves. So it is the human being’s fault, all of this, at the end of the day.

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