The Lede
Exclusive: Why Chinnathambi Is A Happy Thambi
Tamil Nadu

Exclusive: Why Chinnathambi Is A Happy Thambi

Anand Kumar

Anand Kumar

A young wild elephant that kicked off a storm of protests has turned out to be a very naughty boy indeed

This is possibly the first ever story about a wild elephant which demands a statutory warning: Alcohol consumption is injurious to health!

Chinnathambi, meaning younger brother in Tamil, 24, male and a wild elephant, affectionately named by villagers of Thadagam in Coimbatore district, is a very happy young jumbo indeed!

Since January 26, Chinnathambi has been at the centre of a storm of protests by residents of 30 villages around Thadagam and wildlife activists who wanted to ‘save’ the friendly elephant from being turned into a ‘kumki’ (tame elephant used to drive wild ones back into forests). The Lede had reported on how he was finally ‘saved’ from the Tamil Nadu Forest Department.

Now Chinnathambi is frolicking in the backyard of the Amaravati Sugar Mills in Udumalaipet, Tirupur district, having found his way down from the forests of the Anamalai Tiger Reserve.

He has made friends with ‘kumkis’ Kaleem and Mariappan which have been brought to Udumalaipet by the Forest Department to drive him back into the forests. Chinnathambi and his new friends are having a jolly good time, even as veterinarians and Forest Department officials watch in amusement mixed with concern.

Because young Chinnathambi has turned into a drunkard!

He has been drinking the water from a pond from behind the Amaravati Sugar Mill for the past four days. This water contains effluents from the sugar mill – one of the main waste materials that has been released into the pond is ethanol.

Chinnathambi getting his happy juice in Udumalaipet
Chinnathambi getting his happy juice in Udumalaipet

And Chinnathambi, having gotten a high after drinking this water, has decided to settle down there permanently.

Forest Department officials who had followed Chinnathambi during his descent from the hills of Anamalai told The Lede that they had dug a hole in the sugarcane field for the elephant and filled it with drinking water. “On the first day, we managed to ensure that Chinnathambi drank this fresh water,” said a Forest Department official who was part of the operation. “But we did not know what happened in the night. Chinnathambi seems to have found the other pond and he got addicted.”

“Elephants generally like fermented products,” said Dr Manoharan who is another veterinarian in the team. “When they consume such products, they feel high. So they keep going back to consume the same things.”

Once the jumbo got a high, he began to make friends with and play with the two ‘kumkis’ Kaleem and Mariappan.

Best buddies: Chinnathambi befriends ‘kumki’ Kaleem in Udumalaipet
Best buddies: Chinnathambi befriends ‘kumki’ Kaleem in Udumalaipet

“Usually the wild elephants are afraid of the ‘kumkis’ and they run away,” said a veterinarian who was part of a medical team that is involved in the operation. “We use this fear of the ‘kumkis’ to drive the wild elephants away. In fact, Kaleem was one of the ‘kumkis’ who was used to chase and capture Chinnathambi at Thadagam. But now these ‘kumkis’ have become friends and Chinnathambi will not obey them or be frightened of them anymore,” he said.

Chasing The High

But Chinnathambi is no stranger to highs. In fact, when he was in Thadagam village for the past decade, locals say he frequented the brick kilns.

“These elephants come out of the forest mainly due to the brick kilns which contain chopped palm trees,” said P Rajan, resident of Anaikatti village. “Inside the trunk of the palm tree, the elephants find ‘pozhavu’ which is the source of toddy and they love it,” he said. The palm trunks are dried, chopped up and used as firewood to heat the brick ovens.

One veterinarian who had tracked Chinnathambi in Thadagam before the capture, recounts that the elephant frequently visited the brick kilns for the toddy. “When we were planning the best spot to capture Chinnathambi, we had earmarked the brick kiln as one of his favourite places. Though we tried to catch him there, Chinnathambi ran away and we captured him elsewhere,” he told The Lede, on condition of anonymity.

Chinnathambi who started his journey out of the Anamalai forest on January 31, walked for three days without much of a break in between. He would eat whatever he felt like on the way and rested a little at night.

But now, having found his poison, he is refusing to move from the fount of his addiction.

Tamil Nadu Forest Department officials are stumped as to what they will do with Chinnathambi. “The more he stays there and continues to drink from that pond, the more difficult it is going to be for us to get him out of here,” say worried officials. “He has travelled about 100 kilometres from Anamalai Reserve to reach here, but we have the option of taking him to Palani Hills which is just 30 kilometres away. But we cannot drive him back to the forest now because he has made friends with our ‘kumkis’. We cannot push him into a truck using the ‘kumkis’ for the same reason. The Madras High Court has adjourned the PIL hearing to next Monday, so we are not sure what action to take now. In this time, the bond of friendship between the ‘kumkis’ and Chinnathambi will be cemented,” they lament.

Locals of Krishnapuram village near Udumalaipet are thrilled though at Chinnathambi’s presence. “There are sugarcane fields, banana fields, water sources – everything that an elephant needs is available in our village,” said one villager. “We will take care of Chinnathambi. Let the government just leave a mahout here, that is enough,” he said.