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  • Seema Lokhandwala

Local celebrities - Bold & Blasé

Updated: Jun 7

January 2024

Echo, the wise matriarch of Amboseli in Kenya, led a remarkable life, renowned for her intelligence, leadership, and extensive family network. Her legacy endures through her descendants, and her story stands as a beacon for researchers and conservationists, shedding light on the intricate social dynamics within elephant populations.

Satao, the magnificent tusker of Tsavo in Africa, captured hearts with his colossal tusks, symbols of strength and beauty. His life also shed light on the harsh realities elephants face in the wild, falling victim to the impact of ivory poaching. His fate underscores the urgent need for global efforts to combat the illegal wildlife trade.

But these local elephant celebrities exist not only in Africa but also right in our backyard in India.

Nadodi Ganesan, the tuskless elephant from Thorapally, a small town along the Mysore-Ooty highway at the edge of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR) in Tamil Nadu peacefully coexisted among human settlements for over 50 years. Embraced by locals, who even fed him, he became a symbol of the unique bond between humans and elephants. His tragic end in a sewage pit emphasises the challenges of coexistence, raising questions about the responsibility humans bear in safeguarding the natural habitats these animals call home.

The last decade has seen the village turn semi-urban, with farm land giving way to hotels, resorts, restaurants and small shops catering to the growing number of tourists visiting the Nilgiri hills.

The 25-year-old tusker, nicknamed Arikomban, used to raid ration shops and houses to eat raw rice ('ari' in Malayalam). In an affidavit filed before the Kerala High Court, the government claimed that Arikomban had killed over seven people in Idukki and vandalized several houses and shops. This wild elephant whose escapades for rice earned him notoriety in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, has become a focal point of debates surrounding human-elephant conflicts and conservation efforts in India. Despite being relocated twice over 280 km away from his native forest, the tusker's journey has been fraught with legal battles, public outcry, and concerns for his well-being. Activists argue that the repeated tranquilization and relocation have inflicted undue trauma on the elephant, sparking questions about the effectiveness and ethics of such interventions.

Following the translocation of the elephant Arikomban, another wild tusker, Chakkakomban, has emerged as the new mischief-maker in Chinnakanal. Locals report that Chakkakomban has been frequently obstructing humans since his companion Arikomban's relocation. His craving for jackfruit has driven him to raid residential areas in search of his favorite snack, highlighting the intricate dynamics between elephants and their surroundings.

The presence of wild elephants, regular visitors to Munnar and Marayoor in Kerala, captivates the locals' attention. Residents of the area have bestowed unique names upon other large raiders. 'Hosekomban,' sporting a piece of hose stuck to its tusk, and 'Sugunan,' a well-mannered elephant, exemplify the diverse personalities within the elephant community.

Among them, Padayappa stands out as the most beloved and least intimidating wild elephant, once enjoying local celebrity status for his friendly demeanor. Padayappa gained notoriety when he peacefully consumed a bag of carrots from a vendor without causing harm, making headlines. Despite occasionally raiding homes and farms for food at night, Padayappa has earned the moniker of a "gentle giant" from the community. With an injured hind leg and unusually long tusks, the estimated age of the elephant ranges from 50 to 60 years old.

Photo by Hadlee Renjith. (2023, February 4). "Tourists flock to click selfies with Padayappa."

Padayappa's calm nature and friendly appearances on roads have endeared him to the locals, who often stop their vehicles to let him pass. Shopkeepers don't mind occasional raids on their stores, as Padayappa's presence attracts customers. However, recent reports indicate a change in Padayappa's behavior. He has become more irritable towards humans, vandalizing shops and causing damage. Despite the change, he continues to maintain an unintended fan base, with videos of his "heroic" appearances garnering online attention. His story highlights the complex relationship between humans and wild animals, where even gentle giants can face pressures that alter their behavior. 

Chinna Thambi, previously a crop-raiding elephant causing concern in the Coimbatore region, has undergone a surprising transformation. Initially captured and released in another territory, he kept returning home, covering vast distances. This prompted officials to consider a controversial solution: turning him into a captive "kumki" elephant. The idea sparked public outcry, with #SaveChinnaThambi trending online and a petition reaching the Madras High Court. Ultimately, Chinna Thambi was recaptured in Tirupur district and trained at the Varakaliyar elephant camp near Topslip. Now, he is set to assume the role of the retiring legendary Kumki, Kaleem, showcasing a unique strategy in managing human-elephant conflict, while sparking discussions on its effectiveness and ethical considerations.

Photo by Hadlee Renjith

Moving from Southern India to Northeast India we find similar individuals everywhere. In a rapidly developing city like Guwahati, in Assam, Ganesh/Maharaj's continued presence in the Narengi military camp despite efforts to relocate him to the Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary underscores the complex relationship between urban development and wildlife conservation. His quirky habits and frequent forays into urban spaces highlight the adaptability of wildlife in response to changing environments. With his movements and interactions with human-made structures, researchers are gaining a better understanding of how wildlife navigate and thrive in anthropogenic landscapes.

Ganesan's and many other elephants' behaviors represent a departure from the norm observed in wild elephants, displaying an unprecedented level of tolerance towards humans that extends to physical contact without resulting in negative interactions or harm to either party. However, these are some of the changes that are happening in elephant behaviour when being in a human-dominated landscape. These can be more appropriately labeled as personality changes, offering more flexibility. This change happens across different contexts and time. Data that explains these changes in personality is something that has not been documented enough to come to a conclusive result as to why or how these elephants become so habituated to humans. It is plausible that elephants exhibiting such behavior perceive humans differently, perhaps not as threats warranting aggressive responses. Male elephants, known for their boldness, frequently exploit anthropogenic food sources and habitats, making them more prone to interactions with humans. While such instances of personality changes remain rare, they are increasingly observed, underscoring elephants' remarkable adaptability and capacity for behavioral modification to ensure survival in their changing environment, provided they are not directly threatened. These adaptations offer a glimmer of hope for the possibility of coexistence between humans and elephants, albeit within certain limits. In an era where the survival of wild elephants hangs in the balance, the tales of these unique individuals serve as beacons of hope, urging us to redouble our efforts for a future where wild celebrity elephants continue to roam freely, captivating generations to come.

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