Monday, 25 July 2016

The saga of a rogue, but considerate elephant 'Maharaja' - Tamil Nadu

Rogue elephant smoking and drinking. www.jantoo.com
Madkkarai Maharaja rogue elephant.www.thehindu.com

 Above image:   Maharaja, the wild tusker who ravaged villages near Madukkarai town,Tamil Nadu for nearly a year, was finally captured by forest officials and taken off the farms on June 1916. This small town is one of the countless examples of conflicts and difficult coexistence between elephants and humans across the country. Reason: habitat loss and ever growing human settlements near the wooded areas in remote places.  ....................

Many human habitats near the forest areas face  threats of wild elephants that come in herds and damage the farm lands and crops. This human- elephant conflicts continues  unabated and the Wild Trust of India (WTI) is doing a yeomen service to come up with viable solutions to resolve this so serious an issue. The main reasons attributed are shrinkage of elephant habitats and and loss of adequate food for wild animals..
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Elephant with good eye sight for eatables? .cartoonstock.com
  Many small towns in Tamil Nadu  close to the wild animal habitats witness human - elephant conflicts that result in loss of human lives, severe crop damages, etc  as in other Indian states.  They form a small percentage of ever increasing conflicts and tenuous - coexistence between pachyderms and homo sapiens.

Though such rampaging elephants cause, pain,  human deaths, loss of properties, income, etc., some  wild elephants' strange acts, unusual, weird behavior   give  us a break  from anxiety  and tension and over a period of time we  get used to their funny  behavior and begin to enjoy their antics and adamant nature unmindful of the damages caused by them. The case of one particular rogue elephant from Madukkarai near Coimbatore city, Tamil Nadu is of some interest.  His  name is Maharaja and befitting his majestic name he had kept the the villagers and the forest officials on tenterhooks for a pretty long time, playing hide and seek with them.  Their various stratagems, tricks and strategies  became futile and there was nothing to stop this fearless tusker when his mind was set on something.  He was active in the villages around and sometimes on the outskirts of Madukarai, a small town well-known for a cement factory.  His main targets were succulent  fruit bearing trees and, in particular, banana plantations. Elephants are fond of bananas. People tried every thing to stop this brave elephant - chilly fences, mild electric fences, trenches, alarm connected solar fences, etc  to scare him silly, nothing succeeded to cow him down and his spirit. He was so strong and sturdy driven by hunger and taste of nice fruits, he  trampled on these  impediments just like a road roller or bulldozer.  People  at last nick- named  him as  'Madukkarai Maharaja' as he was fond of this place and the vicinity. In spite of their miserable time caused by him, the people here had a vein of humor and used to address this solitary rogue tusker by a rhythmic nick name.
wild elephants ravaged banana farm, Kittampalayam, TN, thehindu.com
Elephants and bananas. www.gettyimages.com
Whichever  farms he visited, after his return, they would appear as if they were ravaged by a storm brewing out the Bay of Bengal off the coast of Nagapatnam or a twister from the Tornado Alley in the USA. As for metal fences, no problems, he would crush them to the grounds and trespass the farms. A green house for tomatoes was leveled to the ground. A huge water barrel lay crushed like plasticine, as if moved over by a road roller. A big banana farm was dotted with scores of wilting plants snapped into two and bunches and tiers damaged badly.  He liked banana stem in the core (in local language Vazhithundu). Almost there was no farm in this vicinity that he had not visited and caused untold miseries to the owners. Last year,  he visited as many as 25 villages to have sumptuous meal, damaging crops and houses. No casualty at all. Never had he  failed to leave a trail of destruction and chaos whenever  he made a royal visit to the farms. All he wanted was, when he got a chance he would like to eat to his heart's content. If he had a pair  of limbs like humans, he would hitch his belt pat his belly!!

elephants and bees.bellowsbees.blogspot.com
The funny thing about him is, according to one villager,  he visited the farms daily in the morning around 8 am right on schedule. Once he ate to his heart's content, whatever his trunk  could lay on, unmindful of serious  attempts by the villagers  to chase him off the farm like firing crackers, etc., he would get into a jolly mood and play foot ball using objects like barrel with his big ears flapping vigorously.  He, for a long time, never harmed the people.  Nor did he make any  serious threats to the villagers. His mission was to lay his long trunk on something juicy and eatable. Once his mission  was  over, he would disappear back into woods, waiting for the dawn to raid the villages. It was a sort of one-man-army operation. The forest department, having become sick and tired of catching him, tagged him as 'habitual de-predator'. Some villagers contemplate to raise beehives on their farms to use the stinking bees as deterrents to elephant raids; this method was successfully employed in the neighboring state of Kerala.

 'Madukkarai Maharaja' has become  a symbol of never- ending conflict between humans and elephants, competing for food and living space  with humans.  Unsuccessful, but some times fatal attempts made by the forest officials to trap him  did not scare him. Further, it throws light on the behavior changes of pachyderms, relevant to the changing habitat and ecosystem.  

On just one occasion in September, 2015, having no other choice, Maharaja killed a forest guard by trampling him when he and other officials tried to drive him out. This  tragedy happened because the din and excitement caused by the crowd was too much for him to bear it. Considering his past clean record  can  we assume he might have done this killing in a moment of aberration?  Previously, he had no records of violence against humans.
The Coimbatore Forest Division covers  693 sq. km area  and Madukkarai is part it. The Forest department has reported the highest incidence of human-elephant conflict in the state of Tamil Nadu and in the last 20 years -100 people lost their lives and 24 elephants were electrocuted. There were 1828 crop damage claims made between 2011 and 2015. This will give you some idea about the enormity of elephant- human confrontation being faced by the forest department as well as by farm owners who mainly depend on the agricultural income. This problem did not exist 10 years ago and this is due to the growth of human settlements  near habitats coupled with growth of population and industrialization.
Last month, June, 2016 the forest officials  captured the tusker Maharaja with the help of Kumkis (trained female elephants) to take him into captivity. But during the operations, unfortunately, he died from a fracture to his  skull caused  by repeated banging of his head against the wooden kraal. Perhaps, Maharaja never wanted to lose him freedom and free eating spree, as he had enjoyed before. 
 
Thus tusker Maharaja's saga of adventure and atrocity and eating spree came to a tragic end and the villagers were in a pensive mood over his death, despite his formidable direct confrontation with them because, after all, he was not a violent tusker.  The unexpected news of death of ' a lone raider' cast a gloom  all over the villages.  Following his  death, several tribute posters appeared around many villages. A sentimental poster observed: 

" We thought you would leave this forest, but you left this world".
Ref:
http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/divya-gandhi-on-the-intractable-humanelephant-conflict-in-madukkarai/article8887210.ece
Assam Haathi project bees keep the wild elephants at bay www.alanhesse.co.uk