Cow elephants live in herds, but Monica lived the last decade of her life as a loner in the tea-covered Valparai plateau, Tamil Nadu. A solitary existence had its advantages. She was harder to spot than being part of a herd of four-tonne animals, says researcher Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan.
Nearly two decades ago, Monica and her eight-member clan punched holes into the walls of ration shops to binge on the stored grain. Tensions were high. Tea estate personnel called her ‘Kizhinja kaadhu’ in Tamil, for the large tear in her right ear. As soon as anyone reported seeing elephants, a screaming mob arrived with tractors and firecrackers to drive them away. The panicked animals reacted by charging at their tormentors. When people fled, the giants became conditioned to rush at humans at the first opportunity, injuring and rarely even killing them. There seemed no exit out of the cycle of escalating violence. Residents demanded the elephants be captured and removed.
It’s their habitat
Moving these gigantic animals is no solution. Elephants can die while being caught. If they survive and are translocated to other areas, they can return to their original homes or make a beeline for the nearest human settlement and cause trouble there.
A team of researchers from the Nature Conservation Foundation, led by M. Ananda Kumar, intervened (See The Elephant’s In The Room, November 3, 2018). Their philosophy was, there are no problem animals, only problem situations. They recommended emptying ration shops along paths used by the pachyderms. They also advised patience and giving the right of way to the giants. Their efforts worked, leading to a tapering off of hostility between species. Since one herd hung out in an estate called Monica, the researchers named the ageing lead elephant with the torn ear after the place. From being a terror, she transformed into a docile animal.
About 10 years after the start of the project, the cow elephant got hurt. The circumstances were unknown, but the researchers speculated an ardent bull may have ripped her other ear and mouth. She separated from her herd and started living a loner’s life. With no dependent offspring and no predators, that wasn’t a problem. People watched her spray her injuries with slush and felt sorry for her. By then, her local name changed to Singari, or ‘beauty’ in Tamil.
Monica often ate fruits growing in backyard gardens. Vijayakrishnan took a photograph of her surrounded by 30 to 40 people as she relished a ripe jackfruit. Without knowing the context, any observer would jump to the conclusion that she was a trespasser with the humans being helpless victims. But these people on a lunch break were curiously watching Singari at hers.
“She was the poster girl of coexistence,” says Vijayakrishnan, who is fascinated by these pachyderms having grown up around captive elephants and mahouts in Kozhikode, Kerala.
Don’t take a chance
Researchers can be at pains to explain the theory of getting along with elephants, but having a living example made all the difference.
“Every elephant area has such mellow animals,” says Vijayakrishnan. For instance, ‘Chillikomban’, ‘slender tusks’ in Malayalam, who frequented the Nelliampatti Hills, was another chilled-out giant. If people came too close, these elephants froze or retreated instead of feinting an attack. However, he hastens to add that based on hundreds of hours of observations, he “may predict how elephants would react to a situation, but they will still surprise you by upending all your preexisting theories.” So it pays not to take chances with wild animals, even with the most well-behaved ones.
When social creatures like elephants are forced to live in solitude, their mental health can suffer. Not only did Monica seem to be fine, but she appeared to prefer being a loner. When she encountered her old clan, she socialised with them for a few days before going in her own separate way.
In early 2018, residents reported Singari lay dead after being gored by a tusker. Her age had also been against her. “We were all sad,” says Vijayakrishnan. People had tears in their eyes as they laid flowers on her. This is a story of converts — of a reformed animal and community. Yielding space in human hearts and in backyard gardens could allow elephants to survive.