The majestic elephant emerges from the woods and moves in an unhurried, rolling gait to the wayside fruit shops. The overtly adventurous jumbo, whom locals call ‘Padayappa’-- named after the macho character played by super star Rajnikanth in the 1999 film -- then polishes off the stock of more than one shop in that single outing. Unlike the more ‘conventional’ ones of his ilk, ‘Padayappa’ appears ‘cool’ and is not rattled by the bursting of crackers and sounding of drums resorted to by hapless residents to stave off the marauding mammoth.
Padayappa is only a case in point and the people of the hill town of Munnar is living in constant fear of wild animal intrusion.
Padayappa had raided K Palraja’s fruit shop near Grahamsland Estate, around 3.5 km from Munnar town, in August 2020. Just after Palraja set up shop again, the elephant came back twice in a gap of two weeks, only to repeat his antics; leaving the 62-year-old shop-owner in terrible debt.
Wild elephant raids have seen a spike after the COVID-19 lockdown, probably due to a marked decrease in human activity on forest fringes. Several shops and business in the area have borne the brunt of this. On February 11 alone, it is estimated that Padayappa gulped down fruits worth Rs 25,000.
On February 12, Palraja had a close shave with Padayappa who generally does not attack human beings. Palraja was returning home at night in his autorickshaw when the jumbo suddenly turned up in front of his vehicle. The autorickshaw was damaged but Palraja leapt into a trench. “I was returning after selling a gold earring to pay back some debts. I couldn’t realise the presence of the jumbo until it was a few meters away,” said Palraja.
In spite of all the destruction, Padayappa seems to be having an unintended fan base. Well-edited videos of Padayappa roaming free in Munnar town, often accompanied by a background score akin to a hero’s entry, are viral.
While Padayappa is the natural suspect always, some believe that it is Ganeshan, another tusker, who is now being mistaken for Padayappa.
Naturalist and environmental photographer Hadlee Renjith said Padayappa was taller and at least 10 years older than the jumbo sighted now. “Padayappa has been missing for the past few years. It was around 50-60 years old, very tall, and had overlapping tusks. Ganeshan is not as tall as Padayappa. However, people still call every tall elephant Padayappa,” he said.
Hadlee’s plantain farm, in the backyard of his house in Munnar, sees elephant raids twice every year. This has been so for the past six years. “In a span of 3-4 days, all plantain is eaten. It prefers only the juicy stem,” said Hadlee, adding that he wasn’t much worried as the plantain farm is not his main source of income. Things are not the same for others.
Palraja puts his total losses at Rs 1.5 lakh. “I have submitted a claim to the Forest Department but there is no response yet,” he said.
The Munnar Forest Division has been getting over 100 applications annually for crop damage compensation, since 2015. Sources in the Forest Department said Rs 25-40 lakh is given out every year. Of this, 30-40 per cent of applications are under the ‘elephant attack’ head.
The department is yet to give compensation for ‘shop damage,’ which is a recent phenomenon.
The people of the locality have given unique names to other jumbo raiders, apart from Padayappa and Ganeshan. ‘Hosekomban’ is one. The pachyderm has a piece of hose or plastic bottle stuck to its tusk. A ‘well-mannered’ elephant is ‘Sugunan.’ ‘Arikomban’ is known to invade houses and shops in search of ‘ari’ (rice).
Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Munnar, Suresh P R said the only option was to chase the elephants away to prevent a human-animal conflict. “The rapid response team of the department usually chases away wild elephants by creating loud noise and commotion. These are areas where these animals once roamed free. When the presence of humans and vehicles reduced during lockdown they came back,” he said.
The DFO said wild animals were usually not found to be attacking or aggressive in the region but it could not be taken for granted. In the past five years, five lives were lost in elephant attacks, the most recent being the death of a youth at Societykudy in Idamalakkudy.
On the other hand, attacks on animals too are not rare. In 2017, visuals of some people chasing wild tusker Chillikomban, known for its twig-shaped tusk, using an excavator from the estate under Kannan Devan Hills Plantations Company, had gone viral. A day later, Chillikomban succumbed to injuries.