Along with Nilgiri tahrs and lion-tailed macaques, captive elephants are fast becoming endangered

Temple elephants fed at Punnathurkotta. File photo

It looks like captive elephants are on their way to extinction in Kerala. From 1000-odd captive elephants in 2010, the official number has dwindled to 455 in 2022. In 2018, when an official captive elephant census was done following a Supreme Court's directive, the number was 521.

According to the figures kept by Heritage Animal Task Force (HATF), which keeps track of the elephant population more rigorously than the Forest Department, the population has fallen to 432; the HATF says there were 89 elephant deaths since 2018 while the Department says it was 66.

The highest number of captive elephant deaths, 36, was reported in 2018. The outbreak of COVID, which necessitated a ban on festivals, should have brought some respite to these over-exploited beasts. Yet, there were 20 deaths each in 2019 and 2020. In 2021, when cultural activities revived, there were 29 deaths.

This year, before the start of the festival season, 17 captive elephants have died.

The latest victim was Mozhoor Kannan, a 40-year-old tusker who was found abandoned in an open field near Puthukkad in Thrissur. The tusker was not fed for days and it was unable to even get up in the last four days leading up to its death. Its soles were badly swollen, and lacerated with puss-filled wounds.

Systemic rot

“All the 17 elephants that had died this year suffered from foot-rot,” said K Venkitachalam, the secretary of HATF. “This happens because these elephants are tied in open areas without a shelter. Walking them over tar and concrete surfaces for hours on end would have already sliced open their soft soles like a blade wound. And then, when they stand tethered for long hours in a pool of slush, the dirt water enters their wounds causing the foot to rot,” Venkitachalam said.

In fact, Mozhoor Kannan and some of the other elephants that died this year like the celebrity tusker Chulliparambil Vishnusankar were found to be so overworked that the Forest Department had issued orders to stop parading them. “But to maximise profit, the middlemen continue to parade them at functions or take them for heavy wood-lugging work. The forest officials either are hoodwinked or connive with the middlemen,” said N Jayachandran, animal rights activist and former State Animal Welfare Board member.

Ghost ownership

A top forest official said it was hard to hold anyone accountable as most of these elephants did not possess ownership certificates. “At least, none of the 17 that died this year had an ownership certificate. And all of them were kept chained in the open, without the mandatory shelter shed over them,” the official said.

Elephant owners are reluctant to secure an ownership certificate as the application form asks for the source, from where and how the elephant came into their custody. Elephants can only be gifted or bequeathed as family property, their commercial trade has been banned under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. There is a fear that if the source is revealed, the owner would come under the purview of the Wildlife Protection Act.

Elephant Mozhoor Kannan
Mozhoor Kannan two days before his death on October 3. Image courtesy: Heritage Animal Task Force

Excuse for not providing shelter

It is argued that even if a custodian without an ownership certificate wants a shelter for his elephant, it is virtually impossible to construct one legally.

“To apply for a building permit one has to submit the ownership certificate with the proof of the tax paid. Citing this, most custodians will not bother to construct a shelter over their elephant,” the Forest official said. The Captive Elephants (Management and Maintenance) Rules, 2012, has laid down specifications for the housing of elephants of all ages; weaned calf, sub-adult and adult.

So, even if they put up a shed, it will be a makeshift namesake one that will not prevent the floor from turning slushy during rains. It is like the absence of an ownership certificate has freed them of responsibilities.

Medieval practices

Elephant owners have their own set of complaints. “There is no effective modern treatment available for elephants,” said Sasi, the secretary of Elephant Owners' Federation. “In olden days when foot-rot is seen in elephants, they used to pour some sulphuric acid or a violet-coloured lotion on the affected parts. This has long proved to be an ineffective remedy but we still have not come up with anything better,” he said.

Constipation is the other major elephant killer. “This has to be properly diagnosed using modern tools like X-ray. But we still don't have the advantage of portable X-rays,” Sasi said.

A better remedy than cure

“There is no such thing called prevention in our elephant management lexicon. We rush to the elephant only when it has fallen ill but won't do anything in pursuit of prevention,” said Dr Easa, a former member of the Elephant Task force and a member of Asian Elephants' Specialist Group.

“Take constipation for instance. It is caused because the elephant is deprived of water and food with adequate fibre content. The beast is also not provided with enough rest. There is a simple cause-effect link here but we are unwilling to address the causes,” he said.

Labs for jumbo tests

The Forest Department is clearly aware of the problem. Here is what a circular issued by the Forest Department in 2019, when captive elephant deaths became a matter of urgent concern, says: “Intense overwork and inadequate rest are conditions for increasing physiological and psychological stress, which predispose these animals to many diseases.”

The top Forest official said that owners/custodians had also been asked to conduct “serum and biochemistry analysis” of elephants in their custody every six months. “These officials make it sound as if testing facilities for elephants are as common as blood labs for us humans. It is not enough to write such directives on paper. These facilities should be made available on the ground,” Sasi said.

In 2019, to find a lasting solution to this jumbo health crisis, Sasi said a collective of elephant owners and lovers had mooted a Rs-250-crore project called 'Ganesh Fort' that included a super speciality elephant hospital, breeding centre and an elephant camp. The collective had even purchased 31 acres of land for Rs 12 crore along the forest fringe at Chittanda near Wadakkanchery in Thrissur.

"We offered to bear the cost. Even then, there is no cooperation from the Forest Department. The Department has not even forwarded our proposal to the Central Zoo Authority," Sasi said.

Extinction, round the corner

Owners, elephant lovers and experts, however, agree on one point. The rate of mortality of Kerala's captive elephant population is all set to quicken.

“The festival season has begun and this time they will be over-exploited like never before. Though there are 432 elephants now, nearly half of them will be kept out on account of 'musth' or ailments or because they are tusk-less 'makhna' elephants,” animal rights activist Jayachandran said.

Sasi said there are over 3700 registered festivals in Kerala, and hundreds of unregistered ones. “Most of them parade over 20 elephants. This would mean that the limited number of captive elephants we have now will have to be overworked to meet the demands of all these festivals,” sasi said.

If elephants are to survive, Dr Easa said innovative tall perches like wooden animals should be found for deities. “But as long as devotees want to see their gods and goddesses on elephant backs, these captive animals will be tortured and made to work for ungodly hours without rest and food. And they will not last long. Since there is no breeding in Kerala and inter-state transfer of elephants is banned, we are staring at a situation where captive elephants could vanish in about six or seven years,” Dr Easa said.

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