On May 27, a 15-year-old wild elephant died in Kerala after it ate an explosive snare meant for wild boars.
The autopsy report showed that the elephant died of suffocation after its lungs were filled with water. Her jaws were mangled, wounds were infested with maggots and she had a month-old foetus in her womb.
The incident raised a lot of hue and cry. Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said it was not in the Indian culture to feed firecrackers and kill, while BJP MP Maneka Gandhi gave the death a communal colour by saying that Malappuram was the most-violent district in the country. Malappuram is a Muslim-majority district in Kerala.
The tragedy, however, has exposed the hypocrisy of 'woke jumbo lovers', who reacted quickly but have been remaining silent on the torture of domestic elephants for a long time.
According to a 2018 elephant census by the Forest Department, Kerala is home to 521 captive elephants. A majority of them are used for caparisoned parades during religious festivals and public events. They are transported in trucks where they are forced to stand for long hours without food or water.
The torture had killed 30 elephants since the 2018 census.
Animal rights activist and secretary of Thrissur-based Heritage Animal Task Force V K Venkitachalam says all the deaths were due to torture and lack of food and care. “Tethered to standing position for hours and deprived of proper rest and exercise, elephants suffer from arthritis, indigestion and wound infection. They also get injured when they eat non-fibrous palm fronds with sharp edges,” he says.
Saga of torture
The physical and emotional torture elephants face from mahouts is unspeakable.
In the attempt to domesticate them, elephants are shackled and beaten.
The wounds from shackles, spike chains and injuries from hitting them using iron rods on sensitive areas like ears, eyes and cuticles give them huge pain, stress and trauma.
Hormonal treatment to suppress ‘musth’ in male elephants results in behavioural changes and untimely aggression. Musth is a periodic condition in male elephants when a surge in reproductive hormones makes them aggressive. This condition can last a few weeks or months.
Sangita Iyer, founding executive director, Voice for Asian Elephants Society and National Geographic Explorer, who has been leading elephant rehabilitation programmes with her team of elephant care experts and volunteers, finds it ironical that ‘people in the most literate and progressive state do not show empathy when it comes to treating elephants’. The Canada-based documentary film maker had exposed the dark side of glamorous cultural festivals in the state in her noted work God in Shackles.
“How can people not realise that elephants suffer immense agony when the shackle cuts into their flesh,” she asks.
In the wild, the migratory beings walk in herds all the day grazing. But in captivity, elephants have hardly any space to move around. “Apart from exploitation, the herbivores are fed hundreds of raw eggs and meat during the annual month-long Ayurveda treatment, resulting in indigestion (erandakkettu) and cysts.
Elephants feed on 74 plant species in the forests. But instead of feeding it fodder with high fibre and water content – grass, leaves, plantain, fruits and vegetables, it is being fed unhealthy diet in the name of sukhachikitsa, murdering the poor beings,” says Venkitachalam.
“Temple elephants are fed payasam, cooked rice, ghee, and even laddus and jilebis, which cause ulcers in the intestines,” he says.
Based on Venkitachalam's plea, a six-member Central team had inspected 56 elephants owned by Guruvayur Devaswom Board in 2012. “The team had found discrepancies, such as illegal capture of elephants, improper care, severe ailments, lack of space, grievous injuries caused by mahouts. The had even filed a case in Supreme Court seeking state custody of the elephants, but no hearing has happened so far,” he said.
Ploy to claim insurance
Sangita says elephant owners neither take good care of the creatures nor let anyone help them. “They are only concerned about making profits and waiting anxiously for the elephant to die, so that they can claim insurance. They continue to justify the treatment of elephants, by twisting the meaning of religious scriptures to suit their personal agenda. Parading of temple elephants evokes deep cultural sentiments. The nexus of culture, commerce and corruption is way too complicated to disentangle,” she says.
Venkitachalam says even wounded elephants will get fitness certificates to participate in parades. “Even blind elephants will get fitness certificates for parades. It’s a huge scam. For elephant owners, elephant is a prestigious property. The annual Thrissur Pooram is more of a business meeting. It’s the venue where the paraded elephants are booked for temple festivals across the state for the year,” he alleges.
Sangita agrees, “I tried so hard for the past four years to work with Punnathur Kotta in Guruvayur. In fact, in December 2018, after obtaining permission from the then Devaswom Principle Secretary, I had brought with me a small team of volunteers to help the elephants, but the administration blocked us from even examining the elephants. Perhaps they were too scared that the truth might be revealed or that they would have to work harder and spend more money. Then we provided elephant rehabilitation programme at the Kottoor Elephant Rehabilitation Centre after obtaining permission from the Chief Wildlife Warden. It was well-received by the mahouts. However, some persons scuttled our next rehabilitation programme at the Kodanad camp.”
T P Narayanan Kutty Sharam, an employee of Thechikkottukavu Temple in Thrissur, which owns two most sought-after elephants Ramachandran and Devidasan. Sharam leads the famed Thechikkottukavu Ramachandran, known as the tallest and the most dangerous captive elephant in Kerala, at the temple festival every year.
He says people who accuse elephant owners of abuse are foolish. “They have no interest in our culture or festivals and just find elephants as an excuse to topple it all. Elephants are treated very well here. They are given proper food, treatment and exercise. Even during the lockdown time, we take them for a walk to the temple where we pay obeisance to the deity and return. During the month of Karkidakam, the elephants are given rejuvenation diet – rice, chavanaprasyam, deseeded dry fruits and raw leaves,” he says.
He alleged that those who raise allegations are getting foreign funds. “Those people (who raise allegations) receive foreign funds to spew venom,” he says.
Thechikkottukavu Ramachandran is blind in one eye and had killed one elephant and trampled six persons to death, but he gets fitness certificate for parade tests time and again. Parading him for festivals and processions was banned after the tusker run amok at Guruvayur, killing two, in February last year. But Sharam says that Raman is not dangerous as projected. “He has never killed any mahout. There have been ‘accidents’, like the last time when crackers burst near him during a house-warming ceremony and Raman turned in reflex. The two persons died when the pandal erected in the congested compound crashed on them. Once, Raman dozed off and fell on a person. He didn't do it intentionally. He is quite loving and enjoys being around people. I have been with him through thick and thin. Just when the ban was lifted, the lockdown began.”
In early March this year, the district monitoring committee of captive elephants issued conditional permission to parade the tusker for festivals on a two-month trial basis.
Sharam stresses that ‘the so-called activists’ have been propagating lies about elephants in the state. “They have no idea of the life of an elephant and the efforts the owners take to groom them,” he says.
He says that one-and-a-half tonnes of palm fronds won’t suffice to feed a tusker for two days and seven kilograms of rice is cooked for one elephant alone every day. “It’s not a multi-crore business. At least Rs 35 lakh is spent on one elephant every year. No one takes this into account while blaming us,” he says.
Ownership is also a bone of contention. The Kerala Forest Department had informed Venkitachalam in 2019, in response to an query based on Right to Information Act, that out of the 521 captive elephants in the state only 32 have genuine and valid ownership certificate. Nineteen of them are owned by individuals and the remaining 13 are with Kerala forest department. The reply further stated that all the other 483 elephants owned by private individuals, Guruvayur Devaswom Board, Travancore Devaswom Board, Malabar Devaswom Board, Cochin Devaswom Board, Thiruvambadi Devaswom, Paramekkavu Devaswom, Thiruvananthapuram Sreepadmanabha Swami Temple, Mangalamkunnu Parameswara Chettiyar and Family and Kollam Shaji and Family do not have ownership certificate and are keeping elephants brought to Kerala illegally before 2007. At present, 491 captive elephants are alive in Kerala.
Sangita says the death of this pregnant elephant is symbolic of the perennial problems that have been long ignored. “The laws certainly have several loopholes, and the elephant owners know all too well how to exploit them. Kerala’s Captive Elephant Management Rules are flawed because there are no specific penalties associated with violations. They merely say you shall not do this or that. But it doesn’t spell out the consequences of doing what they are not supposed to do.”
Vankitachalam concurs, “A collective decision from veterinary experts, government, elephant owners, mahouts and animal activists is the need of the hour. An advisory committee should issue rules and regulations for safe treatment and care of captive elephants. It should be periodically ensured that all the rules are complied with and elephants lead a healthy life. They deserve a dignified life and death.”