“Invading elephants trample two”… “Murderous elephant gores mahout to death”… “Marauding elephants throw up vehicles”… The list of unjust adjectives heaped on a hapless animal — whose home is being destroyed and who has been “tamed” by man to bow and scrape — goes on.
Let’s for a while shift attention from “marauding.. tramples.. gores..” to “searing pain, deafening sound, burning roads, closed spaces, chained, starved, beaten…” — the fate of our elephants.
Whether it be in circuses or places of worship, the captive elephant goes through untold misery which turns it “beserk” and causes harm to the hovering crowds. A recent instance is that of three elephants in the famous Guruvayoor temple that “ran amok”.
The heavily-caparisoned pachyderms walking in a procession and carrying the idol lost their cool and went running around, grievously hurting two people in the crowd in the process.
Trying to squeeze itself through a small door and escape the crowd — a sure sign of its desperation — one ended with deep scratches from metal pieces while the other two that ran in two other directions were quickly “controlled” by the mahout.
Indian mahouts control elephants using metal goads or “ankush”, which come with a sharp metal hook at the end to induce pain and restrain the animal.
Placed in closed spaces with milling crowds and their deafening sound of drums and pipes day after day and shackled most of the time, it is no surprise at all that these animals lose their cool sooner or later. In fact, it is surprising and a brownie point for the animal that it puts up with so much and reacts violently very rarely.
In the wild they spend approximately 18 hours a day walking, feeding, bathing and interacting with close family members. In captivity, there is neither freedom nor socialising.
Around the same time that the temple mishap occurred, a nearby elephant was being transported in a lorry. The vehicle was waiting at a railway crossing when the screeching horn of the approaching train sent the panic-stricken animal jumping out of the lorry, luckily into an adjacent mud pit from where it was pulled out using a crane. It ended being shackled further on all four legs, restricting total movement.
One can either marvel and take pride at the “superiority” of man who could “tame” the massive elephant. Or, one can feel ashamed at the total insensitivity and cruelty of man towards another magnificent creation.
India’s captive elephants number more than 3,500, of which at least 70 percent are owned privately and the rest by the forest department, temples, circuses and zoos. Kerala has the maximum number of captive elephants — at over 700.
We have a hoard of laws that aim to protect animals, like the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960; the Performing Animals (Registration) Rules, 2001; The Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972; and the Recognition of Zoo Rules, 2009. But monitoring is lacking.
In Kerala there is also the Kerala Captive Elephants (Maintenance and Management) Rules, 2012, which too is violated. More than 24 captive elephants have died in Kerala in last one year alone, being subjected to torture and abuse, says People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta).
Capturing an elephant is prohibited under the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, yet it continues. Most of them are captured from West Bengal, Assam, Bihar and the North-East and brought to Kerala.
The Kerala government order issued in February 2016 in fact allows the state Chief Wildlife Warden to issue ownership certificates to people, who now illegally hold 289 captive elephants.
In India, elephants are captured illegally and separated from their families very early, and their “spirits are then broken through constant beatings with iron ankushes and other physical and mental torture, including deprivation of food, water and sleep and the use of various weapons,” says Manilal Valliyate, director of veterinary affairs at Peta.
At major events like the Thrissur Pooram, the elephants have to contend not only with the crowds but also the deafening sound of firecrackers that shake the ground and shatter decibel records.
Any wonder then that they “turn rogue”? In Kerala alone captive elephants have killed 526 people in 15 years, according to Heritage Animal task Force, while in two months alone there were 159 instances of temple elephants “retaliating”.
During mating season when the male goes into “musth” and is quite uncontrollable, the mahouts often keep the tuskers in shackles, and starved to boot. Finally, they are beaten up by a group of people into submission, claims documentary maker Sangita Iyer in her film Gods in Shackles’.
She claims the Guruvayur Temple, which of late has been seeing a manifold surge in devotees, is one of the worst in terms of elephant cruelty.
In a study conducted in Kerala two years ago by Cupa (Compassion Unlimited Plus Action), a Bangalore-based animal welfare group, it was seen that 69 percent of private elephants were chained in more than one region of the body, and kept chained for 18-24 hours. Only 8 percent were allowed some duration of movement.
All temple elephants were chained in more than one region of the body for similar durations, said the report.
Many of these elephants are leased out by owners to temples and have to make long journeys by road without stop for food, water or shelter. Sometimes by lorry and at times by foot, this is equally straining for the animal.
It was also found that often the fitness certificates required for elephants were fraudulent and purchased by the owners.
Besides the cruelty aspect, there is also fear of spread of zoonotic diseases like tuberculosis from the elephants to humans. A solution would be to follow some progressive temples in Kerala that have discontinued the use of elephants in festivals and opted for faux life-sized versions of elephants, as advised by experts.
Inspections by the animal welfare board (AWBI) had revealed abuse of elephants during the 2015 Thrissur Pooram held in Kerala, as also at three other temple festivals. They were in violation of most of the laws. Many of the animals declared fit were clearly under stress or bore injuries. Repetitive swaying, indicating mental suffering, was also seen in some.
Following the revelations, the AWBI in 2016 issued an advisory to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change seeking a ban on the training, exhibition and use of elephants for performances in India. But not much has changed.
Laws are not enough. We need vigilance from a caring society which must bring it to the notice of the Supreme Court when there is a violation of its direction against animal cruelty. We cannot always leave it to welfare groups. Haven’t many of us grown up loving the elephant? It is time we fought for it.
First, let us call for an end to this inhuman practice of positioning elephants at places of worship and public events. Second, let us ensure that capture of wild elephants is stopped. We surely have other ways to validate human supremacy over nature.
Third, and most important, we as an animal-revering civilisation must ensure that the homes of wildlife are inviolate spaces, protected from encroaching farmlands, mushrooming resorts and deadly highways.
Perhaps, there will then be more narratives of the ‘gentle pachyderm’ and the ‘humane human’ than of marauders and controllers.
Date: 12 Dec 2017