Of elephants & men

Published : May 04, 2007 00:00 IST

New trends in elephant commerce are resulting in frequent encounters on the streets of Kerala between man and beast.

R. KRISHNAKUMAR in Thiruvananthapuram

If he is displeased in any way at the manner in which the world is being run, he will kill an elephant keeper. For this reason, Kochunarayanan Namboodiripad, the head of the Chathangeri Mana, has stocked a number of elephant keepers.

- Vaikkom Mohammed Basheer, Malayalam novelist and short story writer, on his fictional rogue, the elephant, `Kochuneelandan', and his faceless keepers, as quoted in the novel Aanavaariyum Ponkurisum.

IRONY is the stuff of `elephant stories' in Kerala, a State known for its cultural obsession with the giant creatures. Real-life anecdotes that capture a thousand moods of these whimsical animals too are part of the lore of a multitude of elephant lovers. But as elephants become symbols of exploitation and commercial success, the irony now seems to be in the gory details of the increasingly frequent and violent encounters between man and beast in the streets and at festival venues.

This year's festival season has been especially unpleasant, with about 63 elephants running amok, mostly in crowded public venues, and at least 10 mahouts being gored, thrown about or crushed to death by their `wards' in the three months from January. According to the Thrissur-based Elephant Lovers' Association, 47 mahouts have died in similar fashion since January 2006. In the two decades before 2002, as per another unofficial estimate, the figure was only about 130. There are about 630 captive elephants in the State (900-odd as per unofficial figures), and their numbers have increased in the past decade with Kerala growing into a global tourism destination and religious festivals becoming the ideal setting for demonstrating competitive community zeal - if not, vanity - and for expanding trade and business.

With the State fast losing its forest cover and big-time logging activities coming to an end, there began an unprecedented trend in the use of "idle elephant power" for religious ceremonies of all communities - Hindu, Christian and Muslim. If earlier the craze for `elephant melas' was confined to the central districts of Thrissur and Palakkad and a few pockets of Ernakulam, the craving for bigger, better and more elephants soon became a matter of prestige for the authorities of a rapidly increasing array of temples. Simultaneously, there arose a trend of parading elephants for every other event - at educational institutions and for ceremonies organised by churches and mosques, among others. The rush of elephant owners to rent out their animals for such occasions began in earnest. Parades of more than 50 elephants are no longer the preserve of the annual mega cultural event, `Thrissur Pooram', held at Thrissur.

Since the mid-1990s, as the State began to sell its tourist potential abroad successfully through alluring advertisement campaigns, tourists have been flocking to Kerala to enjoy, among other attractions, the visual feast offered by the colourful formations of caparisoned elephants, the accompanying orchestra of traditional temple music, and the surcharged religious fervour that came with it. To the itinerant tourist, the opportunity to go for a ride on a caparisoned elephant in the land of beautiful hills, beaches and backwaters was clearly packaged as an exotic experience like an imaginary yatra on a domesticated lion or a kangaroo on the streets of Sydney, London or New York. Today, the colourful paraphernalia surrounding elephants in Kerala belies a cruel reality. Riding the eagerness to parade more and more elephants at every street corner is a selfish sense of commerce. Depending on an elephant's health and a whole range of other indicators that would only remain a mystery to the uninitiated, an `average' elephant is believed to fetch its owner or the middleman a daily remuneration of Rs.15,000 to Rs.25,000, as festival organisers, even localities, compete with each other to have the mightiest of elephants paraded in their neighbourhood.

Most owners, however, claim their animals get only a daily wage of Rs.5,000 to Rs.10,000. Yet there are elephants that bring in a daily remuneration as high as Rs.50,000. Certain `superstar' elephants have been reported to fetch its owners Rs.15 lakh as profit every season, while most fetch a profit of at least Rs.10 lakh.

It is this economics that drives up the demand for elephants in Kerala, where they are bought and sold for the highest price. If in the early 1990s an average elephant carried a price tag of Rs.1 lakh to Rs.3 lakh, it can now be bought for not less than Rs.10 lakh. Three years ago, the record price offered (by a non-resident Indian) for a `near-perfect' elephant in the State was Rs.28 lakh. Unconfirmed reports quote prices of some elephants to be as high as Rs.30 lakh or Rs.50 lakh.

Despite the many restrictions on inter-State transfer and sale of elephants there is now an easy but illegal corridor through which elephants are brought to Kerala, especially from Bihar, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The two-week-long Sonepur mela near Patna in Bihar, perhaps the largest animal market in India, has long been a major supply point for enterprising businessmen from Kerala who buy young elephants for Rs.50,000 or Rs.1 lakh and sell them for a tidy profit in the State. To the businessman who is willing to nurture the newly acquired elephant for a while, the profit could be as high as Rs.7 lakh or Rs.8 lakh, according to unofficial estimates.

Of the nearly 900-odd captive elephants in Kerala, nearly 80 per cent are from beyond the Western Ghats. The `cost' of finding loopholes in the law and legitimising their presence in the State is one of the factors that add to the lucrativeness of the deals. The number of captive elephants roaming without the required ownership certificates is reported to be quite large and elephants, often, are transferred conveniently "on lease" to new owners. Such changing trends in elephant commerce constitute an important reason for the turnaround in the relationship between man and the beast.

As Basheer describes in his novel, traditional mahouts in the State perhaps were always non-entities. But they were keepers with a tradition of inherited skills, never afraid to send their sons to tackle the fiercest of crazy jumbos. They drew their courage and commitment to elephants from the feudal system that existed in Kerala, knowing well that "if they looked after the landlord's elephants, the landlord would look after their families". But as the class of big landlords (there are stories about some of them spending hot summer nights in their first-floor verandas with a herd of elephants below, in order to enjoy the breeze provided by the flapping of their large ears) disappeared early in communist-ruled Kerala, the mahouts became an extremely insecure lot.

From then on, elephant ownership, traditionally the preserve of big landlords and a sign of wealth and prestige, became a roaring business, with many persons deciding to "own an elephant as an economic proposition, like owning a truck or a taxi", as one researcher put it. Unlike the landlords, a large majority of the new owners did not have any emotional attachment to the elephants and many traditional mahouts disappeared from the scene forever.

There was in turn an onrush of naive job-seekers, who became mahouts but left for greener pastures in a year or two, arguably without spending the minimum time required for striking up a working acquaintance with the beast and acquiring a reasonable degree of competence as an elephant keeper. The mahouts are poorly paid and the working conditions leave much to be desired. On the job, they are often mistrustful of each other, the principal mahout rarely letting his assistant become a complete master of his elephant or learn all the tricks of the trade for fear of losing his job. The real owner often would know only the principal mahout and not the other keepers of his elephant, especially when elephants are leased out for the festival season. In most cases, the mahouts fail to exhibit the compassion and caring that was the hallmark of their predecessors.

Eventually, elephants would fall into the hands of wayward keepers, who, almost always high on alcohol and ganja, brutalise or maim the animals, lead them into accidents or abandon them on highways or at city centres. Left to bear the brunt of all such changes are the poor elephants themselves, increasingly in demand but facing declining standards of care.

According to the Elephant Lovers' Association, between January 2006 and March 2007, 147 elephants died in Kerala, the majority of the deaths reportedly occurring as a result of ill-treatment, if not torture. Heart-rending accounts of elephants being tortured have been reported from the State, many of these happening soon after a new keeper took charge or after elephants changed hands.

According to eyewitness accounts, frequent `initiation ceremonies' (known as kettiazhikkal) to make the beast obey the new keeper often extends for hours on end. It typically involves the new mahout continuously shouting his commands to the elephant to the accompaniment of an amazing degree of punishment imposed on it from the sides by others. Every time an elephant owner decides to change the mahout (frequently, nowadays), the elephant is forced to go through this ordeal. The use of nails and sticks, denial of food and water and forceful sleep deprivation - to "break" the elephant - have also been reported. At times, it is said, the torture ends only when the elephant bends its legs and eventually collapses in a pool of urine and dung. Some elephants learn the ropes and after a brief pretence at resistance lie down, feigning surrender. But mahouts are mistrustful of such smart alecks.

According to government figures, nearly 80 per cent of the captive elephants in Kerala are tuskers, of which nearly 77 per cent are with private individuals and the rest are with the Devaswom Boards (temple administrative bodies) and other agencies. While rebellious elephants owned by temples are permanently kept in chains as the only means of punishment, private owners would teach them a lesson as quickly as possible so as to lead them to the next mela.

These adult bull elephants exhibit a periodic state called musth when they are aggressive and sexually active. A thick, tar-like secretion rolls down through the temporal ducts on the sides of their heads when they are in this state. Although the law prohibits an elephant in musth being put to any work and insists that it is secured properly so as not to become a hazard to the public at large, such instructions are not always obeyed. Several instances of mahouts being killed by elephants occur when the animals are in musth. For most private owners and middlemen, an idling elephant means loss of festival profits and elephants being in musth during the festival season is a major financial setback.

Therefore, some of them try to wish such inconveniences away and are known to tempt fate. Sometimes, no sooner does an elephant kill a keeper, the owner appoints a new mahout who then has the unenviable task of making the killer obey his commands as soon as possible.

The dehydrating summer months of February to June, the peak temple festival season in the State, are a time when elephants are in great demand. It is the time of backbreaking work for them. All over Kerala, during the season, elephants are made to walk from one venue to the other along hot tarred roads or made to stand still in the blazing sun for hours, with irritating ornamental loads on their trunks, idols, priests and mahouts on top, chains biting into fresh wounds on their feet, no good meal or `watering hole' in sight, and the mahout's long spike ever ready to find raw flesh at sensitive spots on their sweatless bodies. And the crowds begin to cheer annoyingly.

Of late, in the rush to get elephants from one venue to the other, they are often transported in lorries and trucks. But no elephant would jump on to a vehicle of its own free will. It has to be pushed and poked with spikes and other sharp instruments on to trucks.

Each elephant would thus be `fully engaged' for 65 to 70 days every summer, in order that their owners and middlemen walk away with cool profits. During the rest of the year, they have less work and are supposed to rest, bathe, have rejuvenation therapy and good food and, especially in south Kerala, follow their keepers, seeking sundry jobs in the neighbourhood. Some owners say they spend at least Rs.500 on an elephant every day.

But there are complaints of elephants being denied sufficient fodder and water, of being mutilated or tethered in crowded enclosures, of being administered with drugs or intoxicants to control musth without veterinary advice, of being denied adequate rest or being tied with chains. It is at the end of it all that elephants in Kerala go berserk, gore down other elephants, kill their keepers and then go for the terrified onlookers.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment