Temple elephants

The pain of being a temple elephant

Print edition : March 21, 2014

At a temple festival in Kerala, elephants lined up during a display of colourful parasols, which in most cases lasts more than an hour and marks the high point of the festivities.

Sticks that mahouts use to discipline and control the elephants.

Thechikottukavu Ramachandran. This 50-year-old temple elephant, who has risen to superstar status in Thrissur, Kerala, was brought from Bihar as a teenager. His mood swings have on occasions proved fatal for mahouts and devotees.

Mahouts have a tough time dealing with exhausted elephants. The human-animal conflict adds another dimension to the situation, in which mahouts often end up as victims.

The festive spirit.

... And the fetters of cruelty.

A temple elephant precariously steps on to firm ground from a truck. Elephants are taken from temple to temple on trucks and the journey often lasts several hours, in a cramped position in most cases.

The white patches on the hind legs are soft, new skin formed over just-healed wounds. The chain rubbing on them constantly can create a new wound.

An exposed wound that can worsen because of the chain, which is rusted most of the time.

Charcoal paste applied to a wound caused by the chain, which in this case fastens tightly all four legs, making it difficult for the elephant even to move.

The sole of the elephant's feet has tender skin, which cracks after walking on hot ground, including tarred roads, and opens the way for diseases.

The mahout finds a newspaper to stand on while the elephant suffers the heat.

Chain marks on the skin on the head. The discolouration a little below marks the point where the mahout digs his stick in.

Two captive tuskers appear to be preparing for a face-off, probably over food, usually palm leaves, or the lack of it.

In this incident, which happened in Kochi in 2003, an angry temple elephant spun the mahout around and stamped him to death. Photo: By special arrangement

HE is partially blind, stands an imposing 10 feet and four inches (315 cm) tall, weighs 6.5 tonnes, and is at his majestic best when he walks, brandishing his sandal-coloured tusks as if they were swords. Indeed, his killer instinct does rear up every now and then, reminding one of his rise to “superstar” status among temple elephants in Kerala. He was brought from the wilderness of Bihar as an 18-year-old in 1983 and transplanted to the compound of a temple, the Thechikottukavu Peramangalthu Devaswom, in Thrissur, Kerala, where Bhojpuri, the language he knew, was as alien to the people as Malayalam was to him. Still, Ramachandran, who was known as Moti Prasad in Bihar, proved to be a quick learner, picking up instructions in Malayalam that were enough for him to be taken for temple festivals. The crowds that gathered to see him in all his caparisoned glory at temple festivals in elephant-crazy Kerala soon gave him the title “superstar”.

But today, at around 50 years of age, Thechikottukavu Ramachandran is more feared than revered, and behind this change is the sordid story of domestication of elephants gone terribly wrong, involving careless mahouts, unscrupulous owners and an indifferent administration. Ramachandran had adapted well to his new environment, building a good rapport with his mahouts and listening to their every command. But there were moments when his wilder instincts took over, and when this happened at temple festivals he struck terror in the hearts of devotees and mahouts alike.

Ramachandran, who is said to have lost his left eye when a mahout struck him, has killed 10 people since 1988, including five mahouts. His most recent victims were three women at a temple festival at Rayamangalam near Kochi on January 27, 2013. After that he was not seen in public until February 7 this year, when he stood as the mascot for a temple festival in Thrissur. But he continues to be restive, which was evident on February 16 when he was at another temple festival. He grew impatient after standing for a while and injured one of the mahouts. But before matters could get out of hand, the second mahout managed to control him. Forest Department officials said he had been ailing for some time. They added that his legs had swollen up, and attributed it to a mahout beating and wounding him. The Forest Department reportedly booked the mahout for cruelty.

Status symbols

Captive elephants are feudal status symbols in Kerala and in other States like Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. The owners are mainly temple administrations and individuals. The elephants, once domesticated, are used for hard labour with little rest and rented out during the temple festival season and for other public functions. In Kerala, the rents range from Rs.35,000 to Rs.50,000 a day for an “ordinary” elephant and could go up to Rs.1 lakh and more for “star” elephants like Ramachandran.

But life in captivity is akin to hell for most elephants. Their legs, particularly the hind legs, are in chains for most of the day. The constant chafing of the iron against the skin results in bleeding wounds that deepen and get infected and lead to swelling in the legs. Many a time, it is in this state that they are walked to temple festivals, where they are made to stand for long hours amid the traditional percussion ensemble and the bursting of crackers.

“People only look at the caparisoned splendour of the elephant, not bothering to lower their gaze to the wounded and swollen legs of the animal, which suffers the pain silently,” says Naseer, an avid wildlife photographer who has tracked temple elephants and whose photographs accompany this article. In more ways than one, it is the pain of being a “temple elephant”. In fact, temple elephants are not only those owned by temples but also those that are owned by individuals or families and are sought after by temples to grace their festivals.

While even seasoned mahouts cannot predict the behaviour of elephants, ill-trained mahouts are one of the main reasons why captive elephants suffer. The mahouts even use metallic and wooden devices with hooks to beat and discipline the elephants. According to Richard C. Lair, who authored an elephant care manual for the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations after years of study, poor mahoutship is the most important problem faced by captive elephants in India, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Uncontrolled use of restraining devices is the main reason for injuries. Mahouts, during the course of disciplining the elephant, deliver blows to its body at sensitive points, of which there are 107, causing shocks to the animal.

The mahouts also neglect the wounds, applying charcoal paste on them or simply covering them with cloth. They then make the elephants walk on hot tarred roads, leaving the flat-footed animal susceptible to infection and diseases such as tuberculosis and herpes.

The Forest Department has booked 162 cases against mahouts and owners for cruelty to elephants. It is only in the past five years that the department has, owing to pressure from the media and non-governmental organisations, become proactive in implementing the Kerala Captive Elephants (Management and Maintenance) Rules, 2003. Unfortunately, the conviction rate is very low. The police can also book cases under the Prevention of Cruelty Act, but they seldom do so.

If exhaustion from overwork puts mental pressure on the animal, the human-animal conflict adds another dimension to the situation, in which often mahouts, more than others, end up as victims. T.P. Sethumadhavan, author of Aanaye Ariyan (To Know Elephants) in Malayalam and head of publications at the Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University in Mannuthy, Thrissur, says that impaction is a serious disease in captive elephants. It happens when the fibre content in the fodder blocks the digestive system. In captivity, elephants are fed palm leaves and are denied the chance to browse and graze as they would in a forest for up to 18 hours a day. Some elephants are kept chained to pillars or trees for hours together, denying them a chance even to walk. This would be the equivalent of torture. Experts say such elephants look to return to the forest because in the wild they enjoy unrestrained freedom over a home range that extends to more than 300 square kilometres.

Most of the captive elephants, owned by temples or others, live in isolation, are underfed and suffer from diseases. Recently, an elephant barged into a vegetable shop in Kochi and ate up the vegetables, bananas and watermelons stocked there. In another case, in December last year, the Bombay High Court freed an elephant that was allegedly treated cruelly in a temple in Kolhapur.

Rhea Ghosh of the Bangalore-based wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centre and author of Gods in Chains says the fate of ill-treated captive elephants is compounded by the administration’s failure to enforce the laws for their care and welfare. The animal that once commanded the respect and awe of the people for its grace, indulgence and sensitiveness is now often treated like a machine used to generate the maximum income.

Elephants have an ardent champion in V.K. Venkatachalam, who is the secretary of the Heritage Animal Task Force based in Thrissur. He has taken up the cause of elephants for 15 years now and, despite the rebuffs and even abuse by the authorities and the police in the initial years, stuck to his task of ensuring that erring owners and mahouts are brought to book. His efforts bore fruit when, in 2006, the Kerala High Court, in a landmark judgment, directed the Forest Department and the police to implement strictly the Kerala Captive Elephants (Management and Maintenance) Rules. As a result, during temple festivals District Collectors were forced to set up committees and appoint officers to monitor the treatment meted out to elephants and ensure crowd control. Despite this, untoward incidents involving elephants running amok still happen.

Venkatachalam is a tuition master who teaches accountancy. Most of his students also share his love for elephants. “They are there in all parts of the State and promptly report to me incidents relating to elephants during temple festivals. I have several bunches of files now,” he says. It is a record that he is proud of. According to data he has compiled, between 2007 and 2013 as many as 2,896 elephants displayed rogue behaviour, 425 elephants died across the State because of ill-treatment by mahouts, and 183 mahouts were killed by elephants that turned violent during temple festivals.

The Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), a statutory advisory body on animal welfare laws in the country, has observed that the situation of temple elephants in terms of housing, feeding, health care and management falls far short of the accepted standards. The Board is of the view that ideally temples should not keep elephants since the animals are subjected to tremendous pressure, both mental and physical. But if temples want to have elephants, they must ensure that the animals are given good care and treated with dignity.

The State Wildlife Advisory Board at its meeting on February 3 criticised sharply the Guruvayur Devaswom Board for the neglect of the temple’s 60-odd elephants housed at Punathur Kotta, a one-time fort near the temple, which is said to hold the largest number of captive elephants anywhere in the world. The elephants are kept in an area of 18.5 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) in surroundings that the Board found to be far from satisfactory. It found that many of the elephants had health problems ranging from wounds and bruises to even foot disease. As suggested by the Board, the Chief Minister has convened a meeting, on March 5, to discuss the issue and ensure that steps are taken to improve the situation at Punathur Kotta.

The Forest Department maintains a data book of elephants in Kerala and is collecting information about each elephant, including a photograph, its name, age and other details. So far it has the details of about 560 elephants. The department also issues ownership certificates for captive elephants.

Microchip tags

O.P. Kaler, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, who oversees captive elephants’ issues, said the exact number of captive elephants in the State was not known. Of the captive elephants, the potential rogues have been tagged on the list. Physically, too, the Forest Department has fitted microchips on 705 elephants. A microchip is the size of a grain of rice and is inserted beneath the skin of the animal below the ear. It contains the details of the elephant and can be read with a microchip reader. It is useful to keep track of captive elephants and even determine how they are being treated. Some owners are still to bring their elephants to be tagged with the microchip, he said.

Under the Kerala Captive Elephants (Management and Maintenance) Rules, kicking, riding atop an elephant, causing it unnecessary strain, chaining the animal for an unreasonable length of time and failing to provide it food, water or shelter are acts of cruelty. However, implementation of the rules is at best tardy for reasons that range from official apathy to lack of adequate staff. In this situation, animal lovers have taken to the social media, mainly YouTube, in a big way to post videos of captive elephants being abused and also of them running amok. One such video shows an overworked and exhausted elephant tied to a tree being beaten black and blue. As recently as February 19, an elephant that had been taken for a temple festival near Kollam collapsed and died on the roadside of fatigue.

The documentary film-maker P. Balan, whose 63-minute film “18th Elephant: Three Monologues” won the Panda Award, popularly known as the Green Oscar, in the TVE category at the Wildscreen Festival in Bristol in 2004, is critical of man’s attitude towards nature and captive elephants. During the making of his film over a period of five years spread over several locations, the situation in Bihar shocked him. “Mahouts in Bihar hit the elephants with a sharp axe-like device, which results in cuts and deep injuries,” he said. The Sonepur Gajamela in Bihar was the hub of the trade in captive elephants in India and “the organisers are heartless persons”, he added.

Task Force report

The elephant was declared a National Heritage Animal in 2010 on the basis of the recommendation made by the Elephant Task Force (ETF) set up by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests in February 2010.

Headed by Mahesh Rangarajan, Professor of History, University of Delhi, and environmental historian, the ETF in its report submitted in August 2010 concurred with the widely held view that captive elephants in different States were subjected to severe abuse, that they were unscrupulously exploited for commercial purposes, and that their health standards were abysmal. The ETF recommended that the practice of private agencies holding elephants be phased out and that the sale of elephants at the Sonepur Mela be stopped.

Elephants, both wild and captive, are protected under the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, but the ETF recommended the formation of a National Elephant Conservation Authority on the lines of the National Tiger Conservation Authority. No action has been taken so far on this and other recommendations of the ETF.

Suparna Ganguly, a member of the ETF, says the task force’s recommendations have helped raise public consciousness about the “grave and tragic conditions of elephants in captivity”. She says: “The recommendations should have been translated into directives, with accountability with the State governments, to protect elephants from abuse and commercial activities and against questionable ownership and transfers to inappropriate places. Instead, the abuse of captive elephants seems to have increased.” She has a point, but it is also a fact that owners find the going tough for several reasons, ranging from high costs for maintaining elephants to increasing public awareness about the ill-treatment of captive elephants.

At Mangalamkunnu in Kerala’s Palakkad district, reside two brothers, Haridas and Parameswaran, who own 14 elephants. All of them are housed in their compound and rented out for festivals and functions. They bought their first elephant from Uttar Pradesh in 1978 and claim to spend Rs.3,500 a day on each elephant for its food and upkeep. They apparently get a minimum rent of Rs.35,000 an elephant during the festival season. “But nowadays business is dull,” says Haridas. The law is very strict and sometimes it becomes very difficult to move an elephant from one place to another for festivals or other functions, he adds. About one thing they are clear: they will not give up on the elephants whatever the hardship.

But what about the hardships of the elephants?

G. Shaheed is chief of the legal and environment news bureau of the Mathrubhumi daily in Kochi.

N.A. Naseer is a freelance wildlife photographer based in Udhagamandalam, Tamil Nadu.

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