Elephants, those gentle giants, are one of the most majestic, intelligent and fascinating animals. Elephants are both revered in religion and known for their prowess in war. Asian cultures admire the high intelligence and good memory of elephants that symbolize wisdom and royal power.
The Hindu cosmology of ancient India suggests, the earth is supported (and guarded) by the mythical “elephants” at the compass points of the cardinal directions. The classical Sanskrit literature also attributes earthquakes to the shaking of their bodies when they tire. Wisdom is represented by the elephant in the form of the deity Ganesh, one of the most popular gods in the Hindu religion’s pantheon, who has a human form with the head of an elephant.
But behind all the glory, glamour and age-old traditions lurk a dark, sordid secret. Hundreds of elephants are being robbed of their right to freedom and lush green carpeted home, and forced into a life of torture and brutality in captivity. This even as the demand for Asian elephants is surging as populations in the wild are dwindling. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) has listed Asian elephants under “endangered species,” and according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), these animals are being pushed to extinction, with only 25,600-32,750 estimated to roam wild in the tropical forests of Asia and 15,000 held in captivity.
In India alone, there are more than 3,000 captive elephants, with 702 or approximately 21 per cent in the southern state of Kerala, in India — the largest domesticated elephant population. These elephants are revered, groomed and given a prestigious place in the state’s culture. In fact, the elephant is the state animal of Kerala and is featured on the emblem of the Government of Kerala.
In fact these magnificent animals are loved and adored so much that it seems more people are possessing them now than ever before, to elevate their status in society. According to a 2009 research entitled, Captive Elephants in Kerala, private individuals own 508 elephants and temples 174. The state’s most revered Hindu temple, Guruvayoor, owns 66 captive elephants, most of them tuskers (males) that live on seven acres of land outside the temple. They’re used in festivals, processions and religious functions, which are considered holy and therefore not suspect.
In Kerala, festivals run from November through May, with May unravelling the most spectacular display of the majestic elephants to entertain people, but the most torturous season for these animals. During the festivities they are forced to stand motionless for 10-12 hours and helplessly tolerate the scorching heat, as temperatures hover in the 40-45 Celsius range. No physical exercise either for these elephants that graze the lush jungles most of the time. There’s no data on the kind of tactics used by the mahouts (as the trainers are called in India) to control the elephants amidst all the chaos, or make them perform. However it may the heavy chains tied to their feet and the spiky chains around their body that does the dirty trick.
These elephants have to endure long and noisy parades accompanied by music and drums, and are expected to put up with the sights and sounds of fire crackers and flames within close proximity. The exhausted animals are then forced into ramshackle open vehicles and travel long distances for back-to-back parades.
As you can imagine, these intelligent animals are not only deprived of sleep, food, and water (for drinking and bathing), but also of their psychological exercise they’d otherwise receive in their natural habitat, making them even more lethargic. According to the published article, “brokers do not take the elephant’s biological needs as well as the logistics of transport/travel into consideration while booking.”
Not surprisingly they run amok and become violent causing stampedes, and many times the elephants end up getting killed. According to the BBC, figures compiled by Kerala’s Elephant Lovers Association from media reports and wildlife authorities, captive elephants have killed 212 people — the majority of them mahouts — in the past 12 years in Kerala. The group also reckons more than 1,000 elephants have died “due to torture” during the same period.
“The captive elephant scenario in Kerala has reached such complex proportions that finding realistic and sustainable solutions may be very difficult. The conflict and lack of coordinated action between State Forest Departments, NGOs, veterinarians and other stakeholders of elephant culture, has only added to the problems. Consequently, Kerala does not have a systematic approach in addressing its myriad captive elephant issues.”
But there’s a glimmer of hope for the endangered Asian elephants. According to one of the lead elephant scientists at ANCF, Surendra Varma the state authorities have been offered solutions, among them three key measures that can be implemented swiftly:
- Complete ban of elephants in festivals
- Expose elephants to an alternative income source
- Rehabilitate both elephant and mahouts through care centres
Elephant welfare scientists are calling on the state government to step up to the plate in helping create care centres for abandoned elephants that aren’t economically viable, and provide resources to maintain them.
It’s also equally imperative to educate the general public and stakeholders such as elephant owners, mahouts, festival organizers and the media, in order to create a shift in attitude and mindset on the use of elephants in festivals. Perhaps helping people reconnect with the religious significance of the elephant deity Ganesh could help rekindle a sense of reverence and sacredness for the majestic elephants.
I’m travelling to India in December leading up to the festivities in May 2014 aiming to produce a series of segments in order to aid with the education and awareness on the plight of the Indian elephants. I intend to use non-traditional approaches, so it would resonate with the masses and evoke emotions, which in turn will hopefully spur engagement and action.
At the moment the plan is to launch the introductory series in the first half of 2014. Meantime, as I embark on this poignant journey I need your prayers and good wishes.