Elephant owners, including temples in Kerala have come under intense scrutiny after illegal ivory traders confessed that they bought tusks of captive elephants from the state. A popular daily in India reports, one of the traders was arrested in New Delhi, after law enforcement authorities raided his home and seized 487 kilos of ivory worth more than 120,000,000 Indian Rupees i.e. $1.8 million USD.
India’s wild elephants are also under siege, fueled by the transnational ivory trade. According to media reports, in the past 10 months poachers slaughtered around 20 elephants in Kerala, and in the past two years more than 100 of them across southern India (Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka states).
This is of grave concern as India is a global hot spot for the endangered Asian elephants. According to Dr. Raman Sukumar, a world renowned elephant expert featured in my documentary Gods in Shackles:
“India holds about 30,000 wild elephants and 50 per cent of those elephants are found in Southern India. And in the whole of Asia, the estimate is approximately 50,000 elephants. India holds about 60 per cent of the global population of the Asian elephants in the wild.”
India has a moral obligation to save this global treasure. But sadly, elephants are being captured illegally from the wild for the illicit ivory trade, and exploited commercially. Kerala has more than 700 captive elephants, mostly male, the largest number in any given Indian state. Most of these elephants are leased out like commodities, for cultural festivals, as temples and owners make hundreds of thousand of dollars per festival season as I previously wrote on The Huffington Post.
People seem to have become so blinded by their quest for material wealth, power and status quo, that they can’t seem to recognize the intrinsic values of elephants.
Elephants are a keystone species, which means the survival of other species in the forest ecosystem depends on the elephants. In an email interview with me, Petter Granli, Co-founder and Executive Director of Elephant Voices said, elephants are “constant gardeners”, as they graze and/or browse for up to 18 hours a day on 100-400 different species of plants, barks, roots, depending on their habitat.
“Seeds pass through their system and get left behind along their trails. Many ecosystems would collapse or dramatically change character if the elephants disappeared – they have an amazing seed dispersal capacity.”
Due to their ability to disperse seeds across vast areas, the forest ecosystems have high density of trees and plants that produce oxygen that we need to survive, and take in carbon-di-oxide, acting as natural air purifiers. Without this widespread dispersal, the seeds will drop beneath the tree and decay or get eaten by other creatures.
Clearly, the inherent values of elephants far exceed that which humans place on them. Furthermore, these values have existed long before humans discovered them. But even more awe inspiring are the spiritual values that elephants naturally possess, and humans can certainly emulate in their daily lives. According to Granli,
“Elephants are highly intelligent, long-lived animals, with feelings and empathy. They are self-aware and aware of death, they think ahead and about the past. They grieve and show their pain and losses, and have a huge social network they interact with. Each means something for many others and many will feel sad or even traumatized when an individual is no more. It is very clear to me that elephants are incredibly valuable in their own rights.”
Gods in Shackles is a feature length investigative documentary film that highlights the intrinsic values of elephants, while exposing their commercial exploitation under the guise of culture and religion. This film features a heartwarming story of Lakshmi, a temple elephant who displayed immense reverence for another sentient being. During our walk to the temple where she works, we noticed a dead cat on the road. She paused respectfully before its body, contemplated for a few seconds, and then stepped aside carefully, even as the oblivious drivers drove over the cat’s little corpse. Lakshmi is but one of seven temple elephants featured in the film.
The ethics of nature dictates that humans are no more intrinsically valuable than any other living being and should see themselves as equal members of Earth’s community. We need to revere all life and expand our moral responsibility to include every living being.
In his published article Environmental Ethics, Rolmes Rolston III an American philosophy professor, dispels the notion that human beings are the only species capable of valuing nature. He says every single organism is capable of using its own intrinsic value for the survival of its species. Arne Naess, a Norwegian philosopher who coined the term Deep Ecology, says,
“the value of non-human life-forms is independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes”.
Hans Jonas, a twentieth century German Philosopher, advocates the concept of responsibility towards the planet and all its inhabitants. According to Jonas, humans have not fully understood the consequences of the extinction of non-human species, as their swift actions fail to consider long term implications.
“The gap between the ability to foretell and the power to act creates a novel moral problem” (Jonas, 1984, p. 7).
Closing this gap is a moral imperative during a very critical period in our planet’s history. Perhaps this is our last best chance to save the endangered Asian elephants.
If you are inspired to help us create awareness of the intrinsic values of Asian elephants, click here: Gods in Shackles
Correction: A previous version of this piece stated that law enforcement authorities seized 487 kilos of ivory worth more than $120,000,000, when it was actually 120,000,000 Indian Rupees.