By G. Shaheed, N.A. Naseer
With mahouts who strike to injure in the name of disciplining them, owners who underfeed them, admirers who fail to see their suffering, and an administration that is indifferent to their plight, temple elephants, and captive elephants in general, have never had it so bad though there are laws meant to protect them. Text by G. SHAHEED and photographs by N.A. NASEER.
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 festival. 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.
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. More....