A Jumbo Tragedy

The failure to enforce rules and stressful use at temple events are forcing elephants in Kerala to run amok.

Every Summer, a tragedy unfolds in Kerala. Somewhere or the other, elephants trained to participate in temple festivals turn on their trainers and the religious congregation around them and stampede. Sometimes, they kill people. On April 24, an elephant ran amok at a temple near the coastal Thrissur city trampling an elderly woman to death and killing two men, including a mahout (while its own sat atop terrified) who it impaled on its tusk. By the time the elephant was brought to heel 90 minutes later, it had also destroyed portions of the temple. This is the season of the Thrissur pooram festival when elephants are taken and form part of processions to mark one of the most significant Hindu religious festivals in Kerala. This incident occurred around noon when the elephant was being taken out of the temple for a ceremonial procession.

Animal rights activists say the temple tragedy underlines the serious flaws in the management of captive, or tamed, elephants in Kerala. Since January, rampaging elephants have killed 18 people, including eight mahouts, across Kerala. According to the Kerala Elephant Lovers' Association, a group of passionate advocates for the beast, the elephants' fury continues because of the failure of the government to enforce the rules set out for the management of the captive elephants. "How can civil society continue to ignore the failure to adhere to the norms?" asks VK Venkitachalam, head of the association, who alleges that the authorities at the temple where the elephant rampaged had not complied with an order of the Kerala High Court specifying the do's and don'ts for the use of elephants at such events. The court's order included a restraint on the display of the captive elephants between 11 am and 3 pm as stipulated by the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

According to the government rules, organizers must begin providing the forest department daily fitness certificates for the elephants from three days before an event begins. But such certificates are submitted in bulk only to get the requirement out of the way. Says Radha Krishnan, an elephant lover: "Earlier, only kings and lords owned elephants. Now, they are a necessity at temples, churches and mosques. With a steady increase in number of festivals, the casualty also increases."

Many elephants are made to quickly cover many kilometers between temples during the January-May festival season. "Elephant owners and trainers are warned every year to care for their animals,' says noted environmentalist PK Uthaman. "But many elephants still have to endure unhealthy living conditions and are underfed." Adds another expert, KC Panicker: "The number of elephants participating in festivals is very large, about 50 to 60. That has to be reduced. All elephants have to be given a fitness certificate by a veterinary surgeon."

Last year, the Kerala government announced that committees will be set up in each of the state's 14 districts to ensure that Captive Elephant Management Rules were followed. Such committees were to include forest officials and activists. But no committee has been set up in any district even as elephants run crazy and kill people, and temples continue to use elephants in their events.

"It not just their beauty but also the faith that the elephant represents Lord Ganesha that makes the elephant crucial for our festival events," says P. Chandrasekharan, who runs one of the city's temple administrative bodies, the Thiruvambadi Devaswom. In most cases, long working hours in sweltering heat and dehydration puts elephants under extreme stress. "We cannot directly interfere with individual temple administrative bodies," G. Sudakaran, who heads the ministry that exclusively caters to the management of such temple bodies, said. Admitting that it was cruelty that forced the beasts to the violence, the minister adds: "We will try to bring in new legislation to stop the use of elephants."

But a ban on the use of elephants in temples would be easily flouted in festival-crazy Kerala. Elephant lovers as well as festival organizers say that the need of the hour is a consensus that will bring down the abuse of the animal. Pointing out that the elephant is Kerala's state animal and that the state government's emblem also has two elephants in it, government official KP Sreekumar says almost all festival events have at least one richly caparisoned elephant.

Currently, some 700 elephants are in captivity across the state. About 260 are with the devaswoms, the temple bodies, while 440 are individually owned. The largest private collection is 14 elephants. Earlier, only the high-caste Namboodiris owned elephants. But elephant ownership is now seen as symbolic of wealth and prestige. Kerala Forest Minister Binoy Viswam had last year said that all elephants will be 'retired' at the age of 65 years. But no follow-up action has been taken. His other elephant-friendly initiatives such as fixed work hours and safe transportation for the elephants also remain on paper.

"The Kerala Elephant Owners' Association would welcome scientific initiatives on the part of the government to avoid tragedies. We have to compile a proper set of rules to decide what needs to be done when elephants run amok," says the association's representative P. Sasi Kumar.

In Kerala, elephants rarely breed in captivity. Capturing them from the forests is banned. They are now being bought from Bihar, West Bengal and the Northeast.

The cost of each calf varies from Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 3 lakh. The journey to Kerala lasts up to 15 days. Once trained, elephants are rented at the rate of Rs 15,000 for a three-hour programme. Such events invariably begin around noon and the elephants are made to stand in the sun and denied water for long periods. "There is a misconception that elephants fan their ears and dance because they appreciate the music," says EK Easwaran, an elephant expert. "Actually, elephants fan their ears to cool their bodies and dance on their feet to get away from the hot tar."

After a long strenuous walk in the hot sun, when the animals are hungry and thirsty, their mahouts feed them and take them to water. But instead of bringing them much relief, this actually clogs their intestines, says Easwaran.

Elephants, he says, can never be completely domesticated and always desire to return to the wild. A mahout puts the elephant under stress by hitting it when it disobeys commands. "Captive elephants are always made to work even when there is no work,' says Easwaran. Clearly, man or beast, there is only so much repression that a living being can take, as the rampaging elephant showed at Thrissur. 


More by :  K. A. Shaji

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