Kerala has seen many elephants go on the rampage recently. K.K. GopalaKrishnan looks at some possible reasons…

Around 12.15 p.m. on July 17, 2010, passengers waiting at the busy Thrissur railway station in central Kerala witnessed a fearful scene: A tusker entered the parking area and created havoc and damage to vehicles. From there it went into the compound of an adjacent hotel, damaged a few more vehicles and walked up the busy road nearby. For three hours, till the animal was finally brought under control the western part of the town was shrouded in fear. The same day another elephant also ran amok in Guruvayur, not far from Thrissur.

 “This is not a stray incident. There are several issues connected with it as captive elephants are ill-treated in Kerala, especially in Thrissur”, says V.K. Venkitachalam, Secretary of Kerala Elephant Lover's Association.

 In 2003, the Kerala Government introduced the Captive Elephant (Management & Maintenance) Rule, known as Rule 2003, whereby microchips and registration for captive elephants were made compulsory. To a large extent it resulted in reducing their illegal transportation. According to the 2009 census, there are about 695 elephants in Kerala, of which 196 are in Thrissur, a place known for elephant craze where caparisoned elephants are paraded in every function.

Overlooked rules

The government has framed elaborate rules for the maintenance of captive elephants but by and large these are overlooked. Often the functions/ rituals go on for hours with long processions at the beginning and culminate with thunderous fireworks.  Most of the festivals in Kerala are during January-May, a time when the mercury skyrockets and chances of the elephants going amok are considerable. 

 Dr. P. Devarajan, Senior Veterinary Surgeon of the Government Veterinary Hospital, Thrissur, opines that “at several places the rules are not obeyed and the animals are subjected to over work with little rest and tortured to make them obey the instructions of mahouts.  The biggest problem that we face today when elephants run amok is not managing them but controlling the mob thronging around, shouting and attempting to take pictures on mobile phones and throwing stones making them even more infuriated”. 

Though Order no. WL1-837/2007 of the Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) issued in 2008 specially points out that “all the provisions of the Captive Elephant (Management & Maintenance) Rule 2003 should be followed”, even the State Government overlooks it while gajamelas (exhibitions of a large number of elephants) and public functions with caparisoned elephants are conducted.  Expressing his anguish over the attitude of both government and animal lovers, P. Sasikumar, General Secretary, Kerala Elephant Owners' Federation, explains that “the reason why elephants are forced to work overloaded is the shortage of animals and increasing number of functions demanding elephants”.

 All too common

A painful but common scene in Kerala is that the elephants' legs are tied with chains of short length which restrains its free leg movements and often the chains are put around open wounds.  “During June 2010 six captive elephants died in central Kerala due to cruelty. Some of the owners also want to get rid of ‘problematic' tuskers for dual reasons — to avoid further headaches with the animal and for the ivory. At times hormones are injected to artificially control their musth during festival seasons and there is a nexus of some owners and unethical veterinarians in this”, alleges Venkitachalam. 

Suparna Ganguly, member of the Task Force Project Elephant, a committee appointed by the Government of India to give recommendations to improve the conditions of wild and captive elephants, explains that “most captive elephants have been captured from the wild. They have been like orphans, bereft of the elders who would normally mentor and teach them. As a consequence, traumatised elephants have become aggressive against people, other animals, and even one another; their behaviour is comparable to that of humans who have experienced genocide, other types of violence, and social collapse. Elephants have the same depth and range of emotions as humans. ”

Earlier, in Kerala, captive elephants were not even chained. Why they are going mad now? The public, owners and mahouts often forget that the elephant is a social animal that creates a strong bond with people. Since many owners commercially lease out their elephants to professional agents, the owner-animal-mahout emotional bondage is often minimal. Additionally, mahouts and possessions of elephants are frequently changed.

As British-born author-photographer, Pepita Seth, whose passion for elephants brought her to Kerala in 1972, rightly puts it, “nowadays if one temple uses 9 elephants at a festival another has to use to 15, which, with this mindset soon escalates to a temple wanting 101 elephants. Who cares or stops to reason that for this to be possible immense cruelty is involved? I fear that unless a seismic shift in the desire of people to act like human beings happens it will be business as usual.”