Man-elephant conflicts usually happen inside forests or villages near forests. But a more serious conflict is happening daily in Kerala or more precisely inside temples and their vicinity during festivals. The temple festival season (February-April) coincides with summer. No temple festival is complete without the parading of elephants. In fact, organisers vie with one another in parading the maximum number of elephants.
Incidents of elephants turning violent and killing mahouts and bystanders are increasing year after year. If we probe deeply, every killer elephant will have a tale of brutal torture to tell. It is widely known that elephants are tortured right from their capture. Domestication is a misnomer for crude forms of torture. Physical pain is inflicted on the poor animal to buy obedience. The mahouts believe that only a tortured elephant can be coerced into submission.
The animal's plight does not end with the ‘initiation.' The elephant keepers beat the animals at the slightest sign of disobedience. They are denied food and water to teach them a lesson.
Inebriated mahouts have been known to torture their elephants without any sense of guilt. It is said the tortured elephant does not forget the ill- treatment easily and wreaks vengeance on the tormentors when its endurance limit is crossed.
The elephants' real nightmare starts with the festival season, which falls in the peak summer season. They are made to work for long hours without rest, food and water. The government has formulated the Kerala Captive Elephant (Management & Maintenance) rules to ensure that the pachyderms are treated humanely. But the rules often are violated with impunity. Temple officials turn a blind eye to the cruel treatment.
Most captive elephants are owned by individuals who make money renting them for festivals and film shoots. For most owners, animal welfare is not a priority. There are about 700 captive elephants in Kerala.
Elephants have been banned from circuses. They why should they be allowed to be tortured in the name of religion? There is no scriptural sanction for parading temple deities on elephants. Places of worship should not turn into torture chambers for dumb animals that cannot fight for their rights.
According to a report in The Hindu, December 05, 2010, “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.” Some people have advocated tightening and strict enforcement of rules to prevent torture. But this is a failed strategy because neither the Forest Department nor the police has the manpower or the will to enforce the law.
The Central government declared elephant a National Heritage Animal based on the report of the Elephant Task Force (ETF). But other recommendations of the ETF like banning private ownership for commercial purposes and the creation of a National Elephant Conservation Authority, are yet to be implemented.
The government must take over custody of all captive elephants after compensating the owners. The mahouts need to be compensated for the loss of livelihood and rehabilitated. Kerala can disperse the 700 or so captive elephants in camps in various districts. The income from visiting tourists will not only meet the expenses for maintaining the animals but also bring in a tidy sum as profit.
Abuse of animals in the name of religion cannot be allowed to continue. Let the torture of captive elephants end once and for all.