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Torture season begins for elephants

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K. Santhosh

StateTrends Festival season is celebration time for humans, but for elephants it is a season of torture. Unscientific training methods, mindless torture and poor upkeep are telling on the elephant population in the State and their behaviour.

THRISSUR: Torture season begins for elephants in Kerala in January.

As the curtain goes up on festivals and percussion ensembles drum up excitement, the State makes yet another painful and dangerous tryst with exploitation of elephants.

The pachyderms are made to walk long distances on tarred roads and stand unendingly on concrete surfaces.

As a result, most of them have pockets of infection under their feet or toenails, veterinarians say.

Section 12 of a Government Order (No 12/2003/F&WLD) dated February 26, 2003, prohibits `marching an elephant over tarred roads for long, during the hottest period of the day, for religious or any other purpose'.

The order also prohibits `making the elephant stand in the scorching sun for unreasonably long duration, and bursting crackers when the elephant is around'.

"Elephant owners and mahouts care two hoots for the law," says K.C. Panicker, veterinarian and secretary of the Kerala Elephant Welfare Association.

Elephants are sorely uncomfortable on tar and concrete. "Blisters are unbearable for the animals. If one foot gets infected, the elephant would repeatedly shift all the weight to the other feet. These legs too would then feel tired," says P.C. Alex, veterinarian with the Kerala Agricultural University.

Feet are the gauge of an elephant's overall health. Use of custom-made boots for the animals is recommended.

"If the feet get infected, rest is essential. But the owners, who are eager to send the elephants to the maximum number of festivals and earn more, give the animals no rest," says Dr. Panicker.

The elephants are also mostly ill-fed and not given enough water. An elephant normally drinks between 200 to 250 litres of water every day.

Training is torture

Training elephants mostly involves physical abuse and complete domination of the animals. "Training the pachyderm requires a great deal of patience. Mahouts are impatient with slow learners. Torture accompanies lessons. Groups of people sometimes beat up a chained elephant in a practice called `Nunachattam' when a new mahout takes charge. The practice rests on the belief that a bond develops between the elephant and the mahout when it is nursed to normality. The method is unscientific and resembles a scene from an absurd play," says V.K. Venkitachalam, secretary, Kerala Elephant Lovers' Association (Ana Premi Sanghom).

Belief also goes that when a male elephant is in musth, it can be controlled only if it is made weak through torture and poor feeding. `Musth' is a Hindi word meaning `intoxicated'. When a male elephant is in musth, its level of testosterone will rise dramatically by a factor of 20 or more.

`Musth' might last up to 60 days as the male elephant wait for mating. The animal displays aggressive behaviour during this period. The elephant will dramatically reduce his food intake and burn up much of his fat reserves.

The temporal gland between the eyes and ears swell and discharge a viscous secretion. There is continual dribbling of urine too. "Despite several programmes to create awareness among mahouts, elephants are tortured when they show signs of `musth'. Mahouts have a wrong notion that they can control the elephants only if the animals are weak," says Dr. Panicker.

The elephant retaliates when the torture is unbearable. According to the Elephant Lovers' Association, the number of mahouts killed by elephants rose from 18 in 1997-`99 to 46 in 2003-`05.

The number of elephant deaths rose from 137 in 1997-`99 to 384 in 2003-`05.

No records

The Kerala Captive Elephants (Management and Maintenance) Rules 2003 state that elephant owners and mahouts should maintain records of elephant disease and treatment. Fitness certificates and vaccination records should be available for verification whenever the elephant is taken out.

"Most of the mahouts do not carry the records. The rules also state that the fitness of the elephant should be checked every day while it is taken out, by the panchayat or town veterinary officer, but this rule is never observed," says Mr. Venkitachalam.

Some animal lovers are against transporting the elephants on trucks.

"Being isolated can make the elephant aggressive," says Mr. Venkitachalam.

Awareness programmes alone will not alleviate the plight of elephants, animal rights activists say.

Only comprehensive and effective legislation will.

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