Negligence stalks Kerala’s giants

Cause for concern: Contractors take over the elephants on lease during festival seasons and make them work despite illness or grave injuries.  

On World Animal Day (October 4), Venattumattam Ganeshan, a 32 year-old elephant, died at Kottayam, the 18th captive elephant to have died in Kerala this year.

Take Ramankutty, for instance. Eleven-times winner in the ‘Anayottam' (elephant race) at Guruvayur, he was one of the most sought-after elephants for festivals in Kerala; majestic, remarkably obedient, Ramankutty was hugely popular.

On September 15 Ramankutty (76) was found dead, legs swollen, pus oozing out of his trunk and mouth, at Punnathur Kotta (Guruvayur Devaswom's elephant camp). The news came as a shock partly because he was the 17th captive elephant to have died this year. During his last days, he was also reported to be in ‘musth’ (mating season). Animal activists, alleging torture, claim he had not been able lie down and sleep because his legs had been chained to trees. The Thrissur-based Heritage Animal Task force has alleged that Ganeshan died from severe tuberculosis and neglect.

Elephants are much sought after for festivals, and yet negligence, lack of proper shelter, denial of nutritious food cause death, allege animal activists. The elephants are owned by temples, trusts or individuals. The trouble arises when contractors take over the elephants on lease during festival seasons. Each elephant fetches Rs. 50,000 to Rs. one lakh, sometimes even more, for every festival. They are made to work despite illness or grave injuries.

Festering wounds

“The animals, used to feasting on more than 70 types of leaves and many types of barks of trees in the forests, are given mostly only palm leaves at their shelters. They need at least 250 litres of water and need a three-hour bath in running water for normal blood circulation. They also walk 20 to 25 km in the wild. Chained for long hours they are prone to diseases and injuries. The festering wounds in their massive limbs say a pathetic story,” explains V.K. Venkitachalam, secretary of the Thrissur-based Heritage Animal Task Force

Alarmingly, in the estimation of The Task Force out of over 601 captive elephants, more than 450 show symptoms of tuberculosis. Many jumbos suffer from foot rot too from being in chains for hours together among their own filth of faeces and urine.

“Most jumbos develop grave wounds after continuous parading and captivity. Mahouts also deliberately inflict wounds on their legs, usually called ‘chatta vranam’, to enable them to manage the animals during parade. They poke such wounds with ‘ankush’ (a banned weapon with metal hook at its end) to control them. The wounds become septic at the unhygienic surroundings. The chains hinder smooth movement during processions and lead to deep wounds on the legs,” points out Mr. Venkitachalam.

Devidhathan, another elephant, who was brought from Andaman in 2002, had been paraded in many festivals in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The 63 year old animal was rheumatic and had foot rot when he breathed his last at Manissery near Palakkad on September 11. Both his hind limbs were paralysed, his body full of sores.

Indrajit too came from Andaman and Nicobar islands when he was only two. His owner found it difficult to keep Indrajit (a ‘makhna’ elephant, a male elephant without tusks) as he started turning unruly as grew up. Indrajit didn’t take kindly to fetters and attacked mahouts whenever they tried to chain him, eight of them over the yeas. Finally his owner handed him over it to the forest department two years ago when he turned 19. For two years, Indrajit was kept in chains at the Konni elephant camp. Finally when the chains got embedded in his flesh, he was given a tranquiliser shot to remove the chains from his legs. He died two days later, only 21.

Elephants have almost the same life span as human beings, according to veterinarians. There are elephants which live after 90. Dhakshayani, an elephant with Travancore Devaswom Board, was conferred with ‘Gaja Muthassi’ (Elephant Grandma) title recently when she turned 92.

State Animal Welfare Board member M.N. Jayachandran notes that over-work, stress, malnutrition and various diseases have taken a heavy toll on the animals. Impaction (Erandakkettu), a digestive problem, has been another cause of death. Forced to travel in lorries for long hours and deprived of sleep during journeys have affected bowel movement leading to severe constipation. “Apart from TB, foot rot and impaction, herpes is also a health concern,” Mr. Jayachandran points out. "Like human beings, elephants are also social animals, very attached to their herd. Stress due to isolation from their herd adversely affects their life span.

Lack of proper health monitoring and care is one of the main reasons for the high death rate. Health certificates have been issued without proper check-ups. “For example, though there is a record in Kerala High Court that Thechikkottukavu Ramachandran is partially blind, the elephant has been paraded for festivals regularly, ” Jayachandran adds.

Impaired vision and signs of mental illness are also manifest in several elephants. Starvation-induced exhaustion, ear-splitting crackers and unruly crowds often push these normally gentle animals to aggression at times. Mahouts are known to use brutal methods to contain elephants during ‘musth’. Ten people lost lives in elephant attacks so far this year and nine of them were mahouts.

Veterinary experts allege gross violation of Kerala Captive Elephants (Management and Maintenance) 2012 Rules, by elephant owners, mahouts, contractors and festival organisers. Strict adherence to the existing elephant management norms will address 80 per cent of the problems, they stress.

Veterinary doctors refute allegations of animal activists about the large number of TB cases among captive elephants. They claimed that hardly 10-15 per cent show symptoms. They claim that many of these elephants died due to old age.

However, elephant activists contradict the claim of the veterinary experts that most of the elephants died old. “The age of elephants which died this year ranges from 2 to 76.

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