Caparisoned jumbos in their majestic look is a treat for eyes. But this sought-after sight may become a thing of the past soon if the fast-declining number of captive elephants in Kerala is any indication.
Scorching heat, torture, long hours of parade, and unscientific management are taking a toll. While 29 elephants died in 2021, three elephants have died - two in Thiruvananthapuram and one in Kottayam - so far in 2022. In all 75 elephants have died after the elephant census in 2018, reducing their numbers from 521 to 446.
These gentle animals suffer at the hands of their caretakers when the rules and regulations for their management turn toothless, according to animal activists.
“There is a directive by the Supreme Court in 2018 itself against parading injured elephants. According to it, the owner of the elephant can be arrested under no-bailable charges if an injured elephant is paraded for a function. The Chief Wildlife Warden issued another notice in 2019 that it should be reported if an elephant is sick for more than a week. The elephant will be examined and treated by a committee of veterinary doctors. This notice came after 34 elephants died in 2018 alone,” says V.K. Venkitachalam, Director, Heritage Animal Task Force.
Another directive of the Chief Wildlife Warden says forest officials should visit the place elephants are tethered in 15 days. Most of these laws are violated by the caretakers and no action has been taken against them, he says.
Recently an elephant attacked another elephant during the famous Arattupuzha Pooram. “Elephants were paraded without maintaining the mandatory four-m distance between them,” says the task force. In all, 65 elephants were paraded during the pooram.
A statutory shelter shed is another thing insisted on by the Supreme Court. “Many elephants are tethered under trees. When it rains, they are forced to stand in a slush pool of their own dung, urine, and rainwater. They develop infection on the soft pad under its foot and will find it difficult to stand. It slowly affects their food intake. They become weak and develop diseases such as tuberculosis. Foot infection, tuberculosis, and impaction (Erandakettu) are common reasons for the death of elephants in Kerala,” says the task force.
Man-made wounds are another major reason for the death of captive elephants. Mahouts often inflict wounds deliberately on sensitive parts of the body, including around the foot, sides of the hip and above the tusk. The mahouts pierce the wounds with sharp objects to manage them easily.
“Use of weapons such as ankush (long and short sticks with sharp iron hooks on its ends) have been banned long back. But mahouts openly use them for parading. No action has been taken against them,” says M.N. Jayachandran, member on the elephant monitoring committee for Thrissur and Idukki. Capture belts, with sharp iron hooks, are another deadly and unscientific weapon used to control unruly elephants. They inflict serious wounds on their legs, he says.
The elephant management rules here are not made for the protection of elephants, says Mr. Jayachandran. They are meant for elephant owners and festival conductors. Cases taken for torture of elephants seldom reach court.
The festivals are conducted here in the peak of summer. The elephants, which lack sweat glands, find it difficult to survive in the heat. Though there are rules to prevent continued parading, it is only on paper. Many elephants seldom get rest during the festival season.
Elephants, which feast upon a variety of foods such as leaves, bark and grass in the wild, are given only palm leaves while in captivity. There is a tendency to give ayurveda and allopathy medicines to them during rejuvenation therapy, says Mr. Jayachandran.
Elephants in the wild usually walk around 18 km and drink around 250 litres of water a day. During festivals they are seldom given water fearing that they may spray water over its body when people are atop.
However, veterinarians say many of the elephants have died due to age-related issues.
“If you look at the age of the elephants that died in these periods, most of them are above the age of 60. Lack of proper exercise during the COVID period too has taken a toll on their health. Tuberculosis is also seen in captive elephants here,” says P.B. Giridas, veterinary doctor and member on the Animal Welfare Board.
The government should create awareness among people whether we needed such torturing parades of elephants during festivals, ask animal activists.