Muted cries in chains

Captive elephants, forced out of their natural environs and herd, endure endless torture to keep temple rituals and festivals going, say activists. Their silent cries for humane treatment often go unheard, finds K.S. Sudhi  

Updated - February 08, 2024 04:01 pm IST

Published - January 04, 2024 08:41 pm IST

Around 10,000 temple festivals are held annually in the State with the participation of pachyderms. With the captive population dwindling, the workload of the surviving ones has gone up significantly in the past decades.

Around 10,000 temple festivals are held annually in the State with the participation of pachyderms. With the captive population dwindling, the workload of the surviving ones has gone up significantly in the past decades. | Photo Credit: NAJEEB KK

Vettikattu Chandrasekharan, a mighty tusker, was supposed to be caparisoned and paraded at Mahadeva Temple at Chengannur in the coastal district of Alappuzha, Kerala, on December 29 as part of the annual temple festival.  

The elephant, owned by the Travancore Devaswom Board, the apex body that controls the affairs of over 1,200 temples in the State, has been one of the star attractions of temple festivals of Kerala. The day before, the tusker had participated in the sheeveli procession carrying the deity on its back in the morning and late evening. 

In the morning, when the mahouts went to fetch the elephant for the procession, they were in for a shock. The elephant was gasping for breath and couldn’t stand despite them prodding it over and over again. The giant animal, who was struggling even to lift its trunk, was helpless, unable to do anything.  

The temple authorities summoned veterinarians, who administered intravenous drip to the animal to revive it. Later, a crane was brought in to lift Chandrasekharan. The elephant collapsed after a few hours and breathed its last around 4 p.m. the same day.

“My association with Chandrasekharan, an 8.45-ft-tall tusker, as his first mahout dates back to 27 years. We had a special bond between us. He was a calm and lovable tusker, who never created trouble for others. He would rumble when I called him Chandran,” remembers G. Krishnakumar, its mahout. 

“I fed him cooked rice before tethering him. I saw him standing calmly at night before I retired to bed. However, everything was over by daybreak,” says Krishnakumar.

Chandrasekharan was the 20th captive elephant, according to the dossier of the Kerala Forest Department, to die in the State in 2023. His death has brought down the population of captive elephants in the State to 410. Meanwhile, unofficial figures say he was the 25th elephant to breathe its last this year.  

From Assam and Bihar

Kerala’s captive elephants were mostly brought from Assam and Bihar a few decades ago, as the State had stopped trapping elephants in the early 1970s. The death brought to the fore voices on both ends of the spectrum.

Those who root for elephants at temple festivals fear that the majestic creatures may become a thing of the past in Kerala in less than a decade considering the death rate of the animals and the restrictions on bringing in new ones. They fear that temple rituals may be disrupted for want of elephants, an integral part of the festivities and religious rituals. 

Sundar C. Menon, president, Thiruvambadi Devaswom, one of the two temple trusts that organises the Thrissur Pooram, claims that the practice of parading elephants has been in vogue for the past 227 years. Elephants are an integral part of temple rituals. They were part of the religious customs and practices since time immemorial and it will continue to be so, he says. 

Thiruvambadi Sivasundar owned by him used to carry the Thidambu, the decorated replica of the deity, during the pooram. “We treat elephants like our family members. They are looked after well and ensured adequate food, water and rest. We provide shade for the animals and even spread wet jute bags on roads for them to walk. Only those animals that clear the medical tests are paraded,” says Menon, who owned two tuskers.

Animal rights activists, though, complain that elephants are paraded in temple festivals in gross violation of government regulations, including the Kerala Captive Elephant (Management and Maintenance) Rules, 2003 leading to their ill-treatment and untimely deaths.   

Chronicling the plight of elephants at Thrissur Pooram, the mega temple festival where scores of elephants are paraded, Alok Hisarwala of the Gupta Centre for Research on Animal Rights, an NGO working in the research, litigation, and policy spaces, points out that elephants are often loaded with accoutrements. 

“At least four people sit on the back of each of these decked-up elephants. The animals are then made to stand for hours at a stretch, secured with hobble chains, and allowed to only shift their weight from side to side and kept inches away from each other,” points out Hisarwala in a letter to the Kerala Chief Minister.  

Most of the elephants paraded during the festival last year, says the complaint by Gupta, bore fresh and recent wounds on their legs and backs, caused by continuous chaining and use of the bull-hook by the mahouts, say activists at the NGO. 

Animal rights groups also flag the cases of Thechikottukavu Ramachandran, Shivakashy Krishnan, Pananchery Gajendran, and Anaprambal Vigneswaran, which, according to them, are blind, old, and unfit to be paraded at festivals. These tuskers have a huge fanbase in the State and fetch a premium for their participation in events. One video on YouTube featuring Ramachandran, for instance, has over 12.4 million views. 

Suparna Baksi Ganguly, co-founder and trustee of Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, Karnataka, who had moved the Supreme Court in 2014 seeking to end the “cruelties meted out to captive elephants of Kerala”, describes the situation of elephants in Kerala as “bad”.  

Political parties, religious groups, and government authorities are acting hand in glove in exploiting captive elephants for monetary gains, she feels. The animals that are held in captivity are insensitively handled, harassed, and often injured. “There’s no review or monitoring system of any kind when it comes to management of captive elephants. The State government should allow the participation of NGOs with requisite background and those interested in the welfare of the animals to get involved in the management and protection of needy elephants in private custody,” she argues.  

V.K. Venkitachalam, a vociferous campaigner of elephant rights and secretary of the Heritage Animal Task Force, says tuskers are often denied food and water while being paraded during festivals. The animals are sometimes forced to put up with artificial tusks — tusks made of fibre are fixed on the partially developed tusks of Makhna elephants using metal clamps. Fastening the fibre tusks would lead to infection in animals besides causing them irritation. The clamps prevent the animals from feeding and drinking water, says Venkitachalam. 

These harassed animals tend to turn violent and cause damage to life and property, he says. They are denied adequate rest, forced to stand in the scorching sun, and exposed to loud music and other sounds that a festival brings, he points out. 

NGOs have offered to provide elephant idols carved in wood to be used during the time to save the live animals from harassment, he says adding that, ideally, they should be paraded only during the early morning hours and late evenings.

Cause of deaths 

Advancing age, stress, and disease are prematurely putting out the lives of these majestic mammals. Of the 410 captive elephants in Kerala, only half are available for parading during the festival seasons as the ones in musth and the sick are generally avoided from attending the festivals. 

Around 10,000 temple festivals are held annually in the State with the participation of pachyderms. With the captive population dwindling, the workload of the surviving ones has gone up significantly in the past decades, say those in the sector. 

“Nearly 95% of the elephants in the State are male and they annually exhibit musth, caused by a surge in testosterone level. The majority of elephant deaths are caused by musth-related accidents,” observes David Abraham, a government veterinarian, who has spent 15 years in elephant care.  

Denial of required rest and care during the musth period, conflicts with other animals, and diseases can lead to their deaths. Most deaths happen during the rainy season and very few are reported during the festival season, which starts in December, he observes.

Dr. Abraham notes that there were instances when the musth period of elephants was manipulated and shifted to begin after the festival season. Musth leads to immuno-suppression in elephants when they are vulnerable to a host of diseases. Tethering the animals in wet places could lead to haemorrhagic septicaemia in them, he explains. 

Post-mortem analyses of some of the dead animals have shown signs of anthroponoses tuberculosis, which is transmitted from humans to elephants. Though TB may not be fatal in elephants, it could lead to other serious illnesses, he explains.  

A forest official handling wildlife affairs says the age of an elephant provided by the owner need not be accurate. There exists the possibility of the owners deliberately lowering the age of animals in the records, to exploit them for more years. The Kerala rules state that an elephant be retired from work at 65, he points out. 

Ageing population

The ageing population, accedes P.S. Raveendranath, an elephant owner and the State secretary of the Kerala Elephant Owners Federation, is a matter of serious concern. Most of the captive elephants in Kerala are above 50 years. The ban on the trapping of elephants and restrictions on their entry from other States have worsened the situation as the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 has banned the trade of elephants.

There is immense pressure on the elephant owners to send their animals for temple rituals, says Raveendranath, owner of a 10.3-ft-tall tusker Sankarankutty. The elephant attends around 70 temple festivals during a season that lasts about five months, he says.  

The lack of medical facilities for the treatment of elephants worries him. It has, in fact, also contributed to the pace of the dwindling elephant population. Keeping an elephant costs about ₹10,000 a day, says Raveendranath, who has owned elephants for the past 25 years.

The Kerala Forest Department has only a supervisory role when it comes to captive elephants as the animals are owned by either individuals, trusts, or Devaswoms, says D. Jayaprasad, Chief Wildlife Warden, Kerala. 

However, the department intervenes and takes custody when elephants are found in distress. Last year, one elephant was taken into custody from Thrissur following a court order and shifted to a rehabilitation centre run by the department. The violation of the management rules and the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 is also pursued. “The laws need to be amended to curb the ill-treatment and misuse of animals,” he says.  

Meanwhile, Krishnakumar, mahout of Vettikattu Chandrasekharan, mourns his beloved elephant’s death. “It was a father-son like relationship that existed between us. I have not seen many amiable elephants during my career as a mahout. I really miss his affectionate responses to my calls,” he says.

(with inputs from Sam Paul A.)

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