Elephant taming | A gentle giant in captivity

Thanks to scientific advances, menacing/injured elephants in the wild are being captured using tranquilliser guns under expert supervision, with minimum trauma to the animals

October 24, 2021 03:46 am | Updated October 26, 2021 06:57 pm IST - Chennai

Utmost care: Forest officials and veterinarians regularly check on temple and private elephants to ensure their well-being.

Utmost care: Forest officials and veterinarians regularly check on temple and private elephants to ensure their well-being.

Elephants are the largest land mammals on earth wandering free in the wild. Yet, man has captured. tamed and kept them in captivity for long.

Now, the correctness of holding elephants in captivity is in question before the Madras High Court. After deliberating on the issue for some time, the High Court, in an interim order, has ruled against taking elephants in captivity in future.

The practice of capturing wild Asian elephants, and then taming and training them for work, seems to have originated approximately 4,000 years ago as per epical references, according to Shekhar Kumar Niraj, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF)-cum-Chief Wildlife Warden (CWLW).

The Matanga Leela , a rendition of the Gaja Shastra by Sanskrit poet Nilakanta, talks of five different techniques that can be used for capturing elephants — driving them into pens or stockades, using female elephants as bait, noosing the elephant, following the animal until it tires out and placing a noose in a small pit before attracting the elephant to the pit using food.

Thanks to scientific advancements, now the menacing/injured elephants in the wild are being captured by the Forest Department using tranquilliser guns under expert supervision of veterinarians, with minimum trauma to the animals, Mr. Niraj told the High Court in an exhaustive report called for by Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice P.D. Audikesavalu in response to a public interest litigation petition.

Taming the jumbos

After capture, the method used for taming the animal is human positive reinforcement/reward-based training. The traditional way of training an elephant involves establishing dominance through various methods. Forceful submission, the most common of these, has drawn criticism globally. This method is mostly used during open training of the animals, a practice generally followed in northeast India and southeast Asia.

“During open training, the elephant has more opportunity to display resistance and aggression, potentially endangering the trainer’s life. This method, therefore, leads to the animal being subject to more torture to control its behaviour. The Forest Department of Tamil Nadu only uses the closed training system, where the captured elephant is confined within a standard 12 feet x 12 feet kraal or a boma [a wooden enclosure],” the CWLW says.

The floors of the kraal are made of wooden slats, with gaps in between to prevent them from becoming damp. The roof is made of tiles or sheets. A small tank or large drum of water is provided, and care is taken that no sharp edges or nails, which could harm the elephant, are present in the kraal. The mahouts use vocal and tactile commands, and employ a mixture of positive reinforcement/reward-based training.

“They have been trained to recognise the thin line between punishment and cruelty. Punishment in this context does not necessarily involve physically harming the animal. It can involve threatening the animal with loud or harsh vocal commands, showing the stick, splashing water on the elephant’s face and, sometimes, mild physical punishment to prevent undesirable behaviour,” the forest officer notes.

It takes about 30 days for the animal to accept the mahout’s intervention and pick food directly from his hands. About a week later, the relationship is strengthened further by him entering the kraal to feed and check for injuries. Slowly, the mahouts proceed with habituation of the elephant.

“Mahouts who lack necessary patience often fail in this approach,” says the report submitted by the Chief Wildlife Warden. Stating that the kraal method of taming elephants differs from others since it does not push the tolerance limit of the animals, he says: “The emphasis is on winning the elephant’s trust, not breaking its spirit.”

Illegal transfer

So far, the Forest Department has not traded any captive elephant in violation of the Wild Life (Protection) Act of 1972, the Tamil Nadu Captive Elephants (Management & Maintenance) Rules of 2011 and the guidelines issued by the Centre. As per the laws in force, ownership of a captive elephant can only be by inheritance or acquisition by government agencies by captive transfer.

As many as 28 captive elephants in the custody of some temples and private individuals in the State have been issued certificates of ownership by the forest authorities in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Kerala and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. These elephants have been transported to Tamil Nadu using transit permit for a limited period, but had overstayed and not returned to their States of origin.

“After a certain period, the temple or private person applied for ownership certificate in the State of Tamil Nadu, which is not permissible under the Act. Measures have been taken for returning these elephants to their State of origin,” Mr. Niraj says. It was also brought to the notice of the court that an elephant named Shanthakumari has been illegally transported from Kerala to Tamil Nadu without a transit permit.

Missing elephant

Implanting microchips with unique identification numbers in elephants’ ears is a method used by the Forest Department to identify the animals and keep an eye on them. Out of 127 captive elephants in the State as on October 20, only two are in a zoo (Arignar Anna Zoological Park in Chennai), 62 in forest camps, various temples are in custody of 32, and the remaining 31 are in private custody.

While all temple and private elephants had been microchipped, 12 in forest department custody were yet to be implanted with the chips. When an elephant named Lakshmi, maintained by M. Soundararajan of Palani in Dindigul district, was transported to an Animal Rescue Centre in Rajapalayam for medical treatment, it was found that her microchip number read different than what was available in the database.

An inquiry revealed that the elephant brought for treatment was actually Indhira (microchip number 00065DE113) and not Lakshmi. “A case has been booked against Soundararajan for illegally changing the elephant and the captive elephant originally named as Lakshmi is missing. Investigation is being conducted for tracing the original elephant Lakshmi,” the CWLW says.

Other offences

The Forest Department has also booked cases regarding shuttling of private elephant Ritu Kumari from one district to another. A captive elephant named Malolan maintained in Ahobila Mutt in East Tambaram was transported to Kerala in 2015 with five years transit permit and was not returned to Tamil Nadu despite expiry of the permit. “The owner has been instructed to bring it back to its original location,” the officer states.

Acting on the direction of the High Court, the department had created a catalogue of all captive elephants in the State and produced a video recording of them (except Lakshmi, Ritu Kumari and Malolan) in a thumb drive.

Legal confusion

The PCCF/CWLW has brought it to the notice of the court that Section 40(2) of the 1972 Act permits sale of captive elephants with the previous permission of CWLW. However, Section 43(1) places an embargo on any sort of sale. To circumvent this embargo, many requests have been received for gifting captive elephants by one person to another. The department has sought clarification from the Central government on allowing transfer either by way of sale or gift.

As far as donation to temples is concerned, the exercise is governed by the 2011 Rules framed by the State government. Such donation can be made after obtaining previous permission of the CWLW. A State-level committee scrutinises the applications for donation depending upon the financial position of the donor as well as the temple concerned and makes appropriate recommendations to the CWLW.

Live longer

After public interest litigant Rangarajan Narasimhan of Srirangam took the issue of captive elephants to court and complained about ill-treatment, a number of elephant owners filed petitions urging the court to hear them too before taking a call on the issue. Meanwhile, Elsa Foundation, an animal protection institution based in Delhi, and activist S. Muralidharan, too, made their submissions before the court.

Arguments have been advanced both in favour of and against domesticating the wild animals. Interestingly, the PCCF/CWLW, in his report, says: “According to scientific research and recorded evidence, captive elephants have greater lifespan than wild elephants because the captive elephants get veterinary care and regular food with food supplements too at times.”

Regular checks

The forest officials and veterinarians regularly check on temple and private elephants to make sure they are treated well. “Strict action is taken against the defaulters who maintain the elephants improperly and indulge in ill-treatment,” the officer says.

However, when advocate Krishna Ravindran, representing one of the litigants before the court, highlighted that many district-level captive elephant welfare committees are dysfunctional, the Forest Department reverted saying nominations for the reconstitution of the committees have been received from 15 out of the 18 districts where captive elephants are available in temple and private custody.

“After receiving nominations from these districts, a proposal will be sent to the State government for reconstitution of District-Level Captive Elephant Welfare Committees,” the CWLW says.

Verdict awaited

While calling upon the Forest Department to catalogue all captive elephants in the State along with video recordings, the High Court had passed the interim order against taking elephants in captivity in future. “The State should ensure that no elephant is taken into captivity except for the purpose of treatment of such elephants if found unable to support itself in the wild. No private person may capture any elephant or keep the same except those already existing,” the Bench ordered.

Now that the cataloguing is over and the PCCF/CWLW has also filed an exhaustive report on the status of captive elephants, all eyes are on further orders to be passed by the court solely in the interest of these gentle giants.

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.