Flaws in elephant management exposed

K. Santhosh

Mahouts face the ire of exploited elephants

Thrissur: Animal rights groups say the increasing number of mahouts being killed by elephants in the State indicates serious flaws in captive elephant management and maintenance.

Incidents of elephants turning violent were reported from three places in Thrissur district and Thrithala in Palakkad on Wednesday. Five persons were injured in the incidents. An elephant named Bastin Vinayshankar uprooted a lamp post, demolished the roof of a shrine and overturned a lorry at the Sankarankulangara temple in Punkunnam on Wednesday afternoon.

In Thrissur and Palakkad districts, 14 elephants ran amok and left a trail of destruction in the past six days.

Between December 30 and February 10, 11 mahouts and three persons were killed by elephants in the State Thiruvananthapuram (2), Kollam (2), Alappuzha (2), Ernakulam (1), Pathanamthitta (1), Kottayam (2), Thrissur (3) and Palakkad (1). In all, 26 mahouts were injured by elephants during the same period.

The year 2007 began with newspapers carrying reports of an elephant owned by Nannoor Mahadeva Temple in Tiruvalla having killed its mahout at Onnamkara on the Alapuzha-Changanassery Road on December 31.

In all, 46 people (41 mahouts and five others, including two women) were killed by captive elephants in the State in 2006. An elephant, named Devanarayanan Mahadevan, killed its mahout during a procession at Pazhanji on October 2, 2006, casting a pall over the World Wildlife Week celebrations in the State.

"Though several people are getting killed by elephants, the authorities are yet to address the issue. The elephants are poorly managed and painfully exploited. When cruelty towards them becomes unbearable, the elephants retaliate. One can understand love for elephants, but not blind craze for them and exploitation," says V.K. Venkitachalam, secretary of the Ana Premi Sanghom.

Jumbo problems

Animal rights activists allege that elephants are made to walk long distances on tarred roads and stand unendingly on concrete surfaces, in violation of Section 12 of a Government Order (No. 12/2003/F&WLD). Result: most of the elephants reportedly have pockets of infection under their feet or toenails. Feet are the gauge of an elephant's overall health.

The order also prohibits "bursting crackers when the elephant is around." But elephants featured in temple festivals are exposed to high-decibel pyrotechnic displays and this irritates them. Training elephants allegedly involves physical abuse.

"When an elephant becomes violent, the public stone the elephant, infuriating it more. The Sankarankulangara Temple in Punkunnam reportedly witnessed such cruel scenes on Wednesday. And when the elephant overturned a lorry, the crowd burst into applause. It resembled a scene from an absurd play," says Mr. Venkitachalam.

Animal rights groups also allege unethical treatment of elephants when they are in musth. When a male elephant is in musth, its level of testosterone rises dramatically by a factor of 20 or more. Musth lasts up to 60 days. The temporal gland between the eyes and ears swell and discharge a viscous secretion as the elephant waits for mating. There is continual dribbling of urine too. The elephant shows aggressive behaviour during this period.

Elephants in musth are allegedly made weak through torture and poor feeding. "Mahouts wrongly believe that elephants can be controlled if they are made weak," says K.C. Panicker, veterinarian.

The Ana Premi Sanghom alleges that about 56 elephants showing signs of musth were featured in festivals across Thrissur district this year.

Violation of rules

According to the Kerala Captive Elephants (Management and Maintenance) Rules 2003, elephant owners and mahouts should maintain records of feeding, vaccination and treatment, work and movement. Daily fitness certificate by the panchayat and town veterinary officer is a must when the elephant is being taken from one place to another. Inter-district transport of captive elephants requires a certificate from the Chief Wildlife Warden.

"These rules are rarely followed," alleges Mr. Venkitachalam.

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