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Above: A young elephant being given a bath by his trainer at the Konni Elephant Training Centre in Pathanamthitta, Kerala/Photo: UNI

As per a Supreme Court order, the state is conducting a detailed census of these pachyderms in an attempt to prevent their exploitation and has found that many don’t have proper documentation

By NV Ravindranathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram

For believers, the elephant is a symbol of Lord Ganapathy and meant to be revered and worshipped. But often, their treatment does not match the faith people attach to the pachyderms. As their exploitation and torture continues to hurt animal lovers, the number of captive elephants in Kerala stands at 520, according to an enumeration led by the Forest and Wildlife Department and conducted as per an order of the Supreme Court.

As per this enumeration, 87-year-old Dakshayani is the grandmother and nine-month-old Kannan the baby among these captive elephants. This massive exercise included 401 male elephants, 98 female ones and 22 makhna (tuskless male elephants). In the meantime, one elephant, Cherusserimatom Devidasan, a 32-year-old tusker, died.

Dakshayani belongs to Chengalloor Sree Mahadeva Temple at Poojappura in Thiruvananthapuram. Little Kannan has been sheltered at the elephant rehabilitation camp at Kottoor after it was brought from the Devikulam range in May this year.

The enumeration collected several details pertaining to the elephants, including their measurements, permanent shelters and details of their owners and mahouts. The forest officials also examined various documents, including ownership certificates, registers for recording the elephants’ work, feed, movement, medical care, diseases, vaccination, musth (a periodical change of behaviour in bulls) and the data-book issued by the Department. A microchip embedded in the animals and their DNA profiles were also ascertained.

It was found that many of the elephants did not have proper documentation. The Supreme Court order had permitted granting provisional certificates in such cases. The measurements of some of the elephants could not be re­corded as they were found to be in musth.

PK Kesavan, head of the Forest Force and Chief Wildlife Warden, told India Legal that all captive elephants in the state were covered in the enumeration process. “We are confident that all elephants, as per our database, have become part of the survey. If at all any elephant was not brought for the enumeration, its owner cannot make excuses as we had issued a notice in this regard well in advance. Naturally, punitive measures will be initiated against such owners.”

For Malayalees, the elephant is not only a symbol of their close connect with nature, but also an object of pride to be showcased. For outsiders, it may be a matter of wonder to see a captive elephant tamed to do chores for mankind.

However, over-enthusiasm in parading elephants during festivals and engaging them in timber depots has led to their exploitation. The recent survey showed that 32 captive tuskers died in the last year alone.

These elephants are paraded in famous temple festivals such as Thrissur Pooram and other cultural and religious jamborees in different parts of the state. They are also used in church fetes and festivities in certain mosques.

Parading the hapless animals for hours during festivals is torture for them. Most often, people keep the animals in chains without providing sufficient water, food or rest. In addition, they have to walk on tarred roads under the scorching sun. During festivities, the loud sounds of musical instruments affect the animals. Deafening fireworks and ear-piercing loudspeakers add to their torment.

“During the festival season, it is very common for elephants to run amok. Even during transportation, they have killed nine mahouts in the past one year. Fearing human casualty, they are chained and partially tranquilised. This is done by adding sedatives and expired medicines like paracetamol tablets to their feed,” said VK Venkitachalam, secretary, Heritage Animal Task Force. He was instrumental in making the government issue guidelines against the trade and illegal transportation of elephants.

As elephant trade across the state and between states is banned, owners have taken to leasing them out. They prepare a contract to temporarily transfer the elephant to the new owner. They put an inflated figure on the contract and use the elephants as collateral to secure loans from co-operative banks, said Venkitachalam. This is another fraud.

Though owning an elephant is seen as a prestige issue and has snob value, maintaining one will definitely put a hole in the owner’s pocket. Only those who can spare more than Rs 50 lakh can own a tusker. But a properly maintained elephant with great looks can fetch a daily rent of Rs 1 lakh to Rs 10 lakh when given on lease for a festival.

In a recently held festival, Mangalam­kunnu Ayyappan, a famous elephant owned by a temple committee in Palakkad district was sub-leased for a whopping Rs 9.5 lakh for a single day, said Venkitachalam. He has been campaigning against the sale and transfer of captive elephants and said the Supreme Court order had mandated nine states to file a report on the number of captive elephants through the central forest secretary.

Last year, 32 elephants died in Kerala. The animals were aged between 16 and 52 and this points to the torture they endured. Venkitachalam alleged that the elephant owners and mahouts were giving only fan palm fronds to these animals. As they are full of thorns, they cause internal injuries. Among the 32 elephants that died, 28 were male. As per the census, Thiruvananthapuram district has 48 captive elephants. Two other elephant rehabilitation centres are at Kodanad in Ernakulam district and Konni in Pathanamthitta district. The elephant rehabilitation centre attached to Guruvayoor Devaswom has 48 elephants. It is housed in a 10-acre plot, while the rules stipulate that each elephant should have 2.4 acres to ensure its free movement. The Travancore Devaswom Board has 28 elephants and Kochi Devaswom Board 10.

Private individuals own the remaining number of elephants in the state and some like Puthenkulam Shaji of Kollam and the Mangalamkunnu family of Palakkad possess 13 elephants each, while the SK business group in Cherppulasseri has nine elephants.

It is a fact that several celebrities keep elephants and believers continue to dedicate elephant calves to temples. Some are “film stars” in their own right as they have been used in cinema.

Once the nine states submit their reports on captive elephants, it is expected that the central government will come out with new guidelines to check unlawful parading and other harassment of elephants.

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