Elephantine Problems

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Indians have been emotionally attached to captive elephants for over 4,000 years. The Supreme Court has now asked states to ensure that they’re not cruelly treated. This might ensure them a better future.
By Ramesh Menon. Photos by Sipra Das


FREEDOM did not come easy for Suraj, a 45-year-old elephant who was dramatically rescued from a dank, dark room in a temple at Karad in Maharashtra where it lay chained for decades, beaten and tortured into submission. When members of the Wildlife SOS finally managed to pull off the rescue around Christmas, they were shocked to see the elephant had one of his ears torn off and bull hook wounds on his head. They confiscated several spear bull hooks that were being used on the helpless elephant.

Paradise Lost: A tusker guards his home turf.
       Paradise Lost: A tusker guards his home turf.

Fortunately, New Year heralded not only freedom from misery but a better life for the elephant as animal activists took it away in a special ambulance. Suraj was also battling diabetes and foot rot and both his eyes were infected. His treatment will be quite expensive and Wildlife SOS has appealed for 200 people to donate at least $10 monthly to help support his care. Suraj was lucky. Many other elephants are not.

ALL IN A DAY’S WORK :Though owners won’t admit it, their elephants have a hard life, walking in festivals, carrying burden and performing tricks.
ALL IN A DAY’S WORK :Though owners won’t admit it, their elephants have a hard life, walking in festivals, carrying burden and performing tricks.

In Delhi, under ITO Bridge, Sambu Gupta, a mahout, stands next to his elephant, Babloo, helplessly looking at the dying Yamuna. The weak current carries islands of foam caused by a dangerous cocktail of poisonous effluents dumped by various industries. Once upon a time, the Yamuna was a pristine river and seen as the lifeline of Delhi. Civilization flourished on its banks. Today, it is a large sewage drain. Whenever Sambu takes his elephant for a bath, he knows that the water is not safe, but there is no choice.

Till a few years ago, there were over 50 elephants sauntering on the Yamuna banks. Now there is only a handful. These are also ominous times for those whose livelihoods depend on commercially exploiting elephants. Owners and mahouts know that keeping an elephant is illegal. The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, which was amended in 2002, banned the sale of captive elephants that were not registered with the forest department. Owners of captive elephants now have to mandatorily provide at least 1.2 acres of land as enclosure, ensure that the elephant has access to a pool of fresh water and access to veterinary care. But it is impossible to do this. That is why they hesitate to admit that their livelihoods depend on the elephants taking part in victory processions of political parties, children’s birthday bashes or weddings.

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Maintaining an elephant is not easy. As lush vegetation beside the Yamuna has vanished because of the highly polluted water, mahouts and owners are happy to welcome elephant lovers who come with goodies like sugarcane. Mahouts say it costs about Rs 1,00,000 a month to feed an elephant. After all, it needs around 135 kilos of food daily.

The cruelty with which elephants are treated nowadays is a far cry from what it was like in ancient India where they had pride of place. No army could be imagined without elephants leading the charge. Celebrated Indian philosopher and royal advisor Chanakya who authored Arthashastra, the ancient Indian political treatise, clearly laid down rules for the king to protect elephants. He said that whoever killed an elephant would be put to death. The pachyderms had to be fed even if they were incapacitated by war, old age or illness, the Arthashastra said.

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As jumbo habitats shrink due to incursions, they step out into human habitations for food and water. For many years now, man-animal conflicts have pockmarked rural India. Over 100 people are killed every year by elephants in India.

Today, with strict regulations in place, wildlife enthusiasts say that illegal trade in ivory has come down considerably. A license is required even if one stocks an ivory product. Besides, it needs to be renewed every year. This is a good thing considering that hundreds of elephants in India have been killed by poachers for their tusks.

In 1989, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned international trade in ivory. But that has not stopped illegal ivory markets in numerous countries. Also, there is a lot of international pressure to open up the ivory trade due to many tusks from Africa. So, illegal international trade in ivory continues to flourish.

Take Sonpur Mela in Bihar, which is one of the world’s biggest livestock fairs held during Purnima, the full moon night, towards the end of every year. Officials of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) secretly go there every year to investigate the sale of animals. In 2001, there were 97 elephants there. Last year, it was down to 14. “Strangely, all the owners and mahouts say that they have brought the elephants only for display. However, the fact is that they try to execute secret sales using brokers,” says NVK Ashraf, senior director of WTI.

In Kerala and Tamil Nadu, elephants are mostly owned by temples. The Guruvayoor Temple in Kerala, for instance, has numerous elephants and they are well looked after. Devotees worship them. Ashraf says that mahouts in the South are spiritually connected to the elephant, but in the North, they mostly have a commercial interest.

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As elephants are forced to perform at temple festivals in Kerala where they have to stand for hours, PETA India (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), New Delhi, filed a PIL in Kerala High Court seeking an urgent interim order to the center and the state government to ensure that no elephant was paraded or exhibited at the Pooram festival without permission from the Animal Welfare Board of India. However, the vacation bench of the court refused to interfere with the 200-year-old festival.

Vanishing Abode: Unplanned urbanization has wiped out the pachyderms’ habitat.
Vanishing Abode: Unplanned urbanization has wiped out the pachyderms’ habitat.

In another case, the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre and others versus the Union of India, a Supreme Court division bench of Justices Dipak Misra and R Banumathi expressed concern over the cruelty meted out to elephants in Kerala. It directed the Chief Wildlife Warden to keep a count of all captive elephants in the state and ensure that owners make the necessary declarations. The Supreme Court also asked Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Punjab to ensure that elephants are not cruelly treated.

The Elephants Preservation Act, 1879, prohibits the killing and capture of wild elephants. It says that the government can order or grant a license to kill or capture wild elephants and the tusks of any killed elephant would be the property of the government.

As India’s forest cover collapses with commercial interests taking over, the land for elephants is shrinking. Assam has lost over 65 percent of its lowland semi-evergreen forests for the last 45 years. Meghalaya had a forest cover of about 33 percent 35 years ago; today, it is around 15 percent. Other areas, too, have seen similar tragedy. Many elephants have also been killed by speeding trains passing through protected elephant terrain.

As the elephant habitat gets reduced due to incursions, they step out into human habitations in search of food and water. For many years now, man-animal conflicts have pockmarked rural India as hungry elephants destroy fields and dwellings for food. Over 100 people are killed every year by elephants in India. In retaliation, angry villagers kill the elephants. These conflicts have resulted in elephant populations declining from 1,00,000 to around 40,000 today.

Many elephants have also been electrocuted by electric fences or low-slung electric cables. The 2012 Karnataka State Elephant Task Force report says that 78 elephants died of electrocution in the state in five years. The Elephant Task Force, headed by environmental historian and scholar Mahesh Rangarajan has recommended raising the height of power lines, bare wires to be converted to insulated cables and power companies to be held responsible for inaction.

The World Wildlife Fund of India is working towards securing the elephant habitat for the last 15 years. It focuses its conservation efforts in the Nilgiri Western Ghats, the northern bank of the Brahmaputra, Kaziranga and Karbi-Anglong by working with foresters, activists and villagers.

Vanishing Abode: A herd of wild elephants makes its way through a jumbo corridor in Munnar, Kerala.

Though the Prevention of Cruelty to Draught and Pack Animals Rules, 1965, specifies that no person shall use any spiked stick or any other sharp equipment that can hurt the animal, elephants in India are often tied with huge chains having sharp spikes. Mahouts have been known to poke the animal into submission.

However, elephants were well looked after only when they were domesticated by wealthy upper caste families in Kerala and Bihar. Kerala is full of folklore of how elephants would refuse to eat if they were not fed by an elderly person in the house they were attached to.

Ironically, India has some of the strictest elephant legislations in Asia. It should’ve safeguarded over 3,600 domesticated elephants. But as is the norm, laws are rarely adhered to or enforced.

Meanwhile, as the sun sets and touches the clouds with pink, the elephants beside the Yamuna have to be content with chewing the grass the mahout offers as today visitors have not got any goodies. It is another bleak day…

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