There’s no pooram (annual Temple festivals) without caparisoned elephants; none but a majestic elephant has the right to carry the thidambu (decorated image) of the deity on its head, and there is no better blessing than from an elephant that lifts its trunk before devotees…”

Malayalis would have come across many such statements in the past one month, when star elephant Thechikkottukavu Ramachandran took centre stage in all discussions for days together.

When it was announced that Ramachandran, who had a history of turning violent and killing people, was too dangerous to be paraded in the opening ceremony of the Thrissur Pooram, there were mass protests from his ‘fans’ and finally the district collector had to come to a compromise. Such is the sentiment towards elephants in Kerala; but then, are the elephants themselves as ecstatic as their fans about being paraded in temples and churches? A general belief amongst elephant lovers is that captive elephants are better off than those in the wild, since they are given proper food, regular baths and also a yearly Ayurvedic
detox treatment.

However, statistics show that in the year 2019 alone, 10 captive elephants have already died early deaths in Kerala, while in 2018 the number was a staggering 33. What causes these deaths and what is the quality of life of a captive elephant in Kerala? The reality, as revealed by certified wildlife experts, is nothing short of heartrending.

One might have come across the issue of making elephants walk on hot tarred roads, but there are a hundred other factors which add to stress levels, points out Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan, elephant biologist and a PhD scholar at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. The cause of almost all early deaths of captive elephants is diagnosed as impaction, a kind of digestive disorder, but no one takes into account the multifarious reasons behind it, he says. “The elephant is a wild animal, and however much you care for it, a certain degree of stress is part and parcel of captivity. Their food, socializing and mating habits go for a toss and what you see is an animal whose spirit has been broken by cruel training methods.”

The life of a captive elephant is mostly spent standing in one place or the other, but in the wild, the pachyderms walk for hours a day in search of food and water, providing them much needed exercise. Wild elephants also typically eat from a range of no less than 100+ species of plants, bark, twigs, leaves and fruits. “A monotonous diet of palm leaves satiates hunger perhaps for the captive elephants, but what about its nutritional requirements?” Sreedhar asks. “There have been occasions when there was undigested food blocking the intestine of an elephant for 60days at a stretch. Its keepers think flushing out the blockage with laxatives solves the issue. But not only does the animal suffer great discomfort and pain, hemorrhages, gangrene and infection would have developed in its insides by then, which can prove to be fatal.”
Unfortunately, despite our claims of being elephant lovers, our medical systems are not developed enough for treating elephants. “Few veterinarians are certified to treat wild animals. The government should insist on providing them the required training,” says MN Jayachandran, secretary, Idukki SPCA, while Sreedhar adds, “We don’t have X-Ray or scanning facilities for them and many don’t even have treatment registers for a new veterinarian to refer.”

It is also a common misconception that male elephants tend to be loners in the wild, say experts. “A typical elephant herd consists of a mother, her calves and other female family members. Once they grow older, male calves leave the mother. But they join a group of older males from whom they learn essential life skills. These all-male groups might be temporary as a tusker in heat tends to move away from the herd, but it doesn’t mean that males aren’t social animals,”
Sreedhar says.

Seclusion, inadequate diet, lack of proper medical care and other such causes create a great deal of anxiety to the elephant and when the stress levels are consistently high, it gradually starts affecting their immune responses, digestive system and reproductive system.

It is not surprising then that there are numerous instances of captive elephants ‘running amok’ during a festival and killing mahouts and bystanders, the experts say. Such behavior is practically non-existent in the wild, and is thus caused entirely by humans and their ‘training’, Sreedhar stresses. “Wild elephants exhibit no such behavior. They fear humans and tend to move away from them as fast as possible. But in captivity, they need to be trained for dominance establishment. This can be through positive reinforcement or through force. When you use the latter method, you also break its spirit and such traumatic events can trigger undesirable behavior
in the future.”

Sure enough, search online and one can find heartbreaking videos of captive elephants in Kerala being beaten black and blue by their trainers, to make them submissive. “There is a thin line between punishment and cruelty. At a point when it can’t take any more stress, an elephant might decide to do a role reversal, and attack the mahout. If the mahout is not present, the aggression can be re-directed to nearby people or vehicles etc.” Confinement during heat could also lead to aggression in males, as they are not allowed to follow their natural instincts to mate.

But ironically, even when an elephant has been labelled a problem animal by authorities and banned from public appearances due to high incidence of such attacks, people protest against the ban, like in the case of Thechikkottukavu Ramachandran.

Why does this happen?
“Sheer need and greed for money. From being something of historic significance, captive elephants have been turned into a mere money minting business. Ramachandran was brought here when he was 15 or so and he is now 55. He has earned ton loads of money for his owners. Why don’t we let him rest now?” Sreedhar asks.

“With increasing restrictions on catching young elephants from the forests, the idea of temple elephants will be non-existent in 10-20 years. They know that and are trying to loot as much as possible from a sinking ship.”

However, the researcher doesn’t think that releasing the elephants into the wild is the solution, considering their lack of survival skills and the sentiments of the public. Instead, we need to better their current situation, as captivity is a reality for 500+ elephants today in Kerala. “We should work towards reducing their working days, reduce the distance they need to travel by truck, and also place legal restrictions on the practice of frequent changing of the mahout of
an elephant.”

Are the authorities listening?

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