Kolakkadan Jagannathan died a few days ago, making him the 18th elephant to die this year.

18 deaths in 6 months How can Kerala save its elephants
news Animal welfare Saturday, June 23, 2018 - 11:59

There have been so many stories, one almost every other day in the newspapers. It has stopped shocking the readers. Elephants die. They keep dying. A slow tilt of the head, a sympathetic ‘tch’, and they turn the page, they forget.

But on Twitter a few days ago, there were posts, retweets about an elephant’s death. Kolakkadan Jagannathan has ‘fallen’ as they say in Malayalam. And he is the 18th casualty in Kerala this year. Before even June has ended. 18 elephants in 6 months. Averaging three a month.

If nothing else has shaken a casual browser, this will. “It’s got worse. If last year and the year before, there were on an average two elephant deaths a month, this year it’s three already,” says Rajeev N, elephant activist and co-founder of Society of Elephant Welfare. He reveals the statistics, with names of all the elephants that died in the last three years - 26 in 2016, 20 in 2017 and 18 this year.

He and singer Chitra Iyer, the other founder of the group, are approaching the state Head of the Forest Force, PK Kesavan, with a solution plan they have drawn up. “It should be done at the state level. There are less than 400 elephants in the state (excluding the wild ones) and these are being paraded for all the festivals across Kerala through October to May. Most of these are owned by private concerns. The Devaswom Board comes only after that. The elephants go from one festival to the other, one day in Kannur, the next day in Thiruvananthapuram. They get no rest, they are not properly fed. It is after the festive season that elephants die,” he lists out the problem first.

‘The state could take control’

But, if the state - or specifically the forest department - kept the elephants, the problem can be partially solved. They can be kept at the respective centres in each district, like the Kottoor rehabilitation centre in Thiruvananthapuram, Kodanad and Konni and others.

“The elephants will be well taken care of, using the money provided by the owners. And the owners can also earn, by letting the elephants go for festivals. The only condition is that the elephants should be sent for festivals only if the respective DFOs and the vets are sure they are fit to go. That way, the elephants won’t need to go to every little fest from corner to corner, and will not be so injured. The owners can take all the money they get from the festivals," Rajeev says.

The solution has been reached upon after a lot of thought, he says, because every time he raises the issue, he hears the words "tradition" and "culture".

But what about tradition, what about culture, they ask. Both needn’t be compromised, Rajeev says, if this plan could be implemented. Because then the middlemen will go, too. They are the ones who make the most out of the "elephants-for-festivals" business - lakhs of rupees, Rajeev reckons.

A petition goes online

With Kolakkadan Jagannathan’s death, a petition was started online. It was Rita Claessens, an advocate of animal rights from Belgium, who started it. “Kerala government: 64 dead elephants in 30 months. what is your action plan to stop this?” she asks in the petition, which has, at the time of writing this story, gathered 4750 signatures.

“I was at WildlifeSOS in Mathura, near Delhi in 2015 to volunteer with rescued elephants and now in October, I will visit Bengaluru, Chennai while Volunteering with WRRC: Wildlife rescue and rehabilitation Center, for elephants as well,” Rita explains her connection in this case.

With inputs from known elephant lovers, Sangita Iyer and Venkatachalam, Rita says she gathered the causes and solutions, as listed out in the petition.

Exploitation in the name of culture

Biologist, nature and wildlife journalist, and filmmaker Sangita Iyer, is also Founding Executive Director of Voice for Asian Elephants Society. She is seen in tears in her documentary Gods in Shackles, learning of the torture the elephants go through at festival time.

“The plight of Kerala's elephants is beyond reprehensible!! These animals are ruthlessly exploited for profit behind the veil of culture and religion by institutions that supposedly preach love and compassion, but instead they are promulgating cruelty,” Sangita writes on an email interview. “The issue is, many people are unaware of the dark truth behind the glamorous, cultural festivals. And those who are aware choose to stand on the sidelines like mute spectators, condoning the atrocities against these supremely intelligent, social and gentle beings.”

Many owners and temple authorities vehemently deny that elephants are being neglected and mistreated, Sangita says. “If so, why are so many elephants dying at such an unprecedented rate? Everyone should stop for a moment and ask this poignant question: ‘What would happen if all elephants perished? What would they use in cultural festivals?’ Their justifications to exploit elephants makes absolutely no sense! Indian culture is grounded in Ahimsa. However, everything being inflicted upon elephants is cruelty.”

Rita shares a letter that was shot off to the Director, Project Elephant, Government of India, with copies to Chief Wildlife Warden, Kerala, the Secretary, AWBI, Haryana and the Director of Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, New Delhi. This was after Kolakkadan's death.

"The elephant was hired by Kerala Elephant Owners Federation for the past six months and the elephant was paraded in Thrissur, Malappuram, Palakkad, Ernakulam and Calicut districts. The elephant had numerous wounds all over its body when it was paraded at various festivals by the federation," the letter says. The Kolakkadan group, the letter says, illegally purchased the elephant eight months ago from a Kollam based illegal elephant coordinator. The letter is signed by VK Venkatachalam, Secretary, Heritage Animal Task Force.

‘Stop “donating” elephants, be aware’

Sangita has another suggestion, that the first and foremost step to resolve the elephant tragedy should be creating public awareness. “The issues can be resolved only if people honestly acknowledge that the current method of managing captive elephants isn't working. The Kerala Captive Elephant Management and Maintenance Rules needs to be revised, outlining specific details. More importantly, the laws need to be enforced and violators need to be penalised.”

The next step, she says, would be to emulate some of the amazing rescue centers in Thailand, and in our backyard - Karnataka. “The Bannerghatta Biological Park, for instance, run by Karnataka government has several rescued elephants that are allowed to socialise, and roam freely across vast areas. They breed with wild bulls and produce calves. This is drawing more visitors, and generating more revenue. It's an overall win-win situation for elephants and people."

Also, very importantly, people should not be encouraged to donate elephants, Sangita says. “Stop people from "donating" elephants to temples. They are not commodities, these are living and breathing beings, just like you and me. If people genuinely cared for or loved their elephants, they would grant them the most basic right - freedom.”

Show us some love! Support our journalism by becoming a TNM Member - Click here.