Once considered the pride of Thripunithura Poornatharayeesa Temple in Kerala, Sreehari the elephant met with a tragic death in September. Unknown to many, the elephant had lived through months of misery, before finally succumbing to internal and external injuries. When the autopsy report concluded that Sreehari had died due to sepsis from injuries, it sparked a furore among elephant lovers.
On investigation, the forest department officials found that Sreehari the elephant had suffered extensive physical abuse when it was alive. Armed with this information, legal proceedings were initiated against the owner and the custodian of the elephant by Forest Department officials. The owner was soon arrested.
According to an earlier report, 18 elephants had died until June this year in Kerala and most had a history of not being taken care of properly while alive. With Sreehari becoming the latest statistic, the Kerala Forest Department formed a high-level committee headed by Dr Amit Mallick, the Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests to find out whether captive elephants that had died since January 1, 2018 had succumbed to natural causes or due to physical abuse.
Sreehari’s death has also raised several questions among wildlife experts including whether captive elephants were being killed for the sake of insurance claims. But is this allegation merely wild speculation or is there any merit to these claims?
Every death of a captive elephant must be intimated to the Forest Department officers in the relevant district. Once the information is received, the forest range officer accompanied with one other staff examines the carcass after which it is taken up for post-mortem.
“During the autopsy, we examine the dead animal and take tissue and other samples for pathology test. The samples are sent to government designated laboratories to check for likely cause of death. Once the autopsy is over, the elephant is allowed to be cremated in designated places like Walayar near Palakkad, or Malayattoor near Ernakulam,” says Dr EK Easwaran, the Chief Forest Veterinary Officer, Kerala.
It takes at least a month for the labs to give the final post-mortem report, which is a mandatory document for the owners to file, if they want to claim insurance.
Insurance companies provide different types of policies for elephants, says Mangalamkunnu Praveen, whose family owns 10 elephants. “There are policies to cover the death of an elephant, medical treatments incurred for the elephant, damages to third party caused by the elephant and mahout welfare,” he says. The Mangalamkunnu family rents out their elephants for temple festivals. Elephant owners have to submit the post-mortem report of the elephant, a copy of their ownership certificate and cremation documents etc to the insurance company to get the claim money.
“The chances of people killing the elephant for insurance claims is extremely rare mainly because the insurance claim amount is about Rs 10 lakh. The cost of an elephant these days even in the black market is no less than Rs 50 lakh. So, it doesn’t make sense per se. Ill treatment of elephants, however, is very common,” he adds.
The case of Sevasangham Sreehari
The owner of Sevasangham Sreehari, who was arrested following the elephant’s death was granted bail by the Kerala High Court recently.
Speaking to TNM, MA Anaz, the Assistant Conservator of Forests (Social Forestry) in Ernakulam who is the investigating officer in the case said that it would take another 45 days at least to file the chargesheet in the elephant death case.
“The treasurer of Sevasangham, which housed the elephant, had in fact stated to us that the monthly expense for the upkeep of Sreehari was around Rs 12 lakh and the elephant was not really earning them much money. They had insured the elephant for Rs 10 lakh,” he said. With the maintenance of the elephant being an alleged strain on the resources of the temple, Anaz said that they were looking into insurance claims as one of the motives in the case of Sreehari.
“I have also written to the insurance company to not act on any insurance claim on this elephant because the case is in process,” Anaz added.
And while the committee headed by Amit Mallick submitted its final report, the details of the findings are yet to be released.
P Praveen, Assistant Conservator of Forests, who is also in-charge of the welfare of captive elephants in the state told TNM, “Based on more than 20 post-mortem reports of elephants that died in 2018, we found 3 or 4 cases of ill-treatment -- not giving enough food to the elephants and the like -- when they were alive. No cases of direct cruelty resulting in the death of elephants were found by the committee.”