Kerala's elephant fetish and the brutality behind it all
news Monday, January 05, 2015 - 05:30
Haritha John | The News Minute | December 16, 2014 | 1.20 pm IST Elephants in Kerala symbolize a majesty associated with its many festivals, but beneath the grandeur is a story of ill-treatment and cruelty that goes unnoticed. Often, stories of rampaging elephants such as Thechikkottukavu Ramachandran grab public attention and imagination. This elephant has killed 10 people since 1988, including five mahouts, three women and a child, and injured several others over the years. It was finally banned from public ceremonies by the Kerala High Court. According to law, elephants which have gone violent once should not be used for public ceremonies again. There is however another side to the stories of elephants which remains hidden from public view, one of consistent ill-treatment of the animals. A dedicated group of people however, has been steadily campaigning to remedy this situation. V K Venkitachalam (50) the Secretary of Heritage Animal Task Force (HATF), a Thrissur-based NGO working for elephant welfare, has been fighting for the rights of captive elephants in Kerala for past 17 years. He says â€śYou will not hear anything about elephant mishaps after 10 years from now, because captive elephants will extinct by thenâ€ť. In the last four years alone 300 captive elephants owned by temples and individuals, have died in Kerala. Most of the dead elephants were less than 40 years old whereas the average life span of a wild elephant is about 80 years. Kerala's total captive elephant population according to Wild life Department stands at 702, but HATF claims that the actual figure is only 320. December to April is when most festivals are held in Kerala and these months are a time of heightened cruelty. According to HATF data, nearly 100 captive elephants die each year due to cruelty or overwork. Underfed by the owners, the pachyderms are made to walk long distances on tarred roads and stand unendingly on concrete surfaces. They are also transported in lorries from place to another, to be used at multiple festivals. Sometimes, they are forced to carry nearly two tonnes of weight on a single day during this season. Besides this, they are also tortured physically. Mahouts often use metallic and wooden devices with hooks to beat and discipline the elephants. Most of these elephants are partially or fully blind due the wrong practices in medication, feeding and torturing. Another kind of cruelty elephants in captivity are subjected to is the curtailing of their sexual instinct. â€śThey inject some kind of chemicals to reduce the sexual drive in the elephants, which badly affects them. Because as per law if a baby elephant should be handed over to the Wildlife Department and owners will have to incur monetary loss owing to the inability of a pregnant animal to work. So for past three decades no elephant has conceived here in the stateâ€ť says Venkitachalam. â€śNovember to February is the time of musth (an annual period of heightened sexual instinct in the male elephants, associated with discharge from a gland between the eye and ear), when elephants should be set free and should be provided with space to walk and mate. But here we chain them. That is the main reason why they go violent. To control the musth some used to deprive them of water which makes them weak and passive.â€ť says an officer at Wild Trust of India. In Tamil Nadu elephants are allowed to graze freely in the Muthumala camp for 41 days in a year and females used to conceive. Apart from the ill treatment meted out to them during the festival season, it doesnâ€™t get much better during the lean months. Almost all these pachyderms are underfed on a regular basis. The mahouts also find easy to manage the animal when they are weak. â€śFeeding them palm leaves is a wrong practice followed in Kerala. Those leaves have thorns which can cause injuries in the mouth, throat and in the stomach of the animal. This cause ulcer in the stomachâ€ť says Roopam Das, a wildlife veterinarian from Guwahati, who conducted a study on captive elephants in Kerala. â€śThey are deprived of food and water . Their tongues are burnt sometimes to reduce the food intake. An elephant normally drinks between 200 to 250 litres of water every day, but here they get around 50 to 100 litresâ€ť he added. Some of the veterinarians have confirmed that most of the dead captive elephants here had ulcers and their autopsy report revealed it. Another huge issue faced by this gentle animal is the treatment by unqualified doctors. â€śMost of the doctors here are self-trained or are with a fake degree. They donâ€™t even diagnose the disease of the animal. â€ť Venkitachalam claimed. â€śIt is true that we donâ€™t have good qualified doctors to treat these animals, and even the government is not trying to get a qualified teamâ€ť says a Veterinarian from Wayanad. Where are the laws? Almost all the laws related to captive elephants in Kerala , made by High Court and Central government are the results of the HATFâ€™s lobbying. It all began when Venkitachaam first found a wounded elephant being beaten by a drunken mahout in prickly hot tarred road near his house in 1997, since then he has been writing letters to the authorities seeking justice. â€śIn 2001 following one of my request letters, to Maneka Gandhi to bring laws to safeguard captive elephants, an amendment came in Wildlife Protection Act, 1973, that Elephant is a wild animal whether it is wild or captive, so all the wild life laws are applicable to the animalâ€ť Venkitachalam proudly said. V K Venkitachalam Since 2003, Central and state government had imposed strict regulations on the use of captive elephants under Schedule 1 of the Act In 2006 High Court had ordered a set of rules to use the captive elephants and in 2008 there was another order that elephants should not be made to stand in open air between 11 am to 3 pm. But none of these laws are been properly implemented by the state government yet. Elephants are used even over ruling High court orders. â€śThese laws were breached in a high rate when B Ganesh Kumar was the state Forest minister, since he owned a number of elephants. And he even brought many amendments in the existing laws illegallyâ€ť says the members of HATF â€śThere are two names for an elephant here. If some awards are announced for an elephant the original name is used, if it kills someone the other name will be used. The same elephant which killed many people will be used for public processions again and againâ€ť says Venkitachalam. â€śThey belong to wild you canâ€™t use them to show your status. Let them live in natural environment, freed from your metal sticks and chainsâ€ť he requests. TweetÂ Â Follow @thenewsminute Read-Â Kathakali â€“ a magnificent art or a struggle for survival? Read-Â Merin Joseph IPS whose picture had gone viral does get posted in Kochi
Show us some love and support our journalism by becoming a TNM Member - Click here.