Bruised, starved and sick: The sorry state of captive elephants in India
Many years ago, we got a report that Lakshmi, a temple elephant in Davanagere (Karnataka), had suddenly died. We went to conduct a post-mortem,” says Manoj Kumar, a senior official at the Karnataka Forest Department who oversaw the Project Elephant program in the state till July 2018. “It was tragic to find out that Lakshmi died due to constipation. It was festival season and they had fed her only coconuts and bananas.”
Lakshmi’s death is only one among many such elephant deaths in India. While concerted efforts are made to protect India’s wild elephants, little is done to oversee the well-being of captive elephants who routinely die of tuberculosis, foot abscess, malnutrition, and countless other preventable illnesses. In May 2018, UK-based Action for Elephants described Kerala as ‘ground zero for elephant torture’.
There is no government data on deaths of captive elephants. Suparna Ganguly of Compassion Unlimited Plus Action says that 73 captive elephants have died in Kerala since 2016; at least five died in Tamil Nadu this year.
“A captive elephant faces both physical and mental abuse,” says GR Govind, founder of Gaja Raksha, an organisation that works for the well-being of captive elephants. “Their feet become septic, life-threatening sores develop on their backs and hips when they are made to carry heavy loads frequently,” he says.
An elephant is meant to walk at least 30 kms a day and hence they are constantly bobbling even when stationary. Many temples and institutions cannot afford to give the elephants a nutritious, wholesome diet. They are also highly intelligent, social animals and captive isolation takes a heavy toll on their mental health, resulting in stereotypy.
According to government data, there are about 3,500 elephants in captivity in India: in forest camps, private ownership, travel and tourism, zoos and temples. While the conditions in forest camps are in most cases good, it is in temples and in tourism that elephants suffer the most.
“Elephants are complex animals and have so many requirements at multiple levels that it is not possible for humans to fulfil all of them,” says Ganguly. “For example, in the forests they eat so many different kinds of food and that helps them retain their colour. But most captive elephants will have a white pigmentation on their trunks,” she adds.
Releasing all captive elephants into the wild is not an option, however. “Most captive elephants will not be able to survive in the wild after a certain age, that is why we’re trying to focus on providing them good conditions and keep them in semi-captivity,” says Subhash Malkhede, additional principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife), Karnataka forest department. “We have initiated training camps for mahouts and have issued guidelines for the proper upkeep of captive elephants.”
Individuals like GR Govind have also taken the initiative to work with captive elephants and their mahouts. “We try to do the best we can in the given conditions. I have noticed that many temple authorities are also responsive and try to create better conditions for animals,” he says. From simple measures such as sheathing the elephant’s chains with rubber, creating larger enclosures, especially during the bull elephant’s increased hormonal level , their captive conditions are improved.
Apart from Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and Prevention of Cruelty of Animals Act, 1960, many state guidelines exist for the welfare of captive elephants. “The problem is with implementation and there is also a lot of collusion between owners and local politicians, who are more concerned with profiting from the animal than their proper upkeep,” says Ganguly.
In November, the Supreme Court directed the Animal Welfare Board of India to conduct a survey across the country to ascertain the number of elephants in captivity and their conditions.
More often than not, captive elephants such as Lakshmi either live a tortured life or succumb to their circumstances. As GR Govind says, “At the end of the day, we want a change in attitude. Of course, there shouldn’t be any more captives but owners must realise that what they are doing is wrong, not because I or anyone else thinks it is wrong.”