Elephant in the Room: From Reactive to Proactive

It had only been couple of weeks since the day my friend and I last saw Krishnan and Arjunan, at a festival at Kunnamkulam, near Thrissur. To anyone who’s not into this field, it may sound like meeting two companions; but in this case Arjunan is a tusker in his prime, and Krishnan is (was) the mahout. Krishnankutty—Krishnan alias Velichappad Krishnan as he was popularly known among peers and others in the field—started working with Arjunan as his mahout nine years ago, a time when Arjunan was noted for the unrests he had caused. The duo seemed to share a bond quite well that Arjunan, the dominant bull, in the recent past hardly featured in newspapers and was preferred by several festival committees who never wanted mishaps by tuskers, which today is a common scene in the state of Kerala. All said and done, Krishnan met with a tragic death in the wee hours of 10th of February this year, when Arjunan struck him with his heavy tusks. The reason was, apparently few festival committee members approached Arjunan without alerting Krishnan, and in an attempt to defend them Krishnan received the heavy blow. Several versions of the story could be heard among ‘elephant lovers’ in the state, but truth behind is something only Krishnan or Arjunan could’ve told us.

Picture 002

Image 1: Krishnan sitting next to Arjunan and laying a floral carpet during Onam at Thrikkakkara temple near Cochin (Courtesy: Sreehari Venkateswaran)

Now this is not the crux of the argument that I’m making here; a mishap that could have been avoided, the Krishnan-Arjunan story is a classic exemplar of the (almost) day-to-day elephant attack incidents the festival towns witness. Of the three dozen odd incidents that happened this year (in 55 days starting January 1st till 24th February), most were caused either as a result of provocation of the animal by bystanders or by mahouts (for head lifting) or because of the animal being in stages of musth. And in all these cases, the losses incurred in terms of property damage, injuries to humans and to conspecifics could have been avoided, had there been some proactive measures adopted. To draw a parallel with damages caused by wild animals, efforts to curb those have, often, been reactive involving removal of the animal involved, physical barriers etc. which all have unfortunately failed in most cases as opposed to proactive ones such as early warning systems. However, interestingly, none of the aforesaid three dozen odd incidents this year or several such in the past have ever prompted our public or the stakeholders involved to adopt either reactive or proactive measures, which is evident from the repeated number of incidents caused by same individuals, or in same locations. To quote a few examples — the Pazhanji church festival near Kunnamkulam in Thrissur district which occurs in October every year witnessed elephants running amok and spreading panic consecutively in 2013, 2014 and 2015, Cochin Devaswom Narayanan ran amok thrice this season and so on. Despite such repeated incidents in particular locations or often by particular individuals, no effort is undertaken either by authorities or by public stakeholders for successful prevention of the same.

In an effort to understand the problem in greater detail, and to communicate with direct stakeholders of the captive elephant sector in the state, some of us found genuine elephant owners among the lot, who agreed with our team regarding flaws in management practices and accepted the need for greater reforms in the immediate future. And it is quite intuitive and true that these proactive owners, who are ready to accept changes, have never, in the recent past, had their animals turning unruly or facing a legal or socio-political problem because of that.

Pazhanhi elephants_2013,2014,2015Figure 2: Newspaper reports (in vernacular language) showing elephant attacks in Pazhanji festivals in 2013, 2014 and 2015 respectively (Courtesy: Mathrubhumi dated 03rd October 2013, 04th October 2014 and Malayala Manorama dated 04th October 2015)


The situation like never before has received considerable media attention this year — thanks to social media platforms and activists. However, what is unfortunate in these cases is that the media reports and petitions are vain efforts, considering the fact that these have brought forth hardly any change on ground. Increased number of activists indulging themselves in raising voices against elephants in captivity also gave hope to concerned bunch, but most efforts seem to be restricted to media attention and social media virality. There are also efforts by several of them to fabricate stories (See http://peepli.org/blog/2015/08/18/temple-elephants-and-what-lies-beneath/ to read about a fabricated story that appeared on The Daily Mail) on elephant management flaws in the state thereby raising false accusations against many which also seem to result in genuine individuals losing ground. The fact that Likes and Tweets cannot help animal lives is something everyone needs to be aware of, and online campaigns have a limit to which they can influence the local public who are directly involved. Moreover, a ban of these current practices raises a whole lot of questions considering the magnitude of the issue.

Two decades ago, the apex court of India banned all commercial logging activities in the Northeast following the landmark Forest Case by Godavarman Thirumulpad (WP 202/1995), thereby leaving hundreds of elephants in that part of the country ‘jobless’. Unable to meet the expenses of these animals in the absence of any income, most of the owners sold off their elephants to Kerala and Tamil Nadu at the annual Sonepur mela in Bihar. However, immediately after the ban, several ‘jobless’ elephants were found begging along the streets of several states such as Assam, Arunachal Pradesh etc. Men who acted as saviours and saved them from malnourishment and death, brought them down south to be paraded across pageantries. Now when the ban on parading jumbos at festivities across state receives wider acceptance and comes forth into action, the immediate question is to rehabilitate these 580 odd registered and few other non-registered individual elephants.

My exposure as a wildlife biologist has given me immense opportunities to visit rehabilitation centres, State Forest Department elephant camps and rescue centres, and seeing all that, with a great degree of confidence I can state that the problem of rehabilitating these animals will be the greatest uncertainty ever. These are wild caught, tamed (not domesticated) or trained, mostly adult, animals and cannot be sent back into the wild as is being argued by several of these aforesaid (social media) activists. More importantly, while our wild counterparts are striving hard to cope with habitat degradation and loss on a day-to-day basis, we cannot afford to set aside anymore forest areas to rehabilitate such large numbers of elephants. And also, it is a known fact that several of these captive animals suffer from infectious diseases such as Tuberculosis and their proximity to wild habitats can increase the chances of wild elephants contracting the same. Most of these animals, from their childhood have been trained in the traditional way of dominance establishment and will not immediately accept a new person as his or her mahout. Management issues such as lack of space, food and water resources, trained personnel to handle, and more importantly monetary resources will all be questions staring back at one who attempts to rehab such a large number.

Each elephant attack sounds a step closer to the ban argument to the activists; but while their efforts to ensure welfare of these animals are appreciable, it is also advisable that they approach the issue more pragmatically, than knee-jerk reactions. As always, being reactive will only worsen the situation and one needs to be proactive if the objective is welfare and management of a (fairly) large population of the largest living land mammal in the country. And this can be achieved not through social media debates, arguments, ‘viral infections’ and press releases, but through constant engagement with stakeholders beginning with middle-class festival connoisseurs to mahouts to large-scale elephant owners and festival coordinators. Attempt it; positive stories are on your way.



Elephant in the Room – III


Republished from India Facts dated 27th January 2016


Kerala court releases elephant on bail

~March 12 2013, The Times of India

Murder attempt on blind tusker: Killing opponent’s elephant for revenge is not new to Kerala

~August 11 2015, The News Minute

At times, it all sounds like a fairy tale; sometimes like a psychological thriller—the Hitchcock kind. Drama and suspense unfolds every day as elephants are paraded on streets and in religious institutions, thanks to their stardom and fanfare. With stardom comes ego clashes, petty fights and controversies, they say. The lives of these gentle giants in captivity, which started as draught animals, then as war machines and later as royal adornments, have changed manifold in the last decade and half. From the days of reverence and admiration for elephants, which arose from close associations with them, personification of these beings have gone to a totally different level today as exemplified by the aforementioned news headlines. Elephants are the golden geese today. With growing ‘devotion’ and competition, numbers of elephants in pageantries have increased several times; and the number of such lineups too. Although activists and media call them ‘temple elephants’, it is time one ruled out the terminology; they are now part of processions across religious institutions. With rising competitions and increase in money involved, there’s burgeoning politics and in the cost-benefit analyses of these episodes, the pachyderms bear the cost.

In January 2013, Ramachandran, the tusker mentioned in the headlines above, ran amok in a temple near Cochin, and killed three innocent women bystanders. The half blind animal, tallest tusker in captivity, perhaps, is one who has borne the brunt of fanfare and stardom as is evident from his life history. Perhaps owing to stress and trauma during early part of his life, he has a bad temperament, which cost him an eye, and also the lives of two other tuskers and eight humans. This is not just the case with Ramachandran, but several others who with their padded worn out soles still march the festival grounds of Kerala. Increasing stress could sometimes lead to redirected aggression, which can cost a life or two or sometimes more, of humans and even elephants. Social media radars have been quite active this festive season (which started in September 2015) and updates on networks show that till date there have been fifty odd incidents of elephants running amok across the state. Since December 2015, the number’s been over thirty, and the human death toll being four (three mahouts and a bystander), including the last one at the renowned Sabarimala temple. In three of those four cases, the individual elephants have had previous case histories, of killing or injuring people and then the pertinent question remains why such individuals are paraded. The answer is fairly simple; rising demand for elephants at pageantries due to their increasing use in processions—religious and non-religious—has led to the use of musth elephants (by suppressing musth using antiandrogens and antipsychotics), ones that were kept away from processions due to their case histories and temperament, and also injured or diseased individuals.

The Kerala Captive Elephant (Management and Maintenance) Rules 2003 (amendment 2012) is a fairly comprehensive legal document that prescribes norms for using these animals categorised under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act (1972). What is unfortunate is that in most cases, none of these norms, regulations or recommendations is followed. In a recent incident, a tusker ran amok and attacked another, after which he was brought under control. Identifying signs of musth, the tusker two days later was taken for timber hauling (Rule 7(7) of the aforesaid document states that an elephant in musth shall not be put to any work) which led to the animal running amok and killing its assistant mahout or cavady. As in this case, most such incidents are avoidable and are results of direct violations of the norms. Five or six people (sometimes up to ten) ride an elephant as part of these ‘cultural’ processions, amidst jeering of the crowd, loud crackers and drums; some even bursting confetti party popper atop elephants! For any parade or work, an elephant is supposed to be certified fit by an authorised veterinary doctor and the fitness certificate is yet another document that is often either falsified, or issued by vets who sometimes don’t see the elephants, or even used for multiple parades and transportation (rule 4(18) states fitness certificate to be issued prior to every transportation). Recently an elephant that was used (and is being used) for festivals had deep, open wounds on his hind leg, resulting from torture from mahouts as part of the routine breaking process. Interestingly, despite that, the elephant did have a fitness certificate issued by a renowned vet in the state, which even stated that the animal is free of injuries, diseases or illnesses and is fit for work.

Images: Thathamangalam angadi vela, near Palakkad. Notice the number of people atop each elephant. One mishap could cost numerous lives. Photo credit: Aneesh Sankarankutty

When the rules were framed in 2003, with welfare of elephants in mind, the committee proposed trucks for easy transportation of elephants. But contrary to expectation, the vehicles only added to their stress by shuttling them between faraway places faster. Our initial analyses show that many elephants travel anywhere between 3000-3500 km during a festival season between September and May covering an average of 140-150 festivals. Being highly mobile species in the wild, lack of exercise, and constant movement in trucks seem to add to their ailments, particularly related to their feet. Their apprehension and fear of unstable surfaces also adds to the stress and trauma they undergo as is evident from the behavioural traits exhibited by most elephants during these truck journeys.

Things have gone from bad to worse after rampant leasing out of elephants began since early 2000s. Recently an owner (who didn’t want to be named due to political reasons) stated that in the district of Palakkad alone, there are 75-80 agents or brokers, who are middlemen between elephant owners and festival committees, and mint money. Despite legal provisions being in place, these rampant monetary transactions on a Schedule I animal are ongoing. An auditor (who again didn’t want to be named) in central Kerala pointed out that the captive elephant sector in the state is ground for monetary transactions coming up to millions of rupees annually. As these elephants are rented out by most owners or agents without an invoice, bill or receipts (except for certain temples, who do issue receipts for payments made) most of these transactions are not taxable, he adds. The average rent of an elephant has gone from four digit numbers to five and six digits today, and given that, one can imagine the business interests of this sector.

The way social media is used for these is also getting worse with more and more FB pages being created for these celebrity elephants, and online debates, arguments and fights happening every minute. The pressure from fans and followers prompt most mahouts to compete with other mahouts and elephants in what is popularly called ‘head-lifting’ competition (where an elephant has to raise his head higher than others and stand for minutes to hours motionless, even without flapping ears!), something that the owners’ association vouched that they will abstain from, but continues to happen even till date. Video evidences of elephants being poked and beaten for lifting their heads have gone viral on social media, with activists and concerned people raising their voice and despite all that concerned authorities have failed to respond. Such fights among fan groups also trigger rivalry among mahouts who want to compete more at the cost of anything, taking us back to the headlines mentioned in the first part of this piece.


Images: Head-lifting competitions in progress (Notice the raised heads of elephants)

Photo credit: 1. Anonymous/FB 2. Author


What everyone seems to ignore or overlook is the fact that this indeed is a sinking ark, from where elephants are disappearing gradually, succumbing to stress related disorders, colon impaction and so on. Till recent days, there was some hope that the forthcoming days would witness positive changes in the sector, but the antithesis is slowly happening; thanks to everyone involved.

Hindsight — The irony: The same public who raise outcries and protests against wild elephants coming to croplands and occasionally damaging crops or costing a life or two accidentally, seem to accept numerous such deaths caused by these so-called living gods in chains. While these captive ones get away with their cases, their wild counterparts are paying huge toll in the form of retaliation by humans. Heights of irony indeed!






Elephant in the Room – II


Republished from India Facts dated 30th December 2015 (http://indiafacts.org/elephant-in-the-room-glimpses-from-the-past/)


Glimpses from the past

Mātangalīla, the magnum opus by Nīlakanta dates back a few centuries, Malayalam Era (Kollavarsham) 761 according to the interpretation of the text by Cheruvalli Narayanan Namboothiri[1] and an English translation of the text by Frank Edgerton[2]; Pālakāpyam, the one that formed basis for the former however was written much earlier, although the exact date is unknown. There are anecdotes and arguments raised with regard to historicity of elephants’ association/or their use with/in temples and other religious establishments, which is the central part of the Elephant in the Room, although a detailed attempt at arriving at more reliable estimates of the period is lacking. Neither Mātangalīla nor Pālakāpyam does not mention about use of elephants in temples or for religious practices, and both these texts that deal with good and bad signs of an elephant (śuba-aśuba lakshana:), musth, treatment and daily care, trade and price determination, talk of elephants as vehicle for the kings (…sa: gajō rājavāhana: for instance). The earliest use of elephants in temples of Tamil Nadu mentioned in historical sources similarly state that they were primarily used as draught animals, to carry water to the sanctums and also for transportation. However in Kerala the scenario is different, even the oldest records available talk about pageantries. The dissection of the current state of elephant management in the state of Kerala is not complete without understanding the historical relationships and the changes that have followed. It is also important to understand these historical patterns to better unravel the lacunae in welfare and management, which is the immediate question to be addressed. This part of the series will delve more into the past, attempting to throw light on practices of the yore.

Historical accounts on elephants at festivals

The oldest pageantry of caparisoned pachyderms in Kerala is believed to be the Arattupuzha pooram, an annual cultural extravaganza parading tens of elephants (at one point believed to have paraded 108 regularly). Also called the devamela or devasangamam (meeting of the gods and goddesses), the Arattupuzha pooram is ~1400 years old (oldest inscription being in A.D. 583), and is perhaps oldest in the subcontinent. However it is still not well known as to when the use of elephants in the processions began. The Thripunithura temple of Cochin Royal Family also have stories to tell of processions as old as a few centuries. Legend talks about Saint Vilwamangalam visiting the temple and watching the majestic pageantry parading 15 elephants. On investigation of the history of these festivals, records or evidences on use of elephants begin from the 1700s to 1800s, showing that the use of elephants in temples is perhaps ~200-250 years old, although elephants in captivity dates back more than a millennium. This estimate is also in accordance with the dates mentioned in Aithīhyamāla (garland of legends in its literal sense), a magnum opus that describes legends of erstwhile Kochi, Malabar and Travancore, by writer Kottarathil Sankunni, where he also features the lives of eight legendary tuskers. Pepita Seth in her book on Guruvayur[3] while mentioning its history also raises the falling-out between the then Maharaja of Cochin and the Zamorin Raja, as early as 1780s, and how the former disagreed to send elephants from his royal stables to the annual festival of Guruvayur. This again is consistent with the earlier dates.

The Cochin State Manual by C Achutha Menon, in a section on elephant capture by the East India Company mentions about the capture of elephants in large numbers from the forests of Cochin for the Imperial Forest Department. Towards latter part of 1890s, the department had 20 elephants under their charge in Cochin region, 8 belonging to the Government and 12 to the Devaswom (the temple management), indicating that the temples did have elephant pageantries back then. The Malabar Gazetteer similarly talks of elephant captures by Nilambur and Kollengode rajas. A mention about the crescent shaped designs on the nettipattom (headgear part of caparisons) of an elephant in the Aṣṭamiprabhandhā written by Melpathoor Narayana Bhattathiri (1559-1645), could be a potential evidence of elephants in temples as old as late 1500s to early 1600s. What seems, nevertheless, evident and agreed upon by most to a greater extent, is that these pageantries are a reflection of a more feudal era as is evident from the oldest festivals that are more or less associated with princely states and the royal deities.

Practices of yesteryears

From being war machines of Carthaginian era and Mughal days, elephants later became symbols of pride and pomp in the yards of Rajas and Sahibs. In Kerala, particularly, most affluent families of yesteryear had dozens of elephants often caught from their own forestlands, the royal family of Nilambur and Koyappathodi family of Calicut being classic exemplars[4]. While emphasis was on the display of these beauties, welfare was never overlooked. In the days of yore, emphasis was laid on elephant — mahout relationships that often lasted ages, till the death of either of the two, unlike today. Of all the various such examples, the most celebrated one is that of the legendary Guruvayur Keshavan, whose tales are carried by the winds of elephant countries of Kerala even 39 years after his demise, not just because of the qualities of him, but also because of the bond he had with Achuthan Nair, Mani Nair and several other mahouts. This relationship was in fact even celebrated on big screen by filmmaker Bharatan in his 1977 movie titled after the tusker. Aithīhyamāla, the text mentioned earlier also talks of similar elephant — mahout relationships.

Mātangalīla compares a mahout to the head of a state (Nāgādhyakṣasthu dhīmāna narapati sadr̥śō) stating that a mahout should be loyal to his profession and to his elephant like a king to his subjects, and emphasises on his responsibilities and priorities. Trained in and well aware of elephant behaviour, physiology, and diseases and their treatments, mahouts dealt with most problems back then, even including behavioural or psychological ones. A proper shower of an elephant, for instance, lasted a few hours during which communication between the mahout and the elephant, verbal and tactile, helped in strengthening the relationship. Hasthyāyurvēda underlines the importance of such long baths from a physiological perspective and how it aids in increasing blood flow and improving health. Elephant management back then was also a collective responsibility, where the owner and the mahout ensured the welfare of the animal unlike what it is today.



…To be continued…


[1] Namboothiri, C. N., 2009. Mātangalīla. Arthavedīvyākhyānam. Santha Publishers,


[2] Edgerton, F., The Elephant-lore of the Hindus: The Elephant Sport (Matangalila) of Nilakantha, 1931, reprinted by Motilal Banarsi- dass, New Delhi, 1985

[3] Seth, P. 2009. Heaven on Earth: The Universe of Kerala’s Guruvayur Temple. Niyogi Books.

[4] Daniel, J. C.1998. The Asian elephant: a natural history. Natraj Publishers.

Elephant in the Room – I


Republished from India Facts dated 24th November 2015



In a letter dated 14th October 2015, the Minister of State (Environment, Forests and Climate Change; henceforth MoEF & CC in the series), Shri. Prakash Javadekar wrote to the Minister of Women and Child Development, Smt. Maneka Gandhi—in response to an earlier email she had sent—announcing the Bihar State Board of Wildlife’s decision regarding banning transport of captive elephants from Bihar to other states and vice versa, and also banning their sale, purchase and transfer across the country. This received considerable attention in several regional and national dailies, and in several forums on social media. To many, however the larger context (or relevance) of the order was (is) not very clear. The objective of this article, and the forthcoming ones in this series—titled the Elephant in the Room—is to deal with various issues and shortcomings in captive elephant management sector in the country, with emphasis on the southern Indian state of Kerala, which boasts of its centuries old association with the largest land mammal, in captivity.

Elephants are perhaps the only other wild animals, apart from primates that have had such close associations with humans since time immemorial. Their associations range from battlefields to backyards, where they stood as living symbols of royalty, pride and pomp and also as an icon of intelligence, emotions and personhood. Personification of elephants can be attributed to the worship of the elephant-headed god Ganesha, who according to Hindu mythology is the remover of obstacles. This reverence to a greater extent has helped in well-being and conservation of the animals during the earlier days. However commercialisation of elephants have taken a toll on their lives since recent past, and today, the growth of this sector as a multimillion dollar industry has worsened to a deplorable situation.

Apotheosis to Apocalypse

Evidences for commodification of elephants can be found in the magnum opus Arthashastra, where the author Kautilya emphasises on creation of Gajavana or elephant forests for protection of elephants, for their later use in wars. Despite mention about their commodification, Kautilya indeed lays emphasis on ensuring welfare of these elephants in these protected reserves. Their commercialisation in the contemporary context, on the contrary however has led to the exploitation of these animals for blind profit, where welfare of the animal has taken the back seat.

From symbols of pride and pomp in royal courtyards of Kerala, large scale monetary transactions of elephants began with their influx from the Sonepur mela in Bihar. The first set of elephants from Sonepur arrived Kerala in the late 1970s not long after the government officially banned the capture of wild elephants, and that was when the floodgates opened. Since then hundreds of elephants have crossed several interstate boundaries and reached Kerala from various parts of India such as Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Elephants were available in hundreds in the annual Sonepur cattle fair at very low prices, and hundreds of people thronged the banks of the Ganges to buy elephants in large numbers and later sell them in the south Indian markets. The demand kept increasing year after year, leading to more supply by capturing from the wild stocks illegally. The numbers of elephants in the state of Kerala since then have shot up extensively, reaching a situation where today, about ~80% of the tuskers in the state are from the North and North-eastern states of the country. With more influx, there was also an increase in number of elephants being paraded for several existing festivals and there was also mushrooming of several new celebrations that parade large numbers of elephants. With increase in number of elephants and opportunities for monetary gain, captures and merchandises of elephants became rampant, making them a commodity rather than an intelligent companion and the apotheosised beings started undergoing apocalyptic transformations. With 36 in 2013 and 24 in 2014[1], the state is losing elephants every year in a way that the system has never witnessed before. Bulls of 30s and 40s—in their prime—are losing their lives to colon impaction and foot rot and other fatal diseases, which to a greater extent can be attributed to the workload, stress and mismanagement.

The elephant in the room, what we’re not talking about, certainly is this (mis) management of elephants in captivity, and how one should go about with the current system, which seems to threaten the very existence of these animals. Elephant welfare debates and arguments and outcries have always happened at the occurrence of a mishap but the lack of a set of reforms (for the lack of a better word) to mitigate the distress of these gentle giants is the need of the hour. And that is what this series is aimed at.


[1] Reports by the Thrissur based Heritage Animal Task Force

Pachyderm Politics

Chami with Sankaramkulangara Ganapathi (left) and Parasheri Ganeshan (right)

Chami with Sankaramkulangara Ganapathi (left) and Parasheri Ganeshan (right)

When Chami started working as a mahout at the age of 12, about 60 years ago, the captive elephant management scenario in Kerala was very different from what it is today. Back then, he recalls, elephants were symbols of pride and prestige, unlike today, where they are mere money-spinners. There weren’t any Biharis and Assamese, as Chami and other people associated with elephants call the ones from the Sonepur mela and North East. Sixty years later, retired from work, sitting in the verandah of his small home amidst rubber plantations in Parasheri village in Palakkad district of Kerala, Chami’s grief at the plight of captive elephants shows on his face as he speaks. This is not just the view of Chami. His voice represents that of the community of senior mahouts in Kerala. They fear that the new-generation mahouts, who are often mindless, are leading to slow abjection of a centuries-long tradition. A lot of this has become as a result of the change in the way people view elephants. From their status as the living forms of Lord Ganesha, today they’re more revered as celebrities, treated in a manner similar to actors and rock stars, with their own fans associations. This also has made profound influence in the socioeconomics behind the scenes, and I have observed the transformation happening over the past decade and half, from various perspectives. Since there’s a lot more money involved in the business, the art of ‘mahoutry’ as I would put it, has slowly given way to a mere profession aimed at gaining more money. And it was these stark shifts that prompted me to take a short detour from academic days through the land revered for its historical associations and personification with the largest land mammal.

Mahoutry through the ages

Historical records attest that Asian elephants have been kept in captivity as early as the Mauryan Empire (322 to 185 BCE). Since then, elephant capturers and mahouts have sprung from local communities, passing their skills on to further generations. From moods to musth, foot-sores to dysentery, mahouts understood every aspect of elephant management through their traditional practices and long associations with elephants, which made them repositories of knowledge. Matangalila, a millennia old Sanskrit textbook, talk about the biology and management of elephants in captivity besides emphasizing on the ideal characteristics of a mahout. Known for their proficiency in Matangalila, mahouts were once respected for their skills in associating with the largest living land mammal. The opening of the twelfth chapter of Matangalila, written by Nilakantha, classifies the mahouts into three categories as Balavaan (the strong and careless), Rekhavaan (the concerned) and Yukthivaan (the diligent) based on their attitudes and relation with elephants. Most mahouts of yesteryear were well versed with the lore, the practices, and importantly the individual idiosyncrasies of the elephant that was in their charge for years. Years of apprentice to senior mahouts, before becoming an independent mahout themselves, trained them to understand elephant behaviour and care and this was crucial in strengthening the relationship.

Courtesy: Kalyan Varma

Courtesy: Kalyan Varma

Journey from command to chemicals

The elephant-mahout relationship used to be a strong bond, an inseparable one, which mostly lasted for decades. (In the order of elephant and mahout names) Koodalattuparam Ramachandran and Gopalan Nair, Mangalamkunnu Ganapathi and Sankaran, Thiruvambadi Kuttisankaran and Narayanan, Thayankavu Manikandan and Gopalan are some of the greatest examples of such relationships. However, in recent years, with changing practices, the tenure of a mahout with an elephant lasts not more than two to three years.

“I learnt the art of being a mahout from my father, and other senior mahouts like Ramachandran Nair”, says Mani, one of the younger mahouts. Mani started working at a very early age, about fifteen years ago, because of his ardent love for the animal. Today things have started changing. Socio-economic and cultural changes have transformed the communities, and the elder mahouts are reluctant to send their wards to this profession considering the wide range of risks that are involved. Considered by most seniors as a promising youngster in the profession, Mani faces opposition from his family, who wants him to quit the job and find better employment in the Middle East. His family is also concerned, that because of the negative perception of the public towards mahouts, they will not be able to find him a bride. Other youngsters are not as interested as Mani is, and many have hardly gained experience as apprentice to senior mahouts, or understood how to handle difficult situations, such as an elephant that goes out of control.

Newspaper reports on elephants running amok

Newspaper reports on elephants running amok

“Tusker runs amok, injures fifty, causes damage to properties”, newspaper headlines like this have been part of the business and this is not new to Kerala’s experience. The 1800s writer Kottarathil Shankunni writes about the heroic tales of yesteryear tuskers and stories of them running amok. But those days, Chami says, mahouts were trained specially to handle violent elephants, and each restraining device, command, and procedure had a purpose and mishaps like human death or injury happened rarely, only in the worst of all cases. In 1979, Kizhakkeveetil Damodaran, a ‘celebrity’ elephant ran amok in a village called Thirunellayi near Palakkad, during a procession terrifying people and damaging property. And that was when it came into the picture, and for the first time in the history of captive elephant management in India, an elephant was brought under control, not by traditional restraints, but chemicals: xylazine hydrochloride fired from a tranquilizer gun. Since then, more than about a thousand incidents of elephants going out of control have been dealt with the help of xylazine. Today 90% of all elephant attack incidents are controlled by the use of tranquilizers. Most cases of elephants running amok happen due to the elephants being in the state of musth, a physiological condition due to increased testosterone levels and characterised by heightened aggressiveness.

Not so pleasant winds of change

On a rainy day in Guruvayur, as he smokes his favorite roll of tobacco, Unnikrishnan, another senior mahout, argues that tranquilizers have been harmful to elephants, in a manner the traditional ankush, a prod of hooked iron, never was. The ankush may cause external injuries that heal in a while considering the habits of elephants. But the chemical [xylazine] has prolonged effects on musth of elephants and sometimes it even causes burning of skins causing it to tear off [necrosis]. He adds, “Youngsters support the use of tranquilizers mainly because it is effective in bringing elephant under control immediately, whether you have the mahout’s skill or not”. And when he says this, he’s absolutely right and this attitudinal shift in mahouts have made them less responsible and prompted them to put even musth elephants into work. The numbers of elephants that have died in the past few years or a decade are evidence for the infliction of vicious acts by the young inexperienced lot. Besides ankush, long pole and hobbles these folks now resort to crowbars, sickles and even phosphorous to bring proclaimed rogues under control. Prakash Shankar and Arjun are two young bulls who met a traumatic end in 2009 and 2012 respectively; the former suffered deep wounds on hind legs inflicted by crowbars and the latter had fractured legs caused by a spade!

An adult female and her calf being being captured. Courtesy: Kalyan Varma

An adult female and her calf being being captured. Courtesy: Kalyan Varma

Such changes in captive elephant management portray dismayingly how the fading of mahout traditions affects the plight of captive elephants. Despite all this, capture is still being suggested as an option to mitigate conflict. Twenty-two elephants were removed from Hassan district in Karnataka, over a period of about six months, earlier last year, as a solution to rising conflict in the area. Experts claim that leaving behind viable populations of elephants, so-called ‘problem elephants’ and ‘rogues’ may be captured to mitigate conflict. But as a matter of fact, capturing/translocating elephants has high chances of leading to more conflict as peripheral herds may move out and colonise the areas from where elephants are captured. But before all that, one needs to defend what defines viable populations and ‘rogues’, although all those are completely different debate. Despite that, capture is being suggested as a viable option to mitigate conflict and recommendations are being made in India for large scale capture of elephants from conflict prone areas. What is overlooked in this case is the fate of these animals in captive conditions, at various forest department or private camps, considering their social status in wild. More challenging is the complexity involved in taming the animals, especially in states like Kerala where mahouts are being more endangered than the elephants. The evanescence of the mahout tradition is evident; there is a great shift from its earlier cultural form to a career people prefer when left with no other option, which has led to reflection of their desperation on elephants in the form of tortures.

As he drives back from the first festival of the season, the Thiruvilwamala Niramala, Aneesh, an elephant enthusiast recollects days during which elephants used to get proper rest, their health ensured. Aneesh who has regularly attended major festivals in Kerala for the last two decades, now restrains himself from attending any. He says, “Many factors have led to tremendous negative changes in the captive elephant sector, a major one being the rise of elephant fan associations that give celebrity status to these poor pachyderms”. He also reminisces how five to seven elephants used to line up for festivals in the past, with hardly any mishaps. In the rare case of an elephant attack, people were usually unaffected, only the mahout being the victim. Deplorably, today many spectators also suffer, such as when the elephant Kalidasan ran amok during the Thrissur Pooram, an annual cultural extravaganza in 2012, or when Thechikottukavu Ramachandran killed three women bystanders at Perumbavoor near Kochi in January 2013. Increasing the number of elephants at each festival has also led to tremendous increase in demand for elephants, as a result of which they are most often overworked, stressed and unhealthy, says Aneesh.

Elephants walking from one festival place to another--a scene from early 2000s

Elephants walking from one festival place to another–a scene from 2000s. Courtesy: Aneesh Sankarankutty

Reports prepared by the Thrissur based Heritage Animal Task Force show that 36 elephants died during the festive season in 2013 and 24 in 2014, most of them under the age of 40, due to overwork and abdominal disorders. These can be clearly attributed to long and strenuous work timings and travel by trucks that are stressful to elephants. Despite several restrictions being in place, including speed limits of the carrying vehicle, they are often violated to ensure timely arrival at a faraway festival place. Most elephants in Kerala are made to stand attendance at about 100-odd festivals every year, traveling roughly 5000 kilometres. In Chami’s prime days as a mahout, he used to walk the elephants for miles from one festival place to another, making stops and availing sufficient rest along the way. As he recalls, those days when three or four elephants used to walk together through the countryside, collecting forage, enjoying toddy pit stops, the elephants rarely knew uneasiness and stress. Today, with vehicles and roads, their travel has become traumatic. Contented of living up to his dreams, training his boys as one of the best set of mahouts in the state, Chami still maintains a ray of hope about the plight of Kerala’s five hundred odd elephants; he’s still hopeful that the winds of change are not far away and that the new generation will soon realise the grave danger they pose to the elephants in the name of celebrityhood and fanatic devotion.


Note: This article was originally published in the Saevus Magazine, September 2015 issue. Reposted by the author on the blog, with additional photographs and hyperlinks.


An Open Letter

An open letter to all self-proclaimed (social network) elephant lovers

All these days, I’d shunned myself from responding to animal/elephant welfare related posts online, and comments and discussions that followed, simply because I never believe in futile debates and arguments. But at this point, I am putting down my points blatantly–thanks to some bitter experiences. I’m appalled by the information being passed on by several individuals/organisations about elephants of Kerala—often as shoddy journalism, unfortunately—in the name of facts, many of which off late are baseless allegations. Typical example for this is a latest article in which one of the several random photos posted is that of a musth bull elephant displaying a behavioural trait–a trait common during musth–and the caption reads as atrocities and elephant suffering due to confinement.

The last two years have witnessed substantial increase in the number of elephant lovers all across the state of Kerala, who through social networking sites have been promoting “celebrityhood” in elephants, which slowly has started spelling doom to these pachyderms. Being someone who’s been closely associated with captive elephant management sector in the state for the past 15 years or so, I have witnessed the transformations happening, and I do admit that the priority over the past few years has been commercialization of the same. And what it–at this point–needs is regulation, to bring down anomalies and to ensure welfare of these animals, not just in papers, but also on ground.

To all the concerned (social media) ‘elephant lovers’

Like I mentioned earlier, I do admit that there have been stark changes that have been happening in this field, which has not been very positive to elephants, and also several mahouts. The way to prevent the whole process deteriorating any further is not by fighting online, not by raising voices within, not by making ridiculous arguments/photographs/videos and protesting against, but by working more closely with the stakeholders, and realising that it is not an overnight change; It needs slow phasing out. Clearly this is not like rescuing and rehabilitating one or two elephants, we are talking about hundreds. Yes, you heard me fairly loud; Hundreds of elephants, for which you will have to find shelter, caretakers, water, food and what not.

Most western arguments about captive elephant management in Kerala, or rather India, are around mahouts and their practices. I met a western journalist recently who ridiculed me when I supported mahouts during an argument. The fact that is often overlooked, particularly by these activists is that these people are not born to torture these animals and knowing them, I know that given an option they wouldn’t do any of those acts. It is often true that the mahout – elephant duo do share a bond, which perhaps can be absent in several recent cases as is evident from the various torture videos and photographs. I personally know mahouts who have lost family prioritising elephants over them and mahouts who have lost mental health following demise of their elephants, and these portray the deep relations they maintain(ed). However there are stray incidents off late, where elephants have been abused badly by mahouts but blaming them completely for these actions perhaps do not make sense considering the fact that the ownership of these elephants do not lie with them and they are overseen by the owners.

Let me also use this space to answer some of the common queries I have been getting.

  1. Why not rescue and rehabilitate these elephants to our forests?

Please understand that these are tamed wild elephants, living for years—in most cases, decades—with humankind and are used to the captive conditions that prevail. They will certainly find it difficult to acclimatize to the conditions there, once rehabilitated back, and survival could be at stake in most cases. We’ve also had cases where formerly performing animals where released back to wild, who later got into negative interactions with humans. Moreover, where do we have enough forests to rehabilitate all these elephants, when 80% of our wild elephants are roaming outside conventional protected areas, closer to human habitations? Hence rehabilitating them back to wild is clearly not a possibility.

Besides the impracticability, there is a larger problem within this, which is the chances of TB—highly prevalent among a larger proportion of captive elephants—spreading to the wild counterparts, which could in turn affect larger populations.

  1. Why not release them into degraded forests or unused large extents of land?

How do you define a degraded forest in this context? I do agree with ecological role of elephants to the forest including seed dispersal. However elephants also negatively impact vegetation as known from several studies in African savannas and observations along elephant camps. As a result of repeated feeding in confined areas, the local vegetation suffers dramatic loss in turn leading to colonisation of those areas by invasive such as Lantana and Eupatorium. And we must keep in mind that in India, the question of acquiring land for elephant sanctuaries is likely to be a huge challenge considering there is so little in comparison to the demand, and the small bits of reserved forests cannot be further converted at the cost of other effects.

  1. Lets rehabilitate them in camps.

When existing resources (money, manpower etc.) are becoming insufficient to maintain elephants already present in forest camps, I do not see it as a feasible option at all.

  1. Then what do you do to control all this?

The solution to every problem underlies in understanding it at the grassroots level. In this case, most of the people who are vocal against these problems—from my limited knowledge—seem to be fairly unaware of the actual ground reality and cast their opinions based on what is portrayed in national and international media. Please understand that most reports that come these days are completely biased and report random information as facts as is evident from a recent piece in a leading International periodical. There are a few things that can potentially prove to be successful in managing these issues;

  1. Reducing workload
    Most issues raised arise from ill treatment of animals, which is often a result of workloads that burden these animals for a considerate amount of time during the festival season. The only plausible option for that is by ensuring that the amount of work performed by these animals are regulated by stringent rules on ground. This could be in the form of reducing number of festivals participated, distance traveled, procession hours and timings etc. There are instances where an elephant takes part in a festival in Palakkad, and travels to Attingal, near Kollam the next day for yet another (travelling ~320km) and heading back by that evening to Vadakkanchery near Thrissur (travelling another 275km), travelling approximately 600km overall in a matter of 60 hours, which also includes the festival timings. Counter arguments are indeed raised that most of these rules already exist. Let me reiterate my point that it’s not about having these rules just in black and white, but also on ground; better enforced.
  2. Regulating commercialization
    As mentioned earlier, large-scale commercialization of festivals and elephants have happened over the last half a decade. This is also influenced to a greater extent by the conferring of celebrity status to these elephants, followed by heated debates and publicity stunts on social media pages and fights between fans associations and so on. And this is what has finally led to appalling number and size of transactions that have happened in the recent times. Putting a stringent regulation on the mushrooming elephant brokers and middlemen would also contribute a lot in reducing the commercial exploitation of these animals. Besides that, it is also to be noted that, although arguments about centuries-long tradition exist and is true to a greater extent, recent competition and commercialisation has led to the inception of several new festivals, many of which hardly have religious/cultural basis, but only monetary one. These processions—most of which parade tens of elephants, carrying more than half a dozen children or men besides other paraphernalia—certainly need to/can be regulated which will contribute to reduction of workload as well.
  3. Better trained mahouts
    It is a fact that trained mahouts are more endangered than elephants these days, as is evident from the increasing number of elephant attacks. Week long training camps conducted by concerned authorities indeed are appreciable, but for understanding a complex animal, and learning techniques to handle it better took years for our senior mahouts; how come the younger generations are exempted from such learning experiences?
  4. Reducing work related stress
    Travel by trucks can be fairly stressful for elephants, on highways at fairly high speed—not respecting existing speed norms—particularly considering the apprehensiveness in elephants to sudden movements and disturbances. Besides this, often firecrackers are blasted well above permissible decibel levels at close quarters. These are practices not bound by any religious norms and combined efforts could potentially bring them to a halt.
  5. Arresting influx to the state
    Despite years of restrictions existing in terms of bringing elephants from other states—particularly Bihar, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam—to Kerala, more elephants have been coming as exemplified by the overall number that has more or less remained within a particular range, despite large numbers of elephants dying over the last 4-5 years.

Overall comments on recent debates

Elephants indeed have been in use for ages in several commercial activities, besides religious and cultural ones. That, however shouldn’t justify the way they are treated today and there should be a new paradigm of elephant management, considering welfare issues while ensuring socio-politico-economical aspects are dealt in a balanced manner. There have been several attempts earlier by several organisations to stop some of these practices. Opposition or lack of support and hostility towards moves to conserve Asian elephants in captivity has often resulted due to lack of clarity in the arguments raised by supporters. This is often because the information they receive—from local and international media—do not give a clear picture about the issues on ground. And that is exactly the reason why legal battles have failed over the last many years. I personally feel that it is very important to get all the facts in place before raising issues against a practice that has been happening for ages—particularly when it is surrounded by religious and cultural aspects. We need to work towards changing these practices slowly and with reasoned arguments based on ground realities, backed by the science of management. We cannot expect an overnight change. But we must start and engage over a long-term to bring about these changes.

An 8-year-old and a makhna named Moorthy

It was the year 1998. Quite an eventful year in the lives of many; Titanic swept away 11 awards at the 70th Academy Awards, US president Clinton gets into controversy, veteran politician AB Vajpayee sworn in as PM of India, Indo-Pak tensions rose gradually setting context for the Kargil war which happened the next year. While all of these events took place, it was an equally—or perhaps more—dramatic and momentous year at the Theppakadu elephant camp in the Nilgiris. A proclaimed rogue, believed to have taken the lives of 23 human beings, was captured after months of outcries and hardships and protests.

An animal of a medium stature, the makhna (tuskless bull elephant) was a dreaded beast to most, who lived and cultivated in the villages bordering Kerala and Tamil Nadu, close to the small town of Gudalur. The villages in the locality woke up to the news of an incident, where a child was trampled to death by an elephant, presumably the same guy. This in turn led to huge protests finally leading to his capture. Although there were proposals to bring him down—thanks to confident interventions of Dr. V Krishnamurthy, forest veterinarian—the officials finally nodded heads to capture him alive and bring him to the camp. After days of waiting and tracking, tensions and miscommunications, he was darted and captured on 21 July 1998.


There was an overlord of Anga, famed

under the name of Romapada.

Once he was seated on the banks of the

Ganges in the city of Campa,

when some people reported to him

that all the crops of grain were being

destroyed by wild elephants. The king

reflected: ‘Now what can I do?’

Matangalila by Nilakantha (translated by Edgerton 1931)

Capture of wild elephants, as a conflict mitigation strategy has been prevalent since the days of yore. Matangalila, one of the oldest treatises on elephant behaviour and management begins describing King Romapada of Anga (present day Orissa/Eastern India) listening to the grievances of the countrymen, one evening, who were mourning over their crop losses caused by elephants. The king after further contemplation sent his soldiers to capture elephants that were causing trouble to the peasants of the state, who then brought these elephants to the royal stables.

Capturing an elephant - Photo by Kalyan Varma

Capturing an elephant – Photo by Kalyan Varma

In the contemporary context, the Project Elephant (PE), initiated in 1992, overseen by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF & CC) plays the role of the head of state—king Anga. PE, among its various objectives that were formulated in 1992 under the chairmanship of the then director, has resolution of human–elephant conflict as one of its major goals. With growing demands on land resources, necessitated by an increasing human population, pressure on wildlife habitats have been increasing leading to a current scenario where 80% of wild Asian elephants in India roam outside the conventional fortresses of conservation—Wildlife Sanctuaries and National Parks—thereby exacerbating the human–wildlife interface.

Not very different from the days of Romapada, the decisions today dealing with human–wildlife interactions also involve removal of elephants from the problem landscape either to be translocated to a different landscape or to be retained in permanent captivity.


There is mystery behind that masked gray visage, and ancient life force, delicate and mighty, awesome and enchanted, commanding the silence ordinarily reserved for mountain peaks, great fires, and the sea.

― Peter Matthiessen, The Tree Where Man Was Born

Moorthy as he was named later after the legendary vet, Dr. V Krishnamurthy aka Dr. K stood silent in the kraal—contrary to the widespread infamous descriptions of him—as an 8-year-old boy walked close to the structure and glanced at him. His lowered head and drooping eyelids—as if still contrived by the drugs that acted upon him a few days ago—made him look spiritless. Clasping onto his father’s hands tightly, the 8-year-old looked in between the wooden bars of the kraal, bewildered, watching a 9-foot animal—wild till a few days ago—listening to the commands of a barely five-and-half foot slenderly man holding an equally lanky Diospyros stick. His impressions about a newly caught wild elephant till then, heard from descriptions the elderly men in the family gave, were that of fearsomeness of a wild 5-ton animal, exemplified by the behavioural displays and its efforts to break free. He was always apprehensive to think of the initial days in captivity of all the bulls he grew up watching.

Moorthy at Theppakadu (2011)

Moorthy at Theppakadu (2011)

The journey over close to two decades—ontogenesis, as the textbooks that I learnt would call it—took me through various learning phases, exposed me to several lives comparable to that of Moorthy, and made me realize bitter truths behind and a fairly comprehensive understanding of the complexities involved in human–animal relations in both wild, and in captivity.


I stood, holding onto the bar of a kraal, pensive, of Lava’s timid nature; his motionlessness and inactiveness—except when food is offered—reminded me of Moorthy in 1998. Déjà vu; I was already immersed in thoughts, and went back to being the 8-year-old lad, watching Moorthy at Theppakadu. Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder; Vinod, my colleague, with raised eyebrows—his looks questioning my raptness—suggested we leave. I realized; the surroundings were not that of Theppakadu; they were different. More Terminalia trees, more elephants, and the voices overheard amidst the wind, and the cicada noises, mumbled Kannada, and not Tamil. It wasn’t 1998, but 2015. And it wasn’t Moorthy I was gazing at; but another unfortunate bull, christened Lava, after the legendary king Rama’s son, captured as part of a conflict mitigation strategy. Sharing the larger kraal complex with him was yet another older bull who was caught along with him, from the same area; his partner in crime, as per the department officials and the locals.

Elephant inside kraal (For representational purpose) - Photo by Kalyan Varma

Elephant inside kraal – Photo by Kalyan Varma

That evening, back at the field station, Vinod and I were contemplating the lives of these elephants—many of them in their prime—caught in the name of conflict mitigation often overlooking their sociality, physical, physiological and psychological conditions. The discussion that evening at the field station was germane, not just because of the visit to the elephant camp earlier that day, but also because, Alur Taluk where the field station is situated, is a name etched in bold letters in the conflict map of India, mostly because of the way it is perceived than the actual conflict. The land has elephant tales to tell, going back decades.


Later that evening after visiting Moorthy, I remember, my father was talking about him, tales of him the winds of Gudalur carried with it, the tales that portrayed him into the dreaded beast that he perhaps never was, one more like a 1980s crime thriller. Moorthy, today, is one of the most well-behaved elephants of the Tamil Nadu Forest Department; indeed the efforts of the Kuruba mahout folks need to be appreciated. But beyond that, there is something that always overshadows my thoughts on these; the fact that the 5-ton animal is adapting to live with humans, the behavioural modifications it undergoes and perhaps suppression of its inherent behaviour.

Moorthy with his fellow camp-mates waiting to be fed, at the Theppakadu camp (2011)

Moorthy (second from left) with his fellow camp-mates waiting to be fed, at the Theppakadu camp (2011)

Moorthy, according to my father had more stories to tell; quoting Peter Matthiessen again, there indeed was mystery behind that dark gray visage. And at some point, he wanted me to find answers for his unanswered questions. Years later, I find myself, in the shoes of an elephant biologist following elephants, wherever they go, be it day or night, trying to find answers for the unresolved ones; the ones I promised my father I would find for him.

The Sinking Ark

A decade ago, when Kerala witnessed the rise of its self proclaimed “elephant lovers”, thanks to popular television shows celebrating the lives of ‘celebrity’ elephants, at least some felt more relaxed, that things would go better, with increasing number of concerned souls. However things, were not as expected, when the first decade of the 21st century witnessed rising of elephants as celebrities and stars, like never before, with a huge fan following, vehemently defending their idols. With stardom comes competitions and ego clashes, and so it happened in this case as well. What started as friendly competitions and episodic petty arguments have now turned to outrageous clash of clans, on social networking sites, and in the form of derisive hoardings and slogans, a very recent personal observation being defaming of a ‘celebrity’ elephant in offensive terms by the followers of yet another. The welfare of the animals, whose lives are supposedly celebrated, has now taken a backseat, in the adrenaline rushes of the fanatics.

A hoarding depicting fanatic devotion to the elephant in the picture; the words on the left of the image in strong words portray their hatred towards yet another elephant.

A hoarding depicting fanatic devotion to the elephant in the picture; the words on the left of the image in strong words portray their hatred towards yet another elephant.

I grew up hearing the names of Mangalamkunnu Ganapathi, Ezhuthassan Sreenivasan and Guruvayur Padmanabhan and several others, whose lives were celebrated, not pompously and competitively like in these days, rather silently, with more spirit, in the souls of several youth and old alike, whose lives were often intertwined with those of these pachyderms. The relations were often beyond passion, or adoration, as was evident from the way the gentle giants were treated, as was evident from men who wept away their lives as the majestic animals passed away. Today, the death of an elephant is ‘celebrated’ on social media, with virtual wreaths and garlands, and by evening that day, the animal is a long forgotten story, there are other elephantine debates happening around. What caused his death, or how the problem could’ve been sorted are questions one should not ask, the standard answers being colon impaction for the former and (whispering) better management for the latter.


The Wildlife Protection Act (1972) amended in 2002, posits the ban of sale, lease and any other transaction of elephants. However, contradictory to this, sale and lease of elephants have been happening in Kerala, more extensively than what used to be earlier. Sonepur Mela in Patna, Bihar, was badly hit with the enforcement of some of these regulations, as Sonepur used to be the major ‘supplier’ of elephants to Kerala. Now with restrictions in interstate transportation as well, traders in Kerala perform their transactions within the state, and an individual elephant gets traded from A to B and B to C and so on till one person decides not to sell the animal. And in spite of legal barriers in place for sale/transactions, newspaper articles and social network posts celebrate the rising prices of elephants. The second violation comes in the form of revenue gained through per day rents (yet another form of transaction) of these animals for festivals, which accounts to huge sums of money. What used to be four digit numbers started rising with demand kicking in and auctions began to happen. Fanatics auctioned Guruvayur Padmanabhan for a sum of Rs. 77,777.77 for a day at the Nemmara-Vallanghi Vela festival in the year 1999 and Rs. 2,22,222.22 for the same festival in the year 2004 which changed the scenario completely. More such auctions began to take place, the latest of the bunch being that of elephant named Sivaraju owned by the Travancore Devaswom Board, for a sum of Rs. 2,60,500 for a day for the Thrikkur vela happening on the 9th of this month. What is interesting is, in both these cases, the elephants belong to Devaswom Boards, which means that they are owned by the Government establishments and not by private individuals.

A report in a leading daily explaining how elephant prices and rentals have gone up in the past decade (Digits quoted are 1-1.5 million per elephant)

A report in a leading daily explaining how elephant prices and rentals have gone up in the past decade (Digits quoted are Rs. 10-15 million per elephant)

“Few years back, there were two classes of elephants in Kerala, namely timber elephants and festival elephants”, recalls Raj (name changed due to reasons), a mahout with a private owned elephant, and he continues, “but there are no such classes now, all of them are running from one festival place to other, meager earnings from timber yards are overlooked”. Strenuous working hours in timber yards were something that used to bother activists, and often violated the prescribed norms. Festival grounds have now slowly replaced those timber yards.

With high demand and less number of elephants, no animal today is marked a timber elephant, or a rogue, or inauspicious and left out from work. A procession last week in Palakkad featured five tuskers, all of them hobbled, with mahouts armed with ankush flanking them, two of them even with spike chains on their forelegs. And interestingly all of them until few years ago were kept away from festival places due to their temperament and conspecific aggression. Elephants from northern Kerala, particularly districts such as Kannur, Kozhikode etc. were also never brought to central and south Kerala, considering the travel costs incurred, but not anymore. People who had given up keeping elephants have now joined the club again, years or decades later, mostly lured by the economics behind the scenes. Political outcries and public protests against a recent report by the Animal Welfare Board of India representatives serve ample evidence that the outcries are not about concern for the animal as is portrayed, but for the money involved in it. ‘Festival committees’ called ‘Scorpion Kings’ or ‘Thunder Boys’ do not sound like traditional or cultural ones, as is argued for its existence.

Report in a daily dated 04th February 2015, stating the protest raised by Elephant Owners Association against the Central Govt move to constitute a state level task force for elephant management, and against the AWBI report

Report in a daily dated 04th February 2015, stating the protest raised by Elephant Owners Association against the Central Govt move to constitute a state level task force for elephant management, and against the AWBI report. On a positive note, another report on the right shows press release of a religious group stating their move to stop parading elephants and display of fireworks in their temples

In retrospect, I reminisce an old folk tale, long forgotten, about a sinking ark, where the survivors are trying to loot as much revenue from the ark, before it is completely sunk. And the folks of Kerala seem to overlook the fact that the state of elephants today, is yet another sinking ark, where with existing five hundred odd elephants, the ones involved are seemingly trying to make the best, before all this is erstwhile lore.


The state lost a hundred odd elephants due to various reasons in less than half a decade, since the last systematic enumeration performed by the Forest Department. The numbers appear to have come down from 702 (2010) to about 550 odd (2014); thanks to the increasing work load, elephants in their prime (20-40 years of age) seem to be losing the battle, contrary to widespread beliefs that most animals do well in captivity.

Report showing the number of captive elephants died in 2014 in Kerala

Report showing the number of captive elephants died in 2014 in Kerala


Years ago, when I saw Ramachandran for the first time, I was awestruck by his size, his elegance and witnessed the magnificence that he has in most pageantries. Over the years, I started understanding elephants better and my perception about the species and its state changed enormously during my transition from a primary school elephant lover to a biologist. As someone who has seen in and out of the elephant business (is there a better term for it?), from various positions – as an enthusiast, as a learner, as an activist, as a biologist and at some point even as a mahout, I realise the complexities involved in the trade and how easy it is to make judgments and how uneasy it is to make implementations.

The magnificent beast, Thechikkottukavu Ramachandran with mahouts Mani (Right) and Mahesh (Left)

The magnificent beast, Thechikkottukavu Ramachandran with mahouts Mani (Right) and Mahesh (Left). (Photo by Aneesh Sankarankutty)

On the eighth of May this year, I was asked to go for the pooram festival at Thrissur with some friends who wanted to film the extravagant event, possibly the largest in the world. Sources had informed us about the exact number of elephants that are going to be present with the list of ‘celebrities’ who are invited to add pomp to the show. After hours of negotiations with myself, I finally decided to be there, one of the major reasons being Ramachandran’s ‘guest appearance’. After few hours of traveling from my field site in Valparai, we reached Thrissur around noon on the 8th to witness hundreds of people waiting in front of the main temple, unfazed by lashing rains, just to get a glimpse of Ramachandran stepping out carrying the idol. And in a few minutes there he was, amidst jeering and shibboleths, he walked out of the temple gopuram, in his everlasting majesty. Kalyan and Mandanna (my friends who were filming the event) managed to wade through the crowd, to get up, close and personal.

Ramachandran steps out of the temple, carrying the idol and greets the crowd

Ramachandran steps out of the temple, carrying the idol and greets the crowd

As I hark back to Ramachandran’s stories, one of the most celebrated and highlighted ones in his life, was his arrest after he trampled three women to death during a procession near Ernakulam on 27th January 2013, perhaps the first incident of arrest of a non-human animal. He was ‘behind bars’ for few months till his owners decided to go for legal proceedings and took him out on bail in early March 2013. Although sounds so dramatic, the life of this individual elephant itself is like that, with a crime record of killing eight people, two elephants and injuring yet another elephant. Standing 3.17m tall, perhaps the tallest Asian elephant living in captivity, Ramachandran is blind on one side making him more apprehensive about sudden moves, presence of elephants on that side etc. However, the mahouts who are responsible for the blindness would have thought that handling him would be easier from the blind side. Mani, who has been Rama’s mahout for the past 17 years, reiterates the same, that he’s more cautious on the blind side. Mani has learnt several lessons through this decade and half long relationship and has warned his successors, who took charge last year about possibilities of further mishaps. Shibu and Rajesh who are the current mahouts feel that Ramachandran, who is completing his 30 years in Kerala this year hasn’t lost any of his spirits over the years and despite being in his fifties still has a bad temperament towards conspecifics. He came to Kerala from Bihar, like many of his peers, in the early 80s when the influx of elephants from Bihar, Arunachal and Assam was at its heights.

Ramachandran as Thrissur Ganeshan in 1982, before being bought to Thechikkottukavu Temple

Ramachandran as Thrissur Ganeshan in 1982, before being bought to Thechikkottukavu Temple (Archive Photo)

A regular mediocre elephant back then, recalls some of the senior mahouts about a young Ramachandran. He started growing suddenly in the 1990s, growing to be the second tallest elephant after Kandambulli Balanarayanan, who stood 320cm at his shoulders. Ramachandran had by then slowly started becoming mischievous, giving trouble to most mahouts who worked with him and eminent mahouts like Kaduva Velayudhan had also tried his luck to bring this alleged ruffian under control. In course of these mahout transfers, Ramachandran lost his right eye, thanks to the idea and implementation of one of the mahouts. The general ‘theory’ of controlling a rogue from the blind side failed in the case of Ramachandran as he went on to continue his tough behaviour. By the time he was accused of killing two elephants including a celebrity, Ramachandran was already blacklisted and by end 1990s he was feared by most. He had already caught a lot of media attention as well, by even running up a terrace building in pursuit of a mahout.

Ramachandran (centre, carrying idol) leading the procession at Nenmara Vela. (Photo by Aneesh Sankarankutty)

Ramachandran (centre, carrying idol) leading the procession at Nemmara Vela. (Photo by Aneesh Sankarankutty)

It was presumed that his dark days began, when he gored Thiruvambadi Chandrasekharan, a celebrity tusker and the lead elephant of the Thrissur Pooram. However mid-2000s saw an increase in the so-called elephant lovers who celebrated the lives of elephants through social networking sites, which were just neonates. Ramachandran resurrected from dark depressing months at tethering yards to become the matinee idol of the new-gen elephant lovers in the state. With increasing publicities, came increasing demands and problems. Ramachandran was being sought by most festival coordination committees as they believed his presence could attract more people and money. With couple of years of abstinence from his regular behaviour, Ramachandran marked his presence loudly, running amok at a temple causing damage worth thousands of rupees. Timely intervention of the Elephant Squad prevented fatalities from happening. However January 2013 witnessed the worse of all when the incident happened and the ‘proactive’ officials finally decided to keep him off the festivals by ‘arresting’ him. A short imprisonment, including a break from festivals for over a year and Ramachandran was back in 2014, with new care-takers, still maintaining his heroic status (or perhaps with a more higher one). And the people welcomed him with extreme delight and fanfare.

Ramachandran at his resting site preparing for a 'musth break'

Ramachandran at his resting site preparing for a ‘musth break’

Spending the off-season at the backyard of the Thechikottukavu temple near Thrissur, Shibu and Rajesh are happy of accomplishing a dream, of completing a festival season without any mishaps, Ramachandran perhaps nods (or flaps his ears?) in agreement. Slipping into his annual paroxysms of excitement, the quinquagenarian sways in trance, as the first drops of musth fluid oozes out of his temples. Driving back home from the temple after watching the Matangalila for a while, the state of confusion still haunted me; the paradoxical argument that although Ramachandran and his peers manage to get away with the amount of damage that they cause besides human and elephant fatalities and injuries, their wild counterparts are still paying a huge toll for relatively less damages.


Relishing the jackfruit

Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass!
Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
And sings a melancholy strain;
O listen! for the Vale profound
Is overflowing with the sound……

The Solitary Reaper, William Wordsworth

In my initial days of fieldwork in the Anamalais (elephant hills), I heard much about her. People here knew she split from her herd once in a while, and roamed alone. She could be easily identified. Solitary, with a tear in her right ear and always close to human habitations. It was the first week of November 2013 when she made her presence known for the first time that season, in the housing colonies by feasting on banana plants in the backyards and from pantries. That same week we caught a glimpse of her in one of her nocturnal hangouts — an abandoned grocery storehouse. That was my first exposure to her peculiar behaviour.

When she was spotted outside an abandoned grain storage yard

When she was spotted outside an abandoned grain storage yard (Photo by Prasenjeet Yadav)

Having read several stories as a kid and multiple research papers and books as a student about sociality and matriarchy in elephants, I was always curious about solitariness in female elephants. That such complex and social beings seemed to “opt” to be solitary intrigued me. As I read Cynthia Moss, Joyce Poole, Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell and Kathleen Gobush, I slowly found my way to the scientific aspects of social disruption in one of the most intelligent social animals.

The curious case of Solitary Reaper, as she came to be known, was first noticed eleven years ago, in 2005 by Anand, Divya (my colleagues) and others. Until then, she had only been seen with a herd. When her solitariness was first observed, she seemed to be ailing, and her weak/sickly appearance moved the toughest of hearts. Local people attended to her (despite having to bear the brunt of the occasional elephant attack). She recovered eventually, delighting all concerned. After her recovery, she made her presence felt every now and then by raiding granaries or domestic storehouses. Unfortunately, being a 3.5 tonne animal, even the mildest of her efforts to find food in such places caused damage to buildings, and fear amongst locals. However, they never developed a grudge against her.

During the field season of 2013-14, I encountered Solitary Reaper quite often, either when she was sleeping during the day in the Lantana understorey of Eucalyptus patches or when she was busy, raiding backyards of homes at night. By then everybody could recognise her, thanks to her frequent visits and her identifying marks; she never managed to maintain a low profile.

I was studying stress responses in elephants for which I observed her movements closely, trying to understand her range of behaviours when she was close to human habitation, and monitoring her stress hormone levels (from her dung!). She was one of the many individuals I observed and monitored. She remained docile, despite people’s attempts to get as close to her as possible. Surprisingly, my hormone analyses later showed that although she was calm behaviourally, she was one of the most stressed individuals (in terms of stress hormone levels). This was unexpected not only because of what I had seen of her behaviour but also based on what local people and forest department officials said of her: she was a highly adapted individual, living largely outside the protected area, in a completely human-dominated landscape.

After submitting my thesis, I returned to field in late July. After two months of grappling with data and statistics, I longed to see her soon.

Undaunted by the crowd

Undaunted by the crowd

Two days before the 68th anniversary of Indian independence I saw her again, surrounded by tens of people right in the middle of a housing colony, her freedom in this matrix landscape of forests and settlements being threatened by loud cackles, fire crackers and tractors. Yet she stood alone undaunted, devouring jackfruits. When she was driven off the colony after hours of persistent efforts, she turned around, looked at the gathering, and delivered an inexplicable stare. She seemed to ask multiple questions of us. I wondered if we had answers for her. And in that moment, I recalled what Rana, one of my supervisors had said about her, that she is one who is calm outside, but fighting a battle within.

She retreat as the crowd try to drive her away using truck and siren

She retreats as the crowd try to drive her away using truck and siren

Postscript: She continues to amuse and intrigue me with her behaviour even today, and has motivated me to investigate behavioural modifications and adaptations in elephants. Her stress hormone metabolite levels continue to remain high even while she continues to appear unperturbed. She has, more recently, also started to associate more often with the bachelor herd in the landscape, seemingly enjoying their company, says Ganesh, my colleague.

Note: This article was also published in Nature Conversations, an anthology of Nature Writings, published by the Nature Conservation Foundation as part of its twentieth year celebrations in 2016. Thanks to Pavithra Sankaran for comments on the draft.