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.

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20 thoughts on “An Open Letter

  1. A very well and articulated presentation of the reality. I do remember a childhood incident when a mahout could not enter the temple premises due to a death in his family and he just told his elephant to go in and do the sheeveli without him by its side. Such is the true man elephant relationship. It is easy to comment based on falsified information available on social media. The real cause is often forgotten. Thanks for writing and emphasising how the issues can be resolved.

  2. Its really an eye opening article…and it reminds the real facts we have forgotten purposefully…as I am a part of a famous festival at thrissur dist. I know the actual reasons behind this field…like u said its not possible I think till the owners, festival committees, mahouts, common people and especially social media fans gets the change in their mentality …so many people pretending as they love elephants ,BT that’s just for fame and money..they don’t even have a single bit of kindness towards them..there are so many people who are on ground already to solve this BT that’s really need a good crowd …and am agreeing that the change will not happen over night or with in a fortnight…BT am afraid that ,when everything come in place may b there is one or two elephants left….

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  5. I have read your statement, and whilst I appreciate its content, I feel that the point that those you see as ’emotive people’ are trying to make is that elephants, be they in Africa or Asia, are very special creatures in that they have, for hundreds of years, traditionally interacted with we humans.
    They have families,like us, their females create nurseries, like us, and as such, we, as humans, should act empathictacly rather than abusively towards them.
    Many of he pictures on the internet are not ‘set ups’, they are not dramatised, they need to be explained. Because what they seem to show is extreme cruelty to animals who are in the main, gentle giants, bullied and mis-treated, when they could be, with love and care, useful members of the human society.

    Why bother to be needlessly cruel to gentle animals, (who can’t help being huge), when being kind gets better results????

    • Agree. Elephants do have complex societies comparable to that of humans, or perhaps even more than that and we all know that pretty well. Perhaps the motivation behind the people writing such article is also the same, but the way they are written are not going to help in anyway, rather jeopardise the efforts on ground. It is good to realise that. And I don’t think anybody is needlessly cruel to these animals. Historically the process of taming an elephant has based on principles of dominance establishment, which perhaps needs revision, which again can happen gradually; neither the mahouts or the already trained elephants can pickup the lessons overnight.

  6. Absolutly a true picture of what is happening now a days. Now a days since the Mahouts are changed every other day, there is now well formed elephant mahout relation ship. I am also of the opinion the they should not be taken in lorries. they should walk to destination, only then they will have some exercise and digestion. an elephant should walk about 25 to 30 KM a day minimum.

  7. I agree with Penny Thom’s comments and cannot forget the photo of the temple elephant chained on the ground with his back leg in the air unable to move. Nothing can justify such unnecessary cruelty. Unless things change I fear that the elephant population will one day be extinct.

    • I have explained that in the blog post above. The elephant is not tied with back leg in the air, unable to move. Its a photograph and captures only what happens at that moment, and how do you infer what happened before or after that? During musth, elephants tend to display several behavioural acts, including goring the soil, lifting hind leg and scratching etc, all of which could be understood if you have seen one. So do not just make conclusions before you see things.

      • Again, I am not justifying that the practices are devoid of flaws. They need to be rectified but not through mere outcries and wrong reporting. Notice one thing that none of these people who raise it as an issue give alternate solutions to the problem, which I’m attempting at, in this post.

  8. Many years ago, when I started to love books and history, I read anything I could get my hands on,
    ( my parents subscribed to The Reprint Society, London. very British middle class). A book I really enjoyed, and am about to re-read after 60 years, was Elephant Bill by Lt-Col J.H.Williams OBE, first published in 1950.

    As an eight year old child I thought it was a brilliant book, and as an innocent animal-lover, who was unaware of animal cruelty, I desperately wanted to visit what the author had seen.

    My memory of the book was the amazing rapport between mahout and elephant, a team of mutual respect and, importantly, loyalty. SO I am going to re-read the book in the next couple of days, to enable me to make less emotive comments (!), and hopefully discuss seriously, and perhaps come to a mutually realistic view! Possibly even a solution to something that could be brilliant rather than how it currently appears.

    regards, Penny Thom

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