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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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;
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.