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.




2 thoughts on “Elephant in the Room: From Reactive to Proactive

  1. I dont really understand how you want people to be proactive in engagement with stakeholders… You have not been clear about what you believe or would have for these captive elephants? As one of those involved with media campaigns aimed at finishing the use of elephants for entertainment and the like inc religious festivals I know that these elephants can never return to the wild, as do most of us. The only way around this for the sake of the elephants is sanctuary, positive reinforcement training in protected contact for mahouts of the elephants in the sanctuary or sanctuaries plural – and additional education about the true nature of elephants. We can all get together and fund sanctuaries, I think a sizeable donation from elephant owners out of the revenues that they have earned over the years would also be expected. There is no way I would support the continued ‘rent an elephant’ mentality. With respect, I urge you to be clearer in your own engagement with us about a future for the captive elephants of Kerala.

    • Thanks for your message.
      It sounds to me like a great, but impractical, idea to set up a sanctuary to rehabilitate these 600 odd elephants of which a sizable number–530 odd–are males. When forest departments with all the land available with them are striving hard to maintain the elephants in their custody, due to lack of money and manpower, how are we planning to do the same with the private tuskers? Unless there is some legal obligation, none of the owners are also going to engage financially in this initiative.
      And regarding my stand in this, it is pretty evident in all my posts, that I do not support elephants in captivity. However, my training as a biologist urges me to think practically and have pragmatic and plausible ideas or plans and not have romantic, Utopian ideologies.
      Being proactive in managing current population would at least aid in bringing down the accidents and losses associated. My next set of writings will focus particularly on those lines. My earlier blog post titled Open Letter also mentions about some of these proactive approaches. You can perhaps take a look at it.

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