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ENVIRONMENT-INDIA: Kerala Has Elephantine Problems

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, Mar 11 2009 (IPS) - Among attractions for visitors to southern Kerala state is the way elephants are seen closely integrated into the religious lives of the people.

Kerala is seeing increasing instances of temple elephants running amok. Credit: K.S. Hari Krishnan/IPS

Kerala is seeing increasing instances of temple elephants running amok. Credit: K.S. Hari Krishnan/IPS

But a spate of incidents since October, in which 14 people were trampled or gored to death, confirms that all is not well with the man-elephant relationship here.

October to April marks the temple festival season in Kerala when the participation of caparisoned elephants in religious processions and ceremonies at the shrines and temples that dot the landscape is considered indispensable.

Overall, there is a shortage of animals that have been specially trained to tolerate the heat, dust, noise and tumult of a typical temple procession.

Rates differ according to the size and majesty of the animal but an average beast earns for its owner about 25,000 rupees (500 US dollars) per day. Individual animals, known to the public by their names, fetch undisclosed sums to make a ‘star’ appearance.

Large temples like the famous Vadakunnanthan (Lord of the North) at Thrissur city may feature a lineup of 50 of the finest specimens, while the smaller, less resourceful shrines, make do with the brief appearance of a single, small pachyderm.

Lately, churches and mosques, also numerous in Kerala’s uniquely pluralistic society, have taken to the practice of having an elephant in attendance at festivals. Some 56 percent of the state’s 32 million people are Hindu while 24 percent are Muslims and 20 percent Christians.

Stressed from being constantly rushed from one place of worship to another and made to take part in lengthy processions, to the accompaniment of batteries of wind and percussion instruments, the elephants frequently run amok and attack their mahouts or others. Of the 14 people killed by elephants since October, nine were mahouts.

“It is a paradox that we worship elephants inside temples and ill-treat them outside. No Hindu scripture says elephants should be used for temple festivals,” says Kummanam Rajasekharan, general secretary of the Hindu Aikyavedi (Hindu Unity Forum).

‘’The elephants are poorly managed and painfully exploited. When the cruelty becomes unbearable, the elephants retaliate,” V.K. Venkitachalam, secretary of the Ana Premi Sanghom (Elephant Lovers Association) told IPS.

Venkitachalam said that since October at least 11 elephants have died as result of stress, starvation and thirst. “Elephants are made to toil hard in the heat and dust, and that enrages the normally mild-mannered animals.”

According to statistics maintained by Venkitachalam’s organisation, between January 2006 and December 2008, 207 elephants died in Kerala, mostly from mistreatment. During 2005-08, there were 938 instances of elephants running amok. In the three years since January 2006, a total of 70 mahouts have been killed by their animals.

He listed ‘’unskilled mahouts, inadequate care, rigorous work, use of intoxicants, starvation, stress, aggression and pollution in the streets,” as among the factors which lead to increasing incidents of conflict between man and elephant.

Prabati Baruah, India’s only female elephant trainer, said there was a serious shortage of trained mahouts with the skills to quickly detect elephant moods and handle the giants appropriately – for example when they are in heat. ‘’Unskilled keepers often cannot detect symptoms of ‘musth’ (heat) when male elephants become aggressive and display behavioural changes,” she said.

Baruah said the training of elephants to participate in temple festivals and public functions is often unscientific and involves cruelty.

When a male elephant is in musth – a state that may last two months – its testosterone levels rise and, visibly, the temporal gland located between the eyes and ears oozes secretions. But by that time the tolerance levels of the animal may have passed the danger point.

Because of the demand for elephants during the temple festival season, mahouts and owners may decide to take a risk and overlook a musth condition. According to Venkitachalam, 56 elephants, displaying clear signs of being in musth, were counted at work this season.

‘’There is a belief that an elephant in musth can be controlled by partially starving it and by beating it or poking it with sharp crooks,” said Venkitachalam. ‘’And, typically, when an elephant becomes violent, the public reacts by hurling stones at the animal and infuriating it even more.”

Venkitachalam recalled a recent incident in which the public applauded and cheered when an enraged bull elephant, at the Sankarankulangara temple in Punkunnam town, overturned a lorry. ‘’It showed a general lack of understanding among the public of these sensitive creatures.”

While strictures framed under the ‘Kerala Captive Elephants (Management and Maintenance) Rules 2003,’ require elephant owners and mahouts to maintain records of feeding, vaccination and treatment, work and movement, the rules are routinely flouted.

Under the 2003 rules it is mandatory to have a daily fitness certificate issued by a government veterinary officer before an elephant can be moved from one place to another.

Inter-district transport of captive elephants requires the certificate from the chief wildlife warden. “In practice, these rules are rarely followed,” alleges Venkitachalam.

Elephants cannot, under the rules, be made to walk long distances on paved roads or made to stand for prolonged periods on concrete surfaces since these affect the health of their feet.

The rules prohibit the “bursting of crackers when the elephant is around,” and specifies that a distance of four metres to be maintained between elephants and temple drummers.

Elephants are usually transported from one festival venue to another in trucks, but sometimes they are made to walk miles to save money.

In a bid to keep a tab on elephant movements, the wildlife department has begun a programme of microchipping all captive elephants.

A wildlife department officer told IPS that, so far, 696 elephants have been microchipped and that, of these, 240 were found being moved about unauthorisedly. “This means that the poor animals were being overworked,” the official, who asked not to be named, said.

Investigations into why the elephant, ‘Ramachandran,’ ran amok on Feb. 6, goring a 48-year-old woman to death and injuring over 60 people, revealed that it had been made to participate in two separate processions back-to-back in the Kochi area. This was in violation of a specific rule that says elephants must be rested for 12 hours between processions.

Last month, the leading animal rights organisation, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), launched a campaign in Kerala to increase public awareness on the cruelties that captive elephants are being subjected to.

PETA’s coordinator of campaigns and legal affairs, N.G. Jayasimha said: ‘’Elephants are used for playing polo, paraded at temple festivals and used in circuses. But few know that elephants can communicate with each other and that they also cry,” said Jayasimha.

Jayasimha says that all that is necessary to do is to ensure that existing rules protecting the animals be implemented rigorously. PETA is planning to carry out extensive campaigns, this year, highlighting the plight of elephants in captivity.

He said elephants at temples are kept constantly shackled with chains linking one fore leg to a hind leg making it difficult for them to move about or rest. They are confined to limited areas whereas in the wild they are known to range over a living space of about 200 sq km.

”Captive conditions cannot meet the complex needs of elephants. These majestic animals belong in the wild, but instead they are locked up like criminals,” Jayasimha said.

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