4 – Temples, Elephants and Traditions – B. R. Haran

Elephants in Tamil Nadu

B. R. HaranFor the issue of captivity of elephants in circuses, temples and places owned by private persons, a solution is not possible without analyzing the reasons for their death and suffering. If the reasons are identified, it would be possible to arrive at a lasting solution by taking the required steps thereby ensuring the welfare of elephants. In the main, elephants in captivity suffer from loneliness; lack of nutritious food; lack of infrastructure; torture by mahout; and lack of proper medical care. – B. R. Haran

Elephant at the Kundrakudi Murugan Temple

Loneliness 

The elephant is not a domestic animal and cannot be domesticated. It is a forest-dwelling animal, a Schedule 1 animal protected under the Wildlife Protection Act. Elephants live in herds and as a huge family. Among animals which live on land, the elephant is as intelligent as humans, with high cognitive abilities; they have a very high sense of belonging to a family and family relations come to the fore when they rear an infant through infancy, childhood and adolescence until they become adult elephants.

Mother-child bonding, and herd responsibility towards the newborn is very strong. Elephant herds are matriarchal where female elephants have a special standing. Elephants have a highly developed mother, daughter, sister, aunt bonding. That is why a female elephant is always surrounded by other elephants during pregnancy, child-birth and after child-birth.

The first atrocity committed by man on an elephant is separating the calf from its mother and family and keeping it isolated. The elephants in most of the temples and private places have been poached (or bought) after separating them from their families when they were 4 or 5 years old. Having been separated from their mothers and families, the young elephants get affected psychologically, and grow up with the same feeling of isolation compounded by a sense of alienation.

The owners may presume that it has got used to its loneliness in course of time, but the fact remains that the elephant yearns for love, affection and companionship of its kind for the rest of its life in captivity; deprived of all social relationships with other elephants even their primal needs are left unsatisfied. While tuskers in the wild and in musth are rarely violent, captive tuskers during musth turn violent because they are forcefully restrained by chains and human brutality from fulfilling the basic natural instinct to mate.

Wild elephant dies after capture

Lack of nutritious food

As elephant is wildlife, it requires a huge area of flora and fauna with lots of trees, plants, greens and various types of crops. They have the habit of going from one place to another, eating whatever they get on the way. They keep traveling for days, months and years and return by the same way as they have a great memory. Such routes are called “Elephant Corridors”. On an average, elephants spend 16 hours in gathering food. As their digestive capacity is limited (only 40% of what is eaten gets digested), they have to consume far more than they can actually digest. An adult elephant can eat food weighing between 140 kgs to 270 kgs. Elephants eat various kinds of food such as leaves, trunks, greens, roots, beets, tubers, fruits, vegetables and crops.

Those who separate a calf from a happy and independently foraging group do not feed it with such nutritious food. As far as temple elephants are concerned, the temple management has always been indifferent. The authorities leave the responsibility of feeding the elephant to the mahouts, but do not monitor the mahout and the elephant’s routine, including feeding routine. The mahouts are mostly irresponsible and insincere, and do not attend to the actual requirements of the elephant. They do not even keep a track of the stock inventory of the various foods needed to feed the elephant and do not take the lack of stock situations to the notice of concerned officials.

For their part, the temple officials do not keep in touch with the mahouts and arrange for the procurement of the required food items. Food registers are not maintained properly. Mostly the elephants are fed with grass and coconut leaves with very small quantity of rice, ragi and maize. Fruits and vegetables are given in less quantity only.

Temple elephants have another peculiar problem of getting food from devotees who visit the temple. The devotees like to feed the elephants and invariably bring only bananas, coconuts and biscuits. As the elephants consume more of these three items, their health gets affected. Due to lack of nutritious food, they become weak and ultimately end up with various kinds of ill-health and sickness. It is an unfortunate truth that elephants suffer due to the indifference and irresponsibility of mahouts and temple officials, despite the temples earning huge revenue.

As for elephants in private captivity, they have to eat whatever the owner gives. They do not have any other opportunity to eat other kinds of nutritious food. Temple elephants have a different source in devotees, but private elephants do not have any other source. We have already seen in the cases of privately owned elephants like Ammu, Lakshmi and Faseela that private owners are incapable of feeding nutritious food to elephants which is why many elephants fall sick and die due to weakness, obesity, arthritis and various other problems.

Captive elephants suffer due to lack of nutritious food.

Elephant with wounds on front legs from chains

Lack of infrastructure

Most elephant shelters in circuses, temples and private places are sans convenience and other basic amenities. Being wildlife, the elephant can adapt and accommodate itself only in a forest-like environment. Even if forests, rivers and large fields are not available, it should at least have a few acres of land with flora and fauna and plenty of water. They love water and swim well. They suck water through their trunks and splash it on themselves enjoying the chilled bath. Similarly they enjoy a sand bath and mud bath and take these baths quite often to protect their soft skin from heat and sun-rays. In temples and private places, captive elephants are deprived of such facilities for their entire life, which has serious repercussions on their health.

As we have seen, elephants can only adapt to natural surfaces for standing and walking. They need grasslands or sandy surfaces as their foot-pads are very soft and thin. As they have straight and long legs and large foot-pads, they can stand for hours together. But they find it difficult to stand or walk for hours together on cement, concrete and granite surfaces. Temple authorities and private owners wrongly assume that the elephants get accustomed to such hard surfaces in course of time and fail to keep watch on the foot-pads of elephants. That is why the legs and foot-pads of captive elephants get affected easily and quickly. They suffer with pain, swelling, injuries and rotting, abscesses and wounds with pus and blood oozing out of them (which is how Koodal Azhagar Temple elephant Maduravalli and private captive elephant Ammu in Pazhani died).

Elephant is a large animal with an average height of 3 meters and weight 6000 kilograms. Hence it needs plenty of exercise. As it is wildlife, it can walk long distances through fields, forests, rivers along hilly terrains, which is great exercise. As noted, it spends 16 hours daily for gathering food and enjoys sand baths and water baths. Its natural environment provides excellent conditions for exercise. But, in temples and private places, there is absolutely no exercise for them, or even space for walking. Forcing them to circumambulate the temple once or twice a day or taking them for a walk on tar roads is not an exercise but torture.

Elephants are made to walk from one town to another, which traumatizes them. It is atrocious that Forest Department officials permit this. An elephant cannot walk hundreds of kilometers on tarred surfaces. That would immediately result in injuries on its foot-pads. The owners obtain permits on grounds that they are taking the elephants for temple festivals, while actually they use them for begging, which the authorities know fully well.

Due to non-availability of water bodies, captive elephants are given water bath only through water hose. Hosepipes are used to bathe elephants in some temples. Elephants need to be bathed at least twice a day, but in many places they are either bathed only once a day or once in two or three days! Deprivation of sand bath and mud bath leads to skin infections. Elephants need mud baths, splashing in water, throwing mud on their bodies, because like dogs, elephants too do not have sweat glands to release heat from their bodies. When there are no ponds or rivers close to temples, and when temple authorities and mahouts do not bathe the elephants at least twice a day, it leads to grave health issues.

Being forest animals, elephants need to enjoy fresh air in natural and forest-like environment. Captive elephants are deprived of such an environment. They are just provided with shelters which are cramped, dirty, unhygienic, ill-ventilated and located in crowded areas. This causes infections and serious communicable diseases contracted via physical contact with humans. Captive elephants are in physical contact with their mahouts and the hundreds of devotees they are forced to bless for money.

Tamil Nadu being a state with a good elephant population, it lacks having the required number of rehabilitation centers. Indeed, India as a whole doesn’t have the requisite number of rehabilitation centers. Even in the available government forest camps, temple and other captive elephants are not admitted for fear of possible spread of communicable diseases. The Tamil Nadu government refused to house elephant Gomathi in the natural environs of Vandalur zoo citing fear of communicable diseases from captive elephants spreading to animals residing in the zoo. Sick elephants are given treatment in their own places. The government must pay serious attention to this important issue.

Elephant with mahout in Tamil Nadu

Mahout's Ankush

Torture by mahouts

Another important reason for the pain and suffering experienced by captive elephants is the cruel treatment meted out to them by the mahouts. Mahouts are in total physical custody of captive elephants and play a very big role in the health and well-being of the elephant in their charge. So behind every neglected elephant there is always an abusive mahout.

There is a psychological aspect here. The mahouts have a mindset that they have to keep the elephants always under their control. They feel that elephants which do not fear the mahouts, would not be obedient and would be difficult to control. So they keep them chained, often use the ankush (goad) and beat them with sticks while walking and bathing them. Most ankush used by the mahouts have sharp bull-hooks. The ankush is a banned instrument but every temple, every mahout, has it and all mahouts use it both covertly and publicly.

Elephants are intelligent; have extraordinary hearing and smelling (sniffing) senses. They are self-conscious and can easily recognize and understand what is being shown to them. Instead of treating such intelligent animals with love and affection, the mahouts treat them cruelly just to keep them always in a state of fear.

In truth, the mahouts fear elephants as the animals are huge and strong. Hence they prefer to keep them under control, using brutal methods to break the elephant in body and spirit. Most mahouts are alcoholic, to hide their fear of elephants. Under the influence of alcohol, they tend to be crueller to the elephants.

As most mahouts are alcoholic, they are always in need of money to cater to their needs, and so use the elephants for begging. For this, they keep the hapless animals standing for hours together on cement or concrete or granite surfaces and also shift the animals from one place to another by making them walk on tarred roads. They do not feed them with the required nutritious food. This happens with most elephants under captivity of private owners.  Even temple elephants suffer the same fate as temple authorities do not intervene when mahouts take even temple elephants for begging. So naturally, the elephants suffer ill-health.

The number of properly trained mahouts who have a clear understanding of the gentle characteristics of elephants is very less. The Forest Department of Tamil Nadu has only 39 mahouts in service. Other mahouts in the state belong to families of “traditional” mahouts, in the sense that they hail from a family of mahouts. This is nothing but a tradition of cruelty. From birth, these mahouts see only “captive elephants” and how they are “treated”. The last two to three generations, including the present one, are such mahouts only. They have wooden hearts and do not hesitate to beat and torture the elephants.

Mahouts are responsible for the arrangements needed to be made for regular medical checkup and treatment of elephants. As they are with them throughout the day, they have to inform the concerned authorities when elephants suffer injuries or other ailments, so that proper medical treatment is taken up immediately. Moreover, mahouts must organize monthly medical checkups and maintain a medical register recording the regular checkups and treatments given. But mahouts do not focus on this at all.

Temple elephant wearing shoes to protect feet in Salem

Lack of proper medical treatment

A significant reason for the pain, suffering and ultimate death of captive elephants is the absence of required timely medical treatment and qualified veterinarians. The Tamil Nadu Animal Husbandry Department focuses only on the cattle industry, dairy development, poultry and fisheries. For cattle, the department focuses only on hybrid and Jersey breeds and not native breeds. It focuses on increasing revenue through dairy (Aavin Milk) development, beef industry, poultry and fisheries, and implementing schemes for the welfare of the farmers involved in those trades.

The beef industry earns huge revenue for the state. The Tamilnadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (TANUVAS) has a department, Department of Livestock Products Technology, exclusively for Meat Science. This department has two courses namely, LPT 312 Abattoir Practices and Animal Products Technology and LP 321 Meat Science Animal By-Products Technology. 

There are only 8 Colleges under TANUVAS, of which one is College of Food and Dairy Technology and another two are Institute of Poultry Production and Management and Post Graduate Research Institute in Animal Sciences. The remaining four cater to Veterinary and Research. A few private medical colleges have veterinary sciences departments.

The Tamil Nadu Veterinary Council comes under the Animal Husbandry, Dairy and Fisheries Department of the State Government. The Council has 5351 Veterinarians registered as of August 2013, but it is not clear how many are employed by Forest Department and Animal Husbandry, Dairy and Fisheries Department.

What is happening in reality is that those who complete graduation and post-graduation in the above mentioned eight colleges prefer to join Government service as they get good salary. Most are appointed in the offices of Dairy Development, Poultry Development and Meat Industry. Those who do not get Government appointments join private hospitals or start their own clinics.

For our understanding, let us divide veterinary science into three divisions namely, treatment for small animals (dog, cat, goats, pigs, chicken, etc.), treatment for large animals (cattle, horses, etc.) and treatment for wildlife (elephants, lions, and tigers etc.). Unfortunately, we have very few veterinarians with experience and expertise to treat wildlife. The Forest Department of Tamil Nadu has only five doctors. Three are stationed in Arignar Anna Wildlife Sanctuary in Vandalur near Chennai, and the remaining two have to take care of the animals in the other sanctuaries in the State.

In such a situation, it would only be a remote possibility for elephants in temples and private places to get timely and quality treatment if they fall sick or get injured. Even if some locally available veterinarians are summoned, they do not have the expertise and experience to treat wildlife, particularly elephants. Ultimately the captive elephants suffer due to lack of proper treatment leading to prolonged illness and delayed recuperation. Sometimes, the condition results in death.

(To be continued…)   

» B. R. Haran is a senior journalist in Chennai and consulting editor for Uday India.

Dead Bull Elephant

Elephants killed by electric fences in Tamil Nadu (2015)

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