The torture of elephants and Kerala's troubled history with a revered animal

In 2020, 20 elephants died in captivity, many because of ill treatment

An elephant with a decorated trunk before a religious procession in Ahmedabad. AP
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It was just another day at work for Panacherry Abhimanyu, a captive elephant in the southern Indian state of Kerala.

Paraded for several days at a temple festival, the chained pachyderm was forced to endure earsplitting music and raucous crowds for hours under the hot sun, while submissively taking orders from his new mahout, or handler.

He decided enough was enough.

Abhimanyu charged at his mahout, Radhakrishnan, 33, throwing him off balance and impaling the man repeatedly with his tusk.

This year alone, there have been 78 incidents where elephants ran berserk and attacked people
V K Venkitachalam, Heritage Animal Task Force

The elephant went on a rampage in the neighbourhood, thrashing trees and smashing compound walls before an elephant squad tamed it.

Two years after the accident, Radhakrishnan is still bedridden.

“I did not see it coming. My body is paralysed from the waist down. I cannot sit up, walk or even turn,” he told The National.

He has had seven operations to treat the wounds to his hips and fix a broken spine. Doctors have not told him whether he will ever walk again.

But Radhakrishnan does not blame the animal. “It is not easy for him. He did not have enough rest. He cannot see properly in the right eye and I think he panicked,” he said.

Ironically, Abhimanyu’s fate has not been any better than the mahout. The animal was recently found tethered to a tree.

It was allegedly being tortured, which prompted a division bench of the Kerala High Court to direct the forest department to move it to a rehabilitation centre.

Radhakrishnan, a mahout, suffered numerous injuries and is still bed-ridden after an elephant attack two years ago. Photo: Radhakrishnan family

Abhimanyu's case is just one of a series of incidents that have recently surfaced exposing the issue of abuse of captive elephants in the state.

Despite being a sacred animal, some people still view them as objects which can result in cases of animal abuse.

The elephants captured from the wild often endure cruelty and mistreatment at the hands of their owners and handlers.

Kerala has an estimated 518 elephants ― one of the highest numbers of captive elephants in any state in India. Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Assam and Rajasthan follow suit, where elephants are mostly used in temples and for tourist rides.

Rare fixation with elephants

In a country where elephants are revered as gods, there is a deep religious and cultural affinity. The elephant god Ganesha is worshipped in the Hindu religion as a remover of all obstacles.

Elephants are an inevitable part of religious ceremonies and temple festivals in the state. Even churches and mosques use them in ceremonies. They are an attraction at weddings, processions and commercial events.

But Kerala’s fixation with the wild beasts is unmatched. For instance, Thechikottukavu Ramachandran, an elephant that killed 13 people, won a bidding war to be paraded at the Sree Vishwanatha Temple in Thrissur in February this year.

At Rs675,000 ($8,000), it was the highest sum yet paid for display rights for a captive elephant in Kerala.

“The king of kings is back. I have been waiting only for you,” one of his 120,000 fans posted on a Facebook page dedicated to the one — eyed elephant.

Sudheesh Kumar, an elephant lover, said he is a regular at the annual Thrissur Pooram, billed as the mother of all temple festivals, known for the extravagant display of caparisoned elephants and parasols.

“We do not think of the risks. We love elephants and that is all we care [about],” Mr Kumar told The National.

Panacherry Abhimanyu was tied to a tree in the Thrissur district of Kerala. Alleged torture prompted the Kerala High Court to move the elephant to a rehabilitation centre. Photo: V K Venkitachalam

Rampant abuse

Between 1997 and 2022, elephants killed 1,376 people in Kerala, said V K Venkitachalam, an animal rights activist and secretary of the Heritage Animal Task Force in Thrissur.

“This year alone, there have been 78 incidents where elephants ran berserk and attacked people,” he told The National.

Mr Venkitachalam, who has been involved in a legal battle against elephant cruelty for 30 years, said the captive animals are abused and tortured.

Many have died in captivity resulting in a dwindling number of captive elephants in the state.

In 2018, 34 elephants died in Kerala while the death toll was 29 in 2021 and 20 in 2020.

Mr Venkitachalam said many elephants died as a result of ill treatment.

Wounds inflicted by people are one of the reasons for the death of captive elephants. Kerala Forest Department records show that 16 elephants with visible injuries were seized from private owners in the past decade and rehabilitated at the retirement home in Kottur.

A caparisoned elephant in Kerala with a human-inflicted wound on its head. Photo: Peta India

Mr Venkitachalam has been documenting instances of elephant abuse and has filed more than 15,000 complaints to wildlife and other law-enforcement authorities, including the case of Abhimanyu.

His petitions to stop parading injured and violent elephants led to the state's high court enforcing stricter rules.

In 2003, Kerala passed a set of rules and regulations to prevent cruelty against elephants and these were amended in 2012.

It stipulates that elephants should not be used for more than six hours continuously and those showing any signs of illness, visible wounds or tiredness should not be displayed.

No chains, hobbles with spikes or barbs should be used to tie up the animals.

But Mr Venkitachalam and mahouts that The National interviewed said the rules are often flouted by the Kerala Elephant Owners Federation, an influential group.

Animal activist V K Venkitachalam has been fighting to end elephant abuse in Kerala for more than two decades. Photo: V K Venkitachalam

Lucrative business

Elephants are a lucrative business in the state, which has about 2,800 temples.

An elephant fetches about Rs50,000 per day for a temple parade and celebrity elephants can get Rs300,000.

During the festival season, the demand for captive elephants goes up.

Manoj Ayyappan, who has been a mahout for more than 35 years, said elephants are used as commodities by owners.

“It is a money-making business. They are signing contracts to lease out elephants without any concern for the animal or the handlers,” Mr Ayyappan told The National.

“Sometimes, I had to handle my elephant for more than eight or 10 hours at a stretch. And people often misbehave with the elephants.”

He said elephants are also paraded during the musth period, when bull elephants are highly aggressive due to a rise in reproductive hormones.

“When it gets chaotic, we mahouts have to put our life on the line,” said Mr Ayyappam, who has been attacked by elephants several times.

KB Ganeshkumar, president of The Kerala Elephant Owners Federation and owner of two elephants, admits that cruelty to elephants does happen, but pins most of the responsibility on the handlers.

“Owners can't do much. Many mahouts have substance abuse problems and they treat the elephants quite brutally,” he told The National.

“No matter where I am, I do video calls with my elephants and speak to them often. They have to feel loved.”

A mahout tightens a rope as he drapes a caparison over an elephant's head during the annual Onam festival. Photo: Reuters

Electronic alternative

With the alarming decline of the number of captive elephants in the state, Mr Venkatachalm said the practice of elephant parades in temples and festivals will not last another decade.

“We will not have any more elephants to parade. They are dying one by one, either of old age or of injuries,” he said.

About 70 per cent of captive elephants in Kerala are more than 50 years old. An average life expectancy for an elephant is 80 to 85 years.

Some temples think having an electronic elephant to replace the live ones could be the solution. Irinjadappilly Sree Krishna Temple in Thrissur district made history last month when it introduced a robotic elephant.

Irinjadappilly Raman, a 3.35m-tall and 800kg robotic elephant, made of rubber, metal, fibre and sponge, was an instant hit with devotees.

“We are extremely happy and grateful to receive this elephant, which will help us to conduct our rituals and festivals in a cruelty-free way, and we hope that other temples will also think about replacing live elephants for rituals,” the head priest of the temple, Rajkumar Namboothiri, said.

Peta India, which donated the electronic elephant, said it was a sure-shot solution to avoiding animal cruelty.

Khusboo Gupta, director of Advocacy Projects, Peta India, told The National that they have received inquiries from other temples, which is “a good sign”.

“Elephants must be revered. The best way to do this is by protecting them in forests where they belong,” she said.

A robotic elephant given by Peta to a Kerala temple — in pictures

Updated: March 24, 2023, 6:00 PM


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