Worshippers at a temple in the Indian state of Kerala have welcomed a life-size robotic elephant presented by animal rights group Peta.
Indian temples, particularly in Kerala and other southern states, often keep elephants for religious purposes, using them in festival processions.
Animal rights activists, however, have long demanded an end to this tradition, saying it amounts to cruelty, particularly when the elephants are surrounded by noisy crowds and exploding firecrackers.
At first glance, Irinjadappilly Raman — the new mechanical elephant that arrived at the temple on Sunday — looks surprisingly lifelike, with expressive eyes and a moving trunk and tail.
But it is actually made of iron and rubber, and mounted on wheels so that it can be moved easily.
A ceremony was conducted at the Irinjadappilly Sree Krishna Temple near Thrissur, where the new elephant was welcomed by the head priest following a prayer.
“We are extremely happy and grateful to receive this mechanical 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,” head priest Rajkumar Namboothiri said.
There are more than 2,600 captive elephants in the country, according to the Ministry of Environment and Forests' Project Elephant journal.
Of these, about 1,821 are privately owned and used for tourism, entertainment and religious purposes.
These elephants often live in abysmal conditions: They are chained, get little exercise, are fed improper diets and kept in noisy surroundings.
“Many have extremely painful foot ailments and leg wounds from being chained to concrete for hours on end, and most do not get adequate food, water or veterinary care, let alone any semblance of a natural life,” Peta said.
Although the commercial trade of elephants is banned in India, a loophole in wildlife protection laws means that the elephants continue to be kept in captivity: The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 makes an exception for elephants that are “gifted” or “inherited”, a clause exploited by elephant owners for illegal trading.
“The frustration of captivity leads elephants to develop and display abnormal behaviour,” said Peta.
“At their wit’s end, frustrated elephants often snap and try to break free, running amok and so harming humans, other animals and property.”
Captive elephants killed 526 people in Kerala in a 15-year period, Peta said, citing figures compiled by the Heritage Animal Task Force.
Thechikkattukavu Ramachandran, an elephant that has been in captivity for about 40 years and is one of the most often used on Kerala’s festival circuit, has reportedly killed 10 people as well as three elephants.