GANESHA IN BONDAGE
Sunday, 24 August 2014 | Rukmini Sekhar | in Agenda
Elephants’ future in private captivity is now an exposed cesspool of ambiguity and corruption. If laws are not amended soon and fail to reflect the concerns of conservationists, wildlife enthusiasts, activists and well-intentioned public, India will lose the ground it has achieved in wildlife conservation and animal protection laws. Ganesh Chaturthi is a good time to take stock of the reality of captive elephants and give meaning to the festival, says Rukmini Sekhar
Ganesh Chaturthi falls on August 29, a few days from now. The rumble of celebrations for the elephant god will soon turn into a roar of frenzy. At the end of 10 days, the statue of Ganesha will leave each house to the rambunctious shouts of‘Ganpati Bappa Morya’ as processions wend their way towards the sea to immerse the elephant god.
But what is actually immersed is the liberty of India’s 4,000 elephants living in bondage. I write this article just before this festival to draw attention to the reality that the god we celebrate is in chains. This is a plea to demand the release of India’s captive elephants and take collective action to make sure that every elephant is free to be an elephant in its natural wilderness, never a slave to human masters. As well as to demand that no new elephants are captured from the forests.
A video went viral about a month ago. At the Government elephant camp in Sakrebyle, Shimoga district, Karnataka, an elephant calf was shown being beaten mercilessly by a group of ‘trainers’. The calf, wrenched from his mother who was watching by the side, had no idea what wrong he had done. The shocking video recorded the calf’s screams and captured the brutality on camera. When asked to stop, they replied between blows, “Yeh junglee janwar ko aadmi ke layak banane ka tarika hai.”(This is the way we want to make this wild animal fit for humans).
This savagery, euphemised as training, takes place in full view of the tourists who were visiting the Government forest camp at the time. Says Suparna Ganguly of Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (WRRC) and Chairperson, CUPA, Bangalore, “Elephant families have well defined norms, akin to a human society and an elephant’s lifelong attachment to its nodal family group is well known and documented. Elephants are gentle and patient teachers to their young. The youngster’s best learning is imbibed by watching their adult family members over a long life of nearly 70 years. They have a sense of self, recognition, disparate clan members, humor, play and grief.”
The cruel human interference in the disruption of families and herds by capturing calves for commerce, festivals and pomp, and thereafter their brutal training which is the fate of all captured elephants, destabilises the family structure of elephants and ultimately their survival in the wild.
Raju’s recent rescue on July 4 in Allahabad also went viral. Tortured for nearly 50 years, his shackles spiked, speared with bull hooks, malnourished and exhausted, he shed tears as his chains were finally removed by a team of rescuers from Wildlife SOS. Behavioural scientists have described elephants as ‘near persons’, so it was possible that he got emotional. Raju was probably captured soon after he was born and sold again and again. He may have had up to 27 owners. He was forced to work as a begging prop on the side of the road and at temples and often rented out for weddings, festivals and other celebrations. All the while he was kept in control with torture and starvation. He is free at last, but experts say it will take Raju years to accept human kindness.
On July 1, 2013, the death of 58-year-old Bijlee, the ‘working elephant’, made international news. A leading daily reported, “Bijlee’s owners forced her to work for 50 years by begging on the streets of Mumbai and Thane and standing at weddings, paying little attention to her health or diet. Injured by an earlier accident, she finally collapsed and died. Bijlee, who also suffered from obesity due to bad diet, degenerative joints and osteoporosis, was a victim of long-term and continuous neglect and abuse by her owner. The release of Sundar (nee Santu from Assam), who was abused in a Kolhapur temple, made headlines till he was finally relocated to a zoo.”
“Kerala tourism trumps Paris on Facebook”, stated a report in a daily on August 12, 2014. Trump Paris it may, but God’s Own Country rides this encomium on the backs of its hundreds of terribly unhappy captive elephants.
One of Kerala Tourism’s unique sales propositions is to flaunt and parade its nearly 800 elephants in various temple festivals. These are the ‘Devadasis’ of the Gods, dedicated to the deity in perennial bondage though no scripture or texts says that elephants must be an essential feature of a temple festival or any other ritual.
The season for these festivals is during the hottest months of the year — from January to June. A study by Beauty Without Cruelty (BWC) says that the elephants walk for nearly 12 hours continuously on hot tarmac for nearly 20 km a day and are not given the required 230 litres of water and 250 kg of food daily. They end up losing nearly 300 kg during a single festive season as they keep earning for their owners, mahouts and contractors at the rate of Rs30,000 to sometimes Rs1 lakh during this ‘harvest’ season. After all, they have to make good the nearly Rs40 lakh to Rs1 crore that they have spent in buying the elephant from North East India (illegally, of course), claiming that they were born in captivity, complete with fictitious certificates.
We are faced today with modern progressive consciousness and traditional exploitative practices. We have believed for years that the ‘tame’ elephant was a glamorous and necessary appendage for entertainment, celebrations and festivals. But the desperate and tortured lives of captive elephants are no longer acceptable to any progressive society. In 2008, the book, Gods in Chains, commissioned by CUPA and WRRC in Bangalore first lifted the veil of secrecy, confusion and lies surrounding the lives of captive elephants in trade, entertainment, tourism, festivals and commerce in India. Today, these gods in chains are asking us, the people of India, to play a prominent role in stopping captive elephant abuse as well as the Indian Government to re-enact and implement elephant protection laws.
How are elephants ‘trained’ generally? Simply put, through extreme torture and violence, which aims to do only one thing — break its spirit till it arrives at a state of ‘learned helplessness.’ The torture methods are somewhat similar throughout India. The dreaded bull hook keeps piercing their 107 sensitive points, mainly on the back, feet, head and anal region. A small spear is jabbed behind their ears to make them obey. And then there is the axe which cuts deep, resulting in chronic pain. Many mahouts have blinded the elephant in the right eye to keep them from getting alarmed by moving vehicles when in a parade. Diagonally opposite legs of calves are often spike-chained, one leg with a 20-foot-long chain and the other with a 2-foot-long one, and the chains are interchanged till the bruises, which initially bleed, become hard and calloused. And as if all this is not enough, there are always beatings and starvation.
So for every dart thrown, tug of war played, bicycles ridden, standing on their heads, jumping through hoops of fire, painting pictures, playing polo, ferrying and bowing down for tourists, travelling long distances in cramped boxes, performing tricks, begging on the streets, standing at temple festivals and weddings with the ear shattering sounds of musical instruments and crackers, wrenched from their babies, the elephant convulses with untold grief as it is first and foremost a wild animal right down to its DNA and not meant to be trained and tortured for human entertainment.
Elephants are long-ranging animals with no political borders. They roam over large tracts of land feeding in close-knit family herds headed by a matriarch along with uncles, aunties, cousins and grandparents. Who hasn’t been thrilled at the site of these gentle giants in their natural habitats, walking and feeding peacefully? But captive elephants stand in abject loneliness for hours on end, chained to their poles. Like dolphins and the great apes, they are group animals and loneliness makes them depressed and psychotic. Standing for long hours causes painful foot ailments because their footpads are meant for soft earth floors, not burning hot tar roads. They are deprived of a good soak in a water body followed by a mud bath.
Dr Joyce Poole, elephant scientist and advocate for captive elephants, says, “The complexity and depth of the elephant psyche is terrorised and traumatised by captivity. Captive elephants are often referred to as ‘domesticated’. Captive elephants are tamed, not domesticated. No elephant has ever or will ever be born that willingly adapts itself to a life of service to humans.”
So then, where does India stand in the light of all this? Ignorance, blind tradition, corruption, commerce, political clout, status symbolism and faulty implementation of the law, in word and spirit, have increased over the years.
The Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA) was passed in 1972 and amended in 2002. The Indian elephant was declared a Schedule 1 animal (like the tiger) worthy of topmost priority and protection. In October 2010, the elephant was formally declared a heritage animal. The amended law says that no animal born after 1972 can be domesticated or used commercially, but they are openly bought and sold including at the famous Sonepur Mela in Bihar. Elephants fetch several thousands if not lakhs of rupees in each transaction. Elephant traders claim that elephants have been born in captivity while the reality is that they are captured and sold illegally.
Elephants’ future in private captivity is now an exposed cesspool of ambiguity and corruption. For instance, Section 40 (2A) of the WLPA gives protection to all Schedule 1 animals, but Section 40 (2B) of the same Act nullifies it by saying “except for the live elephant”. What does this mean? We need clarity and amendment of this clause.
According to the Forest Act, only a ‘rogue elephant’ or a known herd of regular crop raiders can be captured with the express assessment of the Chief Wildlife Warden (CWW). He alone is authorised to give permission for captured elephants to go out of the camps for any reason whatsoever.
Surendra Varma of Asian Elephant Research and Conservation Programme says, “It has come to light that Chief Ministers, Governors and politicians are overriding the CWW and giving these permissions. However, according to the law, it is illegal to buy or sell elephants for any religious or commercial activity or domesticated for private ownership. But poor law enforcement allows for individual ownerships, which includes temples.” Further, Section 40(2) of the WLPA gives a window to the CWW to extend permission for the acquisition of elephants, the authority which has been misused by giving permissions for gift, loan, transfer, lease and many other terms — all euphemisms for sale in unaccounted cash for the wealthy and powerful.
Current laws need to be strengthened to prevent trading, buying and distributing captive elephants within India and to Nepal. Wild elephant calf trafficking is done under the cover of the WLPA, which allows CWWs of States to give permission to so-called ‘owners’ to send their elephants anywhere in India. This is neatly wrapped up in terms such as gift, exchange, loan, lease or donation to religious institutions and private holdings. This needs to end. There should be an immediate formation of care facilities and rescue centres for abused elephants which need to be seized from abusive owners or temple trusts. Management of such centres should be transparent and done through public-private participation.
Close monitoring of elephants in captivity in all States should be mandatory. Government Forest Campmahouts should have refresher courses in the latest developments in training and upkeep. Counselling and anti-alcoholism support for mahouts should be made available. Processions and exposure of captive elephants to crowds, noise and chaos to be strictly prohibited.
What can we the citizens do? Remember that elephants are not working animals and that their place is in the forests. We need to lobby and campaign that all the 4,000 elephants kept in captivity should be kept as elephants in forest camps or rescue centres without putting them on display or used commercially. And let us not participate in tourist rides, jungle safaris, circuses, temple processions, parades and games which involve elephants.
Let us give a real meaning to Ganesh Chaturthi.Rukmini Sekhar is a writer committed to ethics for animals. Email:
(Research inputs: Suparna Ganguly & Surendra Varma)