(IN) The temple elephant tragedy in India
*A Jumbo Tragedy*
*The failure to enforce rules and stressful use at temple events are forcing
elephants in Kerala to run amok*
*Thrissur and Kochi*
Photo: SK Mohan
EVERY SUMMER, a tragedy unfolds in Kerala. Somewhere or the other, elephants
trained to participate in temple festivals turn on their trainers and the
religious congregation around them and stampede. Sometimes, they kill
people. On April 24, an elephant ran amok at a temple near the coastal
Thrissur city trampling an elderly woman to death and killing two men,
including a mahout (while its own sat atop terrified) who it impaled on its
tusk. It took two hours to control the animal. By the time the elephant was
brought to heel 90 minutes later, it had also destroyed portions of the
temple. This is the season of the Thrissur pooram festival when elephants
are taken and form part of processions to mark one of the most significant
Hindu religious festivals in Kerala. This incident occurred around noon when
the elephant was being taken out of the temple for a ceremonial procession.
Animal rights activists say the temple tragedy underlines the serious flaws
in the management of captive, or tamed, elephants in Kerala. Since January,
rampaging elephants have killed 18 people, including eight mahouts, across
Kerala. According to the Kerala Elephant Lovers' Association, a group of
passionate advocates for the beast, the elephants' fury continues because of
the failure of the government to enforce the rules set out for the
management of the captive elephants. "How can civil society continue to
ignore the failure to adhere to the norms?" asks VK Venkitachalam, head of
the association, who alleges that the authorities at the temple where the
elephant rampaged had not complied with an order of the Kerala High Court
specifying the do's and don'ts for the use of elephants at such events. The
court's order included a restraint on the display of the captive elephants
between 11 am and 3 pm as stipulated by the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
ACCORDING TO the government rules, organisers must begin providing the
forest department daily fitness certificates for the elephants from three
days before an event begins. But such certificates are submitted in bulk
only to get the requirement out of the way. Says Radha Krishnan, an elephant
lover: "Earlier, only kings and lords owned elephants. Now, they are a
necessity at temples, churches and mosques. With a steady increase in number
of festivals, the casualty also increases."
Many elephants are made to quickly cover many kilometres between temples
during the January-May festival season. "Elephant owners and trainers are
warned every year to care for their animals,'' says noted environmentalist
PK Uthaman. "But many elephants still have to endure unhealthy living
conditions and are underfed." Adds another expert, KC Panicker: "The number
of elephants participating in festivals is very large, about 50 to 60. That
has to be reduced. All elephants have to be given a fitness certificate by a
Last year, the Kerala government announced that committees will be set up in
each of the state's 14 districts to ensure that Captive Elephant Management
Photo: SK Mohan
followed. Such committees were to include forest officials and activists.
But no committee has been set up in any district even as elephants run crazy
and kill people, and temples continue to use elephants in their events.
"It not just their beauty but also the faith that the elephant represents
Lord Ganesha that makes the elephant crucial for our festival events," says
P. Chandrasekharan, who runs one of the city's temple administrative bodies,
the Thiruvambadi Devaswom. In most cases, long working hours in sweltering
heat and dehydration puts elephants under extreme stress. "We cannot
directly interfere with individual temple administrative bodies," G.
Sudakaran, who heads the ministry that exclusively caters to the management
of such temple bodies, told TEHELKA. Admitting that it was cruelty that
forced the beasts to the violence, the minister adds: "We will try to bring
in new legislation to stop the use of elephants."
But a ban on the use of elephants in temples would be easily flouted in
festival-crazy Kerala. Elephant lovers as well as festival organisers say
that the need of the hour is a consensus that will bring down the abuse of
the animal. Pointing out that the elephant is Kerala's state animal and that
the state government's emblem also has two elephants in it, government
official KP Sreekumar says almost all festival events have at least one
richly caparisoned elephant.
Currently, some 700 elephants are in captivity across the state. About 260
are with the devaswoms, the temple bodies, while 440 are individually owned.
The largest private collection is 14 elephants. Earlier, only the high-caste
Namboodiris owned elephants. But elephant ownership is now seen as symbolic
of wealth and prestige. Kerala Forest Minister Binoy Viswam had last year
said that all elephants will be 'retired' at the age of 65 years. But no
followup action has been taken. His other elephantfriendly initiatives such
as fixed work hours and safe transportation for the elephants also remain on
"The Kerala Elephant Owners' Association would welcome scientific
initiatives on the part of the government to avoid tragedies. We have to
compile a proper set of rules to decide what needs to be done when elephants
run amok," says the association's representative P. Sasi Kumar.
In Kerala, elephants rarely breed in captivity. Capturing them from the
forests is banned. They are now being bought from Bihar, West Bengal and the
The cost of each calf varies from Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 3 lakh. The journey to
Kerala lasts up to 15 days. Once trained, elephants are rented at the rate
of Rs 15,000 for a three-hour programme. Such events invariably begin around
noon and the elephants are made to stand in the sun and denied water for
long periods. "There is a misconception that elephants fan their ears and
dance because they appreciate the music," says EK Easwaran, an elephant
expert. "Actually, elephants fan their ears to cool their bodies and dance
on their feet to get away from the hot tar."
After a long strenuous walk in the hot sun, when the animals are hungry and
thirsty, their mahouts feed them and take them to water. But instead of
bringing them much relief, this actually clogs their intestines, says
Elephants, he says, can never be completely domesticated and always desire
to return to the wild. A mahout puts the elephant under stress by hitting it
when it disobeys commands. "Captive elephants are always made to work even
when there is no work,'' says Easwaran. Clearly, man or beast, there is only
so much repression that a living being can take, as the rampaging elephant
showed at Thrissur.