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(IN) The temple elephant tragedy in India

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  • Shubhobroto Ghosh
    *http://www.tehelka.com/story_main39.asp?filename=Ne100508a_jumbo.asp* *A Jumbo Tragedy* *The failure to enforce rules and stressful use at temple events are
    Message 1 of 1 , May 5, 2008
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      *A Jumbo Tragedy*

      *The failure to enforce rules and stressful use at temple events are forcing
      elephants in Kerala to run amok*

      *KA SHAJI*
      *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
      veterinary surgeon."

      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
      Rules were
      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.

      *shaji@... <http://www.tehelka.com/shaji@...>
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