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M Suchitra


Pic: PS Manoj
While animal lovers in Kerala hail the Elephant Task Force’s recommendations to the Central government, elephant owners and festival committees in the state have come out openly against them. Stating that the task force has not taken into consideration the unique cultural and religious traditions in the state, the Kerala State Elephant Owners' Federation and the the Kerala State Pooram-Perunnal Festival Coordination Committee observed October 4- the National Elephant Day- as Black Day.

It was in February this year that the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) set up a task force to provide detailed recommendations for more effective conservation and protection of elephants, the wild as well as the domesticated, in the country. The objective was to give impetus to Project Elephant, which started in 1992 but trailed far behind Project Tiger.

The 12-member task force headed by Mahesh Rangarajan, noted conservationist, submitted its report in August. The committee has recommended to make elephant a National heritage Animal and to create a National Elephant Conservation Authority. It further recommended to impose strict restrictions on trapping, taming, buying selling and transporting elephants, and also to take away the ownership of the domesticated elephants from its present owners by giving them only guardianship.

“ It is true that India has a long tradition of elephant keeping and handling, says P S Easa, member of the task force and former head of the Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI), Thrissur. “But the quality of care and management of captive elephants has been seriously inadequate.” Elephants --- the wild and the captive—have been given the status of Scheduled 1 animal under the Wildlife Protection (Amendment) Act , 2003, but the usage of has gone unchecked. The result is that the legal status of the elephants in captivity falls somewhere in between the WLPA and the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal ACT (PCA), which gives rise to tremendous abuse and misuse. According to the 2007 census carried out by the Forest Department, Kerala has 6,068 elephants in the wild. The exact number of captive elephants is not known but 695 jumbos have been fixed with microchips as part of a government enumeration programme. Most of the captive elephants in the state were brought from the Northeast and Bihar, and they are owned by individuals, devaswom boards, and temple trusts. Amongst the largest collections, the Guruvayoor Devaswam has 65 elephants in its possession.

“If the Centre decides to implement all the recommendations of the task force then there will not be any captive elephant in the state in another 30 to 40 years,” says M Madhavankutty, chairman of the Festival Coordination Committee and president of the Thiruvampadi Devaswom Board, Thrissur. Unlike in other states elephants are mostly used for festivals in the state. In Thrissur Pooram, the most colourful and spectacular temple festival in Kerala, two famous temples compete with each other displaying 15 caparisoned elephants on each side.

“ Can you imagine a Pooram without elephants?” asks Madhavankutty. “In fact, we favour the move to confer national heritage status on elephants. But what is needed is a regulated approach instead of taking elephants totally away from the cultural landscape of the state.”

Further, taking away the ownership will lead to many complications, feel the elephant owners. “If the government becomes the owner, and only guardianship is given to the owners, then government should also the take up the responsibility of maintenance and welfare of the animal, and bear all the expenses,” says Mangalamkunnu Parameshwaran, who owns 14 elephants--the largest private collection of elephants in the state. Even to cremate a dead elephant expenses come around Rs 1.5 lakh, says he.

However, animal rights groups are all in praise for the MoEF’s initiative to end cruelty towards elephants, even if it is done at the cost of stripping festivals much of its charm and fanfare. They feel that the captive elephants in Kerala are amongst the most tortured animals in the country.

“Renting out elephants for festivals is a lucrative business,” V KVenkitachalam, secretary, the Elephant Lovers’ Association. “Elephant brokers try to make maximum profit and they book maximum number of festivals for each elephant.” On average a tusker that is taller than 9ft, with large ears and a trunk that reaches the ground can fetch its owners Rs10,000-15,000 a day during this season. If more than one temple has its celebration on the same day, and there is a bidding war for an elephant, prices can go up to Rs35,000 a day.

Most of the temple festivals in Kerala take place in summer, and elephants are forced to work overtime. They have to endure long hours of blistering sun and noise without having sufficient feed, water and proper rest. It makes them go berserk and they end up as killers. Reports say there were 218 cases of elephants going berserk and 64 dying for various reasons, including torture in 2007. The figures rose to 274 and 72 in 2008 and 318 and 79 in 2009.

Further, compared to the wild elephants, diseases are far high among the captive elephants, point out veterinary doctors. Due to space constrains elephants are almost always chained. Sores and acute infections due to continuous chaining is a very common problem among captive elephants. In their natural habitat elephants eat grass, shrubs, small plants and leaves and branches of big trees. But under captivity, most of them are fed only with one type of green feed—the leaves of the palms, which fails to meet their actual body requirements. Almost immediately after festivals and public functions, after a long strenuous walk in the hot sun, and when the animals are very hungry and thirsty, mahouts feed them, and this leads to the impaction of the colon (blocking of the intestine). “ Impaction is very high among Kerala’s captive elephants,” points out Jacob V Cheeran, a retired veterinary surgeon and professor of veterinary medicine.

Under the Kerala Captive Elephants Management & Maintenance Rules, 2003, it is mandatory to keep registers on elephants’ movement, feed and rest. It prohibits processions of elephants between 11 am and 4 pm. It also makes mandatory for the festival organizers to get health certificates for each elephant from veterinary doctors.

“But the rules are often flouted. The forest officials seldom check the registers and monitor the festivals,”says Venkitachalam. Many like him feel the Centre should remain firm against attempts by elephant owners and festival organisers to sabotage the recommendations of the task force.

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