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Why we need to talk about captive elephants

A new bill may change the narrative around elephant ownership, already a complicated, layered and contentious issue in India. Lounge delves into the phenomenon of captive elephants

Scenes at the annual Thrissur Pooram festival.
Scenes at the annual Thrissur Pooram festival. (Getty Images)

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Chennai-based polymer engineer R. Haresh Babu, who runs his own business, grew up with elephants in his backyard. He recalls a childhood filled with elephants: sleeping with them in a shed behind their ancestral home in Madurai, bathing with the big animals, feeding them treats of sugarcane and bananas, conversing with them in Tamil and Malayalam (they understand both languages, he claims). “We have been associated with elephants for over 100 years,” says Babu, 39, whose family has owned elephants for three generations.

The family’s association with jumbos began in 1916 with Babu’s great-grandfather, Duraisamy Konar, who was a mahout at some of the biggest temples in Madurai. “People could easily buy and sell elephants back then,” he says, adding that the rules on captive elephants were lax. “It was like raising a buffalo or cow.”

In 1974, two years after the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 came into being, laying down stipulations for elephant ownership— including a certificate of ownership—Duraisamy Konar’s son, Babu’s grandfather Raja Ram, acquired his first elephant, Brinda, for 3,000 at an auction held by the Tamil Nadu forest department. By the 1980s, the family owned four-five elephants and was renting them out to temples for processions and pujas. Some of the family’s elephants have even starred in films.

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Today, the family only owns two elephants, Kusuma and Lakshmi, in Madurai, both acquired 20-odd years ago by Babu’s father, R. Rengan. “We are sentimentally attached to our elephants,” says Babu, whose family runs the Elephant Heritage Charitable Trust & Animal Rehabilitation Centre of Tamil Nadu, which takes care of captive elephants. “It is our passion to contribute back to the elephants what we have got from them.”

Over the years, the wildlife law has been amended time and again, making it harder and harder to keep captive elephants. In 2002, the law was amended to allow only inheritance or gifting. Yet elephant ownership remains a complicated, layered and contentious issue in India, one further muddied by a long-standing tradition and culture that places elephants at the centre of numerous rituals and a law that protects the animal while also allowing private ownership of it. According to the first-ever captive elephant census, conducted in 2019 on Supreme Court orders, India had 2,454 captive elephants, 58% of them in Assam (905) and Kerala (518). Of these, 1,809 were in private custody, owned by individuals, temples and circuses (circus elephants have been disallowed since 2020). The state forest department owned the rest.

Elephants at at Bihar’s annual Sonepur Mela.
Elephants at at Bihar’s annual Sonepur Mela. (Getty Images)

The 1972 law prohibits possession, acquisition, disposal and transportation of an elephant, the only Schedule 1 animal that can be held in captivity, without the written permission of the chief wildlife warden of the state/s concerned. It also restricts the sale, purchase or transfer of elephants for monetary gain. However, it does make an exception for elephants being “gifted” or “inherited”, provided that the owner keeps the forest department informed.

Now the Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Bill, 2021—introduced in the Lok Sabha by Union environment minister Bhupender Yadav in December last year and expected to be tabled in Parliament’s ongoing monsoon session—may change the narrative around captive elephants. Clause 27 of the Bill seeks to amend Section 43 of the principal Act, which restricts the sale, purchase or transfer of captive elephants from one person to another for monetary consideration or any other gain. It proposes an insertion that provides “that the section will not apply to transfer or transport of a live elephant having a certificate of ownership where prior permission of the State government has been obtained”. In other words, it will become much easier to move elephants across borders and transfer ownership.

In a 25 February 2020 article in Scroll, Alok Hisarwala, a lawyer, activist and researcher, noted that exceptions in the 1972 Act were meant only for elephants already in captivity at the time. “The Wildlife Protection Act, however imperfect, is essentially a progressive law,” wrote Hisarwala. “By banning the commercial trade of all wild animals, the Act has played a vital role in redirecting domestic policy away from their commodification.” In the same piece, he pointed out that ownership certificates were permitted only for animals in captivity to regularise possession and that commercial trade in elephants had been expressly banned since 1986. “It was never intended to be an ongoing mechanism,” he wrote, adding that the proposed amendment is a dangerous, inexplicable regression from the progress made so far.

This perspective is shared by other environmentalists and activists, who maintain that the language of the law may end up furthering the commercial trade of captive elephants. A report submitted by a parliamentary panel reviewing the Bill, headed by senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh, echoed this. “The amendment Bill allows for commercial trade in elephants,” says the report, strongly recommending the deletion of this exemption clause.

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More importantly, activists fear that the amendment could lead to more animals from the wild entering captivity. As Delhi-based conservation biologist and writer Neha Sinha tells Lounge: “The number of captive elephants is small. If we want to phase it out, it will happen in a few generations. I am more worried about the 30,000 animals in the wild.” She believes that since the new proposal would make it easier to transfer animals, it would amount to enabling trade in elephants.

There is already a trade in smuggled animals, with wild animals illegally taken captive and often sold/leased/“gifted” at Bihar’s annual Sonepur Mela, one of Asia’s largest cattle fairs. The practice was banned by the Bihar government in 2015 but allegedly continues in secret. Conservationists and activists even allege documents related to elephants are forged or manipulated to facilitate ownership transfer. “You have a certain number of illegal captures in the North-East. The scale has declined, but the illegal capture and trade of elephants certainly continues,” says ecologist Raman Sukumar, known for his extensive work on the ecology of the Asian elephant.

A scene from the movie ‘Junglee’.
A scene from the movie ‘Junglee’. (IMDb )

The proposed amendment, which does away with the word “captive”, may create a legal loophole, explains Mridula Vijairaghavan, environmental lawyer, Wildlife Conservation Trust. “The amendment Bill carves out an exception for the sale and offer for sale of live elephants against which the ownership certificate exists. The use of the words ‘live elephants’ as against ‘captive elephants’ puts wild populations at risk as well,” she says.

So, what happens if an animal that should enjoy the same protection as the Bengal tiger, Himalayan bear, lion-tailed macaque, rhinoceros and musk deer is owned and treated like domestic livestock? How does one create a careful balance between “traditions and conservation”, as the parliamentary standing committee recommends? And what is the ideal solution, if there is any, to manage India’s captive elephants in our times?

A cultural connect

The Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), one of only three existing species of the sub-family Elephantinae and the only living species of the genus Elephas, is found throughout South and South-East Asia, including India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Sumatra and Borneo. Like their extinct ancestors, the Asian straight-tusked elephant and the mammoth, elephants are the biggest terrestrial species of their time, weighing anywhere from 3,000-6,000kg. Their large size, coupled with their tendency to live in herds, means they have very few natural predators in the wild. Human beings, however, are a different story. Today, both the Asian and African savanna elephants are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List, while the African forest elephant, the third species, is said to be critically endangered.

Lord and Lady Curzon atop the elephant Lakshman Prasad.
Lord and Lady Curzon atop the elephant Lakshman Prasad. (Wikimedia Commons)

India has had a long history of elephant ownership; records indicate that it goes all the way back to the Indus Valley Civilisation, nearly 4,500 years ago, implying that it may even have been the first culture to do so. “The first culture that we know which tamed the elephant was Harappan,” says Sukumar.

Elephants, the JCBs of the ancient world, have played a vital role in shaping civilisations, especially in the early Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms. “The elephant was used as a beast of burden and a bulldozer,” says Sukumar. “The use of the elephant as an instrument of intimidation or war goes back about 3,000 years but it was during the period of the Nandas (343-321 BCE) and the Mauryas (321-185 BCE) that the elephants were kept in large numbers in the army, a trend which continued till the Mughal period,” he notes.

During the British era, many of these war elephants were used for logging work in forests. Going by records and photographic evidence, they were also used by British officers for hunting and to carry high-ranking officials—a photograph taken on 19 December 1902 shows Lord and Lady Curzon entering the Delhi Durbar atop an elephant named Lakshman Prasad. And, after independence, elephants were part of Jawaharlal Nehru’s diplomatic toolkit; he had a habit of gifting elephants, as a symbol of goodwill, to zoos worldwide, including those in Canada, Japan, the erstwhile Soviet Union, US, Turkey and Iran.

Much has changed in the country since. In a world with enough technology to construct bridges, buildings, weapons of war and artificial intelligence, elephants are no longer needed for physical tasks. Today, in addition to “kumki elephants”, used by the forest department in its duties, most captive elephants are owned by individuals or temple trusts. Used in festival celebrations, to bless devotees at temples, open stores, carry grooms at weddings or take tourists on safaris as part of an “exotic India” experience, the pachyderms generate considerable income for their owners. Elephant rentals, it is said, can go into lakhs of rupees, depending on age, gender and physical features.

But are prestige, religion, history and the parallel economy that elephant ownership creates reason enough to hold on to a tradition that most activists and wildlife experts see as cruel, unnatural and outdated? Elephants are still feral animals—unlike dogs, which are behaviourally and genetically different from the wolves they descended from, or the aurochs that became modern cattle. Elephants are humongous and unpredictable, and controlling an animal of that size almost always involves beating, chaining or depriving them of food. And yes, there is always a risk of one running amok and trampling passers-by.

King George V crosses a river on an elephant.
King George V crosses a river on an elephant. (Getty Images)

“For all our cultural connections, we haven’t re-thought their significance in modern times,” says Sukumar, pointing out that while there would be no elephants in captivity in an ideal world, this strong historical association complicates things. “There is a range of different issues when it comes to private elephants today.” However, he is clear about one thing: “In today’s context, the most important thing is the elephant’s welfare.”

A captive problem

In June, a disturbing clip surfaced on the internet. It showed an elephant, Joymala aka Jeymalyatha, being beaten in her shed by her handler in Tamil Nadu’s Virudhunagar district. Media reports suggest Joymala’s owner in Assam had leased her to a Tamil Nadu temple for six months initially in 2008.

In the video, it is clear that the elephant is in terrible pain; she yelps through most of it. But the beatings do not stop. This was the second time that a video of Joymala being beaten by handlers in Tamil Nadu has surfaced; the first was at a rejuvenation camp for jumbos at Thekkampatti in February 2021. At the time, the mahout was removed. This time, the Assam government wants the elephant sent back to her home state, a decision catalysed by the intervention of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

Joymala’s case is illustrative of how problematic elephant ownership and leasing can be. For, while the sale and purchase of an elephant are not permitted, the language related to leasing is hazy. Gifting is still allowed, and under-the-table deals are not unheard of.

“Intelligent and emotional elephants endure physical and psychological trauma in captivity for use in temple festivals, rides, circuses, and other spectacles, and in Jeymalyatha’s case, the cruelty has been caught on camera twice,” wrote PETA India's chief advocacy officer Khushboo Gupta in a letter to the chief wildlife wardens of Assam and Tamil Nadu in June. She also urged devotees to donate to genuine elephant sanctuaries, where these animals are not chained and are permitted to live in the company of other pachyderms.

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On paper, there are detailed norms for keeping elephants in captivity, including the use of microchips in captive elephants to identify them and ensure those in the wild don’t enter the captive ecosystem. The rules on transportation and movement mandate getting permission from the chief wildlife wardens in states, ensuring an elephant doesn’t walk more than three hours at a stretch or more than 30km a day (their feet are ill-equipped to handle asphalt), allowing 12 hours of rest for every 12 hours of journey, forbidding the movement of cows in advanced stages of pregnancy, and so on.

A painting of Akbar on his elephant.
A painting of Akbar on his elephant. (Getty Images)

There are also clear guidelines on how to house and care for elephants: floor space depending on size and age, ensuring that the animals are bathed every day, preventive health checks for both the animal and the mahout who looks after them, a ban on using an animal in musth for any work, avoiding harnesses that can injure the animals, feed supply instructions. Cruelty, which includes beating, kicking, administering drugs or intoxicants without veterinary advice and bursting crackers near an elephant, is expressly prohibited.

Implementation, unfortunately, is a very different story. Take, for instance, the phenomenon of elephants panicking owing to the sound of crackers and running amok during Kerala’s annual Thrissur Pooram festival. Stories of elephants beaten by mahouts, paraded despite being in musth, kept alone in enclosed places too small for them or deprived of food, continue to make their way to national dailies.

“It is important to understand that an elephant is a wild animal and it doesn’t just learn to stand for hours, wearing a costume. There is a long process of training and beating for many years, after which it gets accustomed to it,” says Sinha.

Mathew George Sankaramangalam of the Bengaluru-based Friends of Elephants, an informal group of people who are passionate about conservation, believes most captive elephants go through gruelling torture despite the norms in place. “In Kerala, all religions use elephants,” says George; they are even used to open gold showrooms.

“An elephant’s back is not designed for people to sit on,” notes George, who doesn’t think anyone but a mahout or a forest official should be riding an elephant. Its feet, too are not designed for a tar road; they are adapted for grassy surfaces. In fact, the mortality rate of captive elephants in Kerala has been on the rise. “The number of elephants in the state has come down, from the 500s to the 400s,” says George, adding that lifespans have dropped from an average of 70 years to 50-55 years.

Many elephants in captivity suffer from a multitude of health conditions—abscesses, nutritional deficiency, even antibiotic resistance. “They also suffer from foot rot because they are tethered to hard surfaces,” says a Tamil-Nadu-based veterinary doctor who prefers not to be named. “Chronic wounds are a major issue too due to unscientific and cruel management.”

The animal’s mental health rarely gets enough attention. Training an elephant is an abusive process, as is solitary confinement; this breaks its spirit. “Elephants have the potential to get depressed and can get aggressive very fast if handled wrongly,” says Suparna Ganguly, co-founder and trustee of the animal welfare organisation Compassion Unlimited Plus Action (Cupa) and honorary president of its sister concern, the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (WRRC) in Karnataka.

Ganguly, who has been rescuing and rehabilitating captive elephants for over two decades, is currently working with three rescued female elephants—Aneesha, Parvathi and Gowri—at the WRRC centre in Malur, Karnataka. From her observations, she concludes that pachyderms behave like humans who have been in prison for a long time. “They are always conscious that they will be hit if they don’t obey. It takes them a long time to work around it,” adds Ganguly.

The road ahead

“People want to restrict us but do they have a better solution?” asks Babu, who believes private ownership of elephants can play a role in the conservation of the species. While he agrees that cruelty cannot be tolerated except in self-defence, he says the current policy on captive elephants is unfair to him and other owners.

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Finding trained mahouts and good vets is a challenge, says Babu. India’s veterinary landscape lags when it comes to elephants, he notes, adding that the traditional mahout culture is declining too, with fewer people wanting to risk joining the profession. He claims even estimates of the profits made from elephants are overstated. Elephants need almost 200-400kg of food per day; paying for that, along with medical expenses and the mahout’s salary, health insurance and children’s education, adds up. “I spend almost 1,000-2,000 per elephant a day for just food,” he says. “No one becomes a crorepati with elephants,” he adds, claiming that he does all this out of sheer love for the animal. 

“I am not saying we should capture more animals from the wild,” clarifies Babu. He is convinced, however, that keeping an animal in captivity, ensuring ethical treatment, is the only way ahead. Not only will banning captive elephants leave mahouts out of work, it is unlikely the elephant will survive in the wild, argues Babu. Owners should be allowed to keep and look after the elephants already in captivity without too much interference, he continues, adding, “I cannot reintroduce my elephant back in the wild; they have to live and die with me.” He hopes, in fact, to start an elephant park for retired or injured animals.

Conservationists would agree with Babu on one thing: Rewilding a captive elephant is difficult. While there have been stray successes—in August 2021, for instance, the Tamil Nadu forest department released an elephant named Rivaldo back into the wild after 70 days in captivity—this is simply not a viable solution for the nearly 2,500 animals that have lived for decades with humans.

Ganguly says elephants in captivity eventually lose their fear of human beings. They may never be able to adjust, in fact, to a forest environment and may end up raiding crops, leading to more man-animal conflict.

In addition, animals in captivity and those in the wild struggle with different infectious diseases. The Tamil-Nadu-based vet, who has worked with elephants for decades, says that since these elephants have lived in close contact with humans, they often suffer from tuberculosis, which they pick up from their mahouts. It is a disease wild elephants do not have resistance to; similarly, there are infectious diseases among wild elephants that captive elephants will not be able to handle. “We have to follow science, not emotion,” he says, pointing out that elephants in captivity get used to that environment and situation.  The vet says he has seen temple elephants that were transferred to forest camps dying, unable to deal with the animals already in the camps. “Intra-elephant conflict often occurs in these camps,” he says, adding that the best road ahead is to ensure that norms are enforced and followed more strictly.

Sukumar is wont to agree: Non-enforcement of regulations is one of the biggest issues when it comes to captive elephant management. According to him, the best solution is to provide captive elephants spaces that mimic conditions in the wild.

This would involve large-scale facilities where elephants can interact with each other and have access to healthcare, water, food and open spaces. “I am against keeping elephants in solitary. We need to create facilities where they are brought in together,” Sukumar says, adding that the other advantage of having a common facility is better veterinary care, something India sorely needs.

State government intervention can go a long way in rehabilitating captive elephants, believes George. The Kerala government’s Kottur Elephant Sanctuary and Rehabilitation Centre, near Kappukadu in the Thiruvananthapuram district, is an example. Set up in 2006 as a sanctuary, it was expanded into an elephant rehabilitation centre in 2019. Spread over 176 hectares of forest land and modelled on the lines of the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka, it can accommodate around 50 elephants and 80 mahouts (there are around 15 pachyderms at present).

This way, elephants can enjoy a natural habitat but are also fed and looked after, he says. George adds that people who revere elephants should step up and help with funding instead of supporting the captive elephant ecosystem. “We need to change how we see love for an elephant,” he says. “It must shift from owning them to wanting to give them a better life.”

The clause making elephant trade possible did not make it to the 2022 Bill that was passed by the Lok Sabha in August

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