The Elephant Story - I
by S Muralidharan on 20 Oct 2022 2 Comments

The place where an animal lives, whether it’s a Temple, Zoo, Circus or the Wild, is their habitat and those who live with them, are their family


Elephants in India can broadly be categorized as (1) Wild and (2) Domestic, that is under human care. These include elephants in zoo, with Forest department, Temple, privately owned, Circus (now banned) and Army (now defunct).


Both wild and domestic elephants have existed for thousands of years. But in recent years, a self-styled category of ‘animal lovers’ has taken up the task of eliminating domestic elephants altogether. This could have a catastrophic effect on the population of elephants and endanger the species. It is not a coincidence that these animal rights extremists are receiving foreign funding to wipe out the ancient art of elephant domestication in India, a move with serious implications for Indian culture and elephant conservation.


Elephant Issues


Wild Elephants are expected to become extinct. There are only about 27,000 elephants left in the Indian wild (many doubt this figure). The female to male ratio is alarming. A healthy Male: Female ratio is considered to be at maximum 1:10, but today stands at a pathetic 1:20 or 1:30 in some places. This has actually dropped further because 50% of elephant deaths reported/ not reported are male, so many female elephants may not get impregnated at all, driving the species even faster towards extinction.


The importance of preserving species that are endangered under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 is self-evident. Species preservation involves understanding the threat factors as well as the factors that contribute to population growth. Today, Elephant deaths are mainly caused by Poaching, Poisoning, Electrocution, Hits by trains and vehicles, Falling from heights, Falling into unclosed wells, Hurt by broken liquor bottles, Biting crude bombs, Natural causes, Injuries from attack from other elephants and animals, Starvation/ Dehydration due to loss of habitat and, Eating plastics.


The Issues


The Male to Female ratio of wild elephants stands at 1: 20. Elephants migrate for food and water during summer; the migration routes are known as ‘elephant corridors’. However, encroachments have destroyed many elephant corridors and habitats. Man-elephant conflicts arise when the animals look for food across buffer zones. Increase in elephant population results in excessive grazing and browsing which depletes vegetation and force elephants to wander out of their habitat.


The average age of an Indian wild elephant today stands at a pathetic 30 years, whereas it was close to 60 years only a few decades ago. The males have majestic Tusks and females have small Tusks knows as Tushes, though there are males without Tusks known as ‘Maknas’. In Africa, Nature has started fighting back poaching by producing male Elephants without Tusks. But in India ‘Maknas’ have existed for hundreds of years.

Wild elephants are going extinction faster than ever. If they were dying @ 365 per year earlier, today we are over 1500 annually. The deaths of human beings attacked by elephants is almost the same. The reasons for elephant deaths in the wild have been mentioned above.


Domestic Elephants


Domestic elephants serve an important role in society and the domestication of elephants in India probably began alongside the domestication of animals such as dogs, horses, cows, etc. Elephants were used in warfare in the time of the Mahabharata. Each category of domestic elephants mentioned above has contributed to human welfare, preservation of cultures as well as elephant conservation. Now, inimical forces are trying to eradicate domestic elephants.


Yet humans have acted saviours of elephants through the ages.


1] Maternal elephants are highly protective of their young ones. However, if the calf is too weak to travel with the herd, they will leave the calf behind in human custody, as they believe that human care can save such babies. This has been seen in India for thousands of years. The process of rescuing abandoned calves is as old as the history of elephant domestication in India. Elephants have thrived and multiplied since ancient times by human intervention.


Attempts to reunite the abandoned calf end in 95% failure. While allomothering (group parental care) will make the herd accept any calf, it will die of starvation if there is no lactating mother in the herd. Thus, even if the herd accepts a calf, humans have to follow the herd for a week to see if the calf is suckling and getting milk to survive. Just handing over the calf to a herd in the wild has mostly failed and resulted in the calf dying of starvation.


This is the reason why the forest departments of many states failed when trying to unite calves. The Indian Center for Animal Rights and Education (INCARE) filed W.P. 29468 of 2019 at Madras High Court to save a calf named Ammukutty [order of 24 October 2019]. Another calf, Raghu, was saved by us when an ignorant animal activist wanted him to be left in the wild after three years of captivity [W.P. 16769 and 16770 of 2017 WMP 18210, 18211 and 37124 of 2017; MHC order dated 06 February 2019].


2] Male elephants leave their herd in search of females to mate when they attain their age of mating, known as ‘Musth’. This is nature’s way of avoiding inbreeding within the herd. While wandering, they often reach farmlands and feast on crops, which is easier than foraging. This is the beginning of ‘Human-elephant conflict’. When farmers chase them with fire, sound, and firecrackers, they become violent and attack, and are called ‘Rogue Elephant’.


Several elephants are poisoned, electrocuted, or shot dead. The ones who survive are those caught by forest departments for relocation or to be converted into a ‘Kumki’, or elephant used to catch other rogue elephants or wildlife.


Humans to the rescue: The rescue and rehabilitation of Chinnathambi, a regular crop raider who had become completely fearless of humans and was on the brink of becoming a rogue, is a prime example of how we can save wild elephants. The forest department erroneously tried to push back Chinnathambi into the wild several times. He was on the brink of turning rogue and would likely have been killed by farmers either by poisoning or electrocution.


We appealed to the Madras High Court [W.P. 3565 of 2019 ] that Chinnathambi be kept in the forest department camp since he had got used to raiding crops, an easy way to survive, and was not willing to go back to the wild. In its order of 13 February 2019, the Madras High Court saved Chinnathambi by advising the forest department to keep Chinnathambi at the forest department camp.


3] When excessive poaching for Tusks takes place, Nature produces male elephants without Tusks called ‘Makna’. They have existed in India for hundreds of years, and Africa has now started producing elephants without Tusks.


4] When a herd in search of water fails to reach a watering hole, the matriarchal head of the herd and adult elephants start digging the ground for water. They will find water which will help them and other wildlife sustain till they reach the next watering hole.


Misplaced Animal Rights Activism


Deliberate misinformation and outright lies are being spread in social media about how cruel methods are employed to tame rouge elephants and how mahouts treat their elephants with extreme cruelty using ‘Ankush’ and how ‘Mahoutry’ is itself very cruel. Most such videos of elephant capture and training are from countries outside India. The capture methods employed currently in India are known as ‘Krall,” which is explained below.


Krall is Humane: The period between the rogue elephant status to a ‘Kumki’ is spent in a ‘Krall’, a strong wooden enclosure. This is the most evolved and ethical art of taming and training elephants. (Division Bench of MHC in the WP 24189/2013; E. Seshan vs Union of India and Others, order dated 25 September 2013, accepted that Krall is an age-old and time-tested practice to tame wild animals)


Elephants are kept in the Krall and paired with a life companion Mahout. He will serve as the elephant’s caretaker, trainer and soulmate and cajole the animal to listen to his commands. Over time, the unity between them translates into Ooruir Eerudal, ‘one soul in two bodies’. There is no beating or poking with ‘Ankush’ as portrayed by PETA and other activists who manufacture videos to raise donations.


The last stage of Krall training is when touch-and-feel pampering happens, just before the associated Mahout brings his pride out into the open and the rogue elephant has become domestic.


4000 years old art of Mahoutry: Mahoutry is an art and a pride of Tamil/ Malayalam culture. It establishes a deep understanding between man and elephant and is considered a most sacred bond. If there are no elephants in captivity, the art of Mahoutry will be lost and elephants venturing out of forests will have to be killed as there will be no one with the skill to handle them. Just as horse racing is not banned because it is considered a skill, so Mahoutry must be recognized as art that is essential to the preservation of the species.


The campaign against Mahoutry by foreign-funded animal rights activists must not be allowed to succeed. They have confiscated elephants and dumped them in sanctuaries, breaking their hearts. India is the land of Ahimsa and we have never abused our animals.


Domestication is not cruelty: the argument by that “elephants belong to the wild” and all forms of domestication is cruel because they are deprived of their “freedom” is fallacious. Freedom is an abstract concept for animals; they instinctively seek the primary requirements of food and shelter. Elephants are no different from our dogs in this respect. As long as they are fed well and looked after, they do not suffer in agony for loss of ‘freedom’.


As for the ‘Ankush’, it is a tool to guide an elephant. It is used rarely and only in emergency situations; generally, the elephant is guided by the mahouts’ feet and verbal commands. There is no injury to the animals at all. Similarly, the chains are only meant to restrain the elephant in a crowd, much like the chain on a dog.


Attack on Temple elephants: Removing elephants from temples is another disturbing aspect of the vested interest of PETA and other foreign funded NGOs vis-à-vis domestication of elephants.


The act of an elephant putting its trunk on one’s head is considered as a blessing and believed to cure one’s doshams (curse). Even today, new born babies are taken to seek blessings from an elephant and are taken under its belly. Instead, the Mahout getting a Kaanikkai (small gift) has been shamed as begging. Unfortunately, some courts have believed these allegations and have accepted it as begging and directed the removal of the elephant from the owner / Temples.


This has destroyed the elephants, the families of the Mahouts and Kavadis (helpers) who are responsible for the elephant. If a Mahout taking Rupees 10/- is begging, then foreign-funded NGOs keeping confiscated Kanchi Mutt elephants or taking away private elephants and canvassing Westerners for thousands of dollars in donation can be dubbed as ‘Glorified begging’ [W.P. 6030 of 2019, MHC order on 19 September 2019, Kanchi Mutt case].


The author is Founder Trustee of Indian Center for Animal Rights and Education (INCARE)


(To be concluded …)

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