Elephants turn money-spinners

Pachyderms suffer due to greed of contractors
Last Updated 19 November 2018, 09:38 IST

Temples vie with each other to parade maximum number of elephants during festivals

Keeping elephants in temples and using them in religious activities and festivals are a common feature in Kerala. In the past several years, many temple festivals in Kerala have ended up in blood, tears, gore, injuries and even death. In the current year so far, 25 persons, including 10 women, were trampled to death by the violent jumbos. Hundreds were injured and properties worth lakhs of rupees were destroyed.

In all these incidents, one or two elephants lined up in the festival suddenly turned violent, goring to death the mahouts, onlookers standing close to them, running amok leaving a trail of destruction and terrorising the temple town or the village for hours till they are brought under control with the help of tranquiliser shots.

Lining up of majestic jumbos is an integral part of festivals at hundreds of temples in Kerala, big and small, that dot the God’s Own Country. Earlier, the number of elephants was limited, but now temples are vying with each other to parade the maximum number elephants in the festival. There are festivals in which over 100 tuskers are featured. Ten to 15 are very common.

This competition has made the captive elephants an elephantine problem in the state. Until recently, elephants were owned by temples and rich feudal families. Both looked after them well and knew everything about the elephants they owned. Then elephant turning violent was a very rare incident and killing of mahouts and others was almost unheard of.

Now things have changed for bad. At present, Kerala has over 850 captive elephants, the highest in the country. Nearly 200 are owned by government devaswoms (temples managed by the government) and the rest by the private devaswoms (temple owned by people in an area or a few families or some individuals) and individuals. With introduction of land reformation, all feudal families in the state collapsed and elephants, once their status symbol, have become unaffordable to them.
For new class of owners, elephants are mere a means for minting money. To keep the profit high, they spend minimum money for the upkeep of these hapless giants. A majority of private devaswoms and almost all individual owners give their animals for a season to contractors for hefty amount.

Contractors parade the tuskers they hire in maximum number of festivals and for it they bribe heavily office-bearers of festival committees. They together have created an impression that the glitter of a temple festival depends on the number of elephants lined up. In a state where mafias are ruling the roost, it is not a problem for getting sponsors for elephants. In fact, mafias are only happy to sponsor elephants for festivals as it gave them a sort of social respectability. Now the elephant craze is so strong that even at government managed temples which have majestic tuskers, the private elephants are brought in for since they are organised by committees consisting of local people and temple managements have no control over the festival committees.

Contractors charge Rs 50,000 to Rs 1.5 lakh for an elephant for a day depending on their appearance. To raise the demand of an elephant and thus to fetch maximum money from it, the contractors play various marketing gimmicks. As part of popularising elephants, the owners and contractors add title along with the name of the elephants like Gaja­rajan, Gajakesari, Gajaratnam and so on. And to create demand, the mammoth flex boards carrying the picture of the elephants are displayed in 50 sq km of the temple where they are brought for festivals months in advance. In fact, every the nook and corner of the state are dotted with these flex boards.

The peak of the season is February to April, when the summer is at its worst in the state. Elephants are taken from one festival to other providing enough food, water, rest and sleep. After hours-long truck journey during which the animals have to balance their gigantic body not to be fallen off from moving vehicle, they are directly taken for parading in the festival where they made to stand with limbs tightly chained for hours together as part of some ritualistic ceremonies. During the day-time, they stand on hot concrete floor under the blistering summer sun.

Dr Radhakrishnan, former dean of Kerala Veterinary University and an elephant expert, said that sound, light and heat provoke even a clam elephant. At festivals, the elephants are always
exposed to ear-splitting firework, drumbeat, high-beam lights and numerous oil lamps and torches.
Making the matter worse, they may be paraded in a place where there is not enough space to accom­modate them in large numbers. This restricts further their movement and increases their stress. Tuskers showing sign of fatigue are brutally tortured by mahouts.

During the festival season many tuskers undergo musth – a body condition of bull elephants in which their testosterone level shoots up and sexual urge peaks. The elephant is extremely violent at this stage and even mahouts fear to go near it. This period may last three to six months and the elephant needs total rest, extreme care and lavish food and water.

Contractors suppress the musth administering various drugs and denying food and water to the elephant and continue to take them in festivals.

Owners and contractors’ greed poses a threat to not only to human beings but also to tuskers. Official figures show that nearly 1,000 elephants died in the past five years either due to torture or fatigue. A few years back, an elephant denied food and water collapsed in the middle of the road in Kochi and died. It was against this backdrop the government has enacted Kerala Captive Elephant (Management and Maintenance) rules which lay norms and rules for parading elephant in festivals. However, it seems that the rule has been introduced to be violated.

Noted poet and nature lover B Sugathakumari reiterated no scripture said elephant is a must of
rituals in temples. But her cry for the innocent creature falls on deaf ears.

(Published 23 February 2013, 18:14 IST)

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