Plans afoot to woo more tourists

Plans afoot to woo more tourists

Elephant training centre in Kerala

Plans afoot to woo more tourists

Elephant rides are a popular fixture at the training camp  .

Abdul Kareem traipses around a tile-roofed structure where Priyadarshini, a 30-year-old elephant, is warming up in the morning sun. Kareem, an ageing man with an easy, languid manner, is one of the two “permanent” mahouts at the elephant training centre at Konni in the southern Kerala distr­ict of Pathanamthitta.

 “She’s a slow riser, takes some time before she is herself,” he explains as he leisurely settles down near a tree.   Kareem has had a good run with the elephants serving 34 years as a mahout; information that he offers is like a fun-fact, repeated with palpable cheer. His legs don’t hold up like they did in younger days but he says it’s a gripe he can live with as long as he has the elephants around him – “I’m so used to being with them,” he says. 

Most of Kareem’s mahout mates in the camp share his almost-passive affection for the elephants. Near the entrance, two mahouts are taking Lakshmi, the youngest of the seven elephants in the camp, out for a walk. Forest department officials who live in the campus stop and enquire after her – “She’s becoming more playful, we’ll need a bigger campus,” jokes one – and encourage their grinning children to touch the animal. It’s around 8.45 am; the camp is not open to visitors yet.

The group – with the elephant in the middle – is indulged in something close to family banter before the tourists come in. They all talk about Lakshmi in that homey tone of affinity: it’s less wide-eyed excit­ement for the adorable calf than an everyday interest in a child in the family. 

Spread over nine acres, the elephant camp at Konni is located about 10 km from Pathanamthitta town. The forest department acts on information about abandoned or injured captive elephants and bring them to the camp where they are treated and trained by 14 mahouts. C S Prakash, the section forest officer who lives on the campus, says the elephants could do with a more expansive premises if one were to go by the extent of land prescribed for an elephant to move about.

He, however, adds that the camp – part of an ambiti­ous eco-tourism circuit with Konni as its base – has also seen the number of visitors, including international tourists rise over the past couple of years.   The elephant rides are a popular fixture at the training camp, with the animals taking turns through the week. Ismail, one of the 12 mahouts employed on contract, says things have come a long way since days of the “capture-and-tame” mode of training (capture of wild elephants was banned in 1977). 

“People pass on information about aged, abandoned captive elephants or others that are left inju­red or sick. After a brief phase during which we fami­liarise with the animal’s ways, we train them to fitness,” Ismail says as he watches 71-year-old Soman, the oldest of the elephants, in repose. The name board near Soman’s shelter describes him as “reti­red” after having served in other forest ranges. The camp has elephant veterinarians visiting for weekly check-ups. 

Historians have recorded capturing of elephants at Konni as early as in 1810. Konni has one of the many elephant camps in Kerala; the other prominent camps are at Kodanad in Ernakulam district and Muthanga in Wayanad district. The camp has found a new star in Donsingh (now renamed Kochayyappan), a 10-year-old elephant brought to the camp from neighbouring Kottarakkara while he was being transported illegally from Bihar, in 2011. A legal dispute has delayed Kochayyappan’s “release” from the camp but the mahouts and visitors are not complaining. The forest department also allows transfer of these elephants between camps; in 2007, Eva, a 13-year-old elephant, was brought from Kodanad to Konni. 

The mahouts on contract are paid a daily wage of Rs 350. Apart from the mahouts, 13 staff attached to the state government’s eco-tourism initiative, work at the elephant camp. Prakash puts the daily expenditure on food for the elephants at about Rs 2,000. Some of the mahouts complain about erratic pay and uncertainties of contract labour but are optimistic on more tourism initiatives being pegged to the camp. 

“There have been instances where salaries were left pending for months. The department still maintains that it’s struggling to pay us and keep the training centre running because there is a fund crisis. It will be good to have these new tourism initiatives if they also translate to money for the camp,” says one of the mahouts. 

The tourism department is lining up projects linked to destinations in the district. A rehabilitation centre for injured and abandoned elephants is being planned in a sanctuary setting near Konni. The forest department has kicked off an awareness drive to ensure better treatment of elephants. “The department organised a Know-the-Elephant programme at the camp last month where experts interacted with people on elephants and their habitats,” says Nibu Kiran, Konni Range Forest Officer. 

The campus houses staff quarters, units that manufacture dung paper and outlets that sell honey and medicinal balm. The elephant museum in the camp houses, has among other things, a collection of sharp “taming” weapons that were used before the ban on capturing wild elephants. In the backdrop of increasing elephant-mahout conflicts and concerns over management of elephant shelters, Forest Department officials propose to take fresh lead in ethical treatment of captive elephants. They also hope that the weapons will remain in museums.

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