It's the season of heated debates around parading elephants at public events

Safety at stake as elephant parade rules flouted

"We want Raman back,” is the general sentiment in Thrissur which is gearing up for Kerala’s biggest annual temple festival, Thrissur Pooram, on May 13. Thechikottukavu Ramachandran, the one-eyed celebrity tusker, who is banned from being paraded in temple festivals due to health reasons, is at the centre of an emotional outbreak. The tallest elephant in the state has so far killed 13 people and three elephants at various public occasions. However, he continues to be a festival favourite among devotees. 

Over 100 trained elephants are paraded on the premises of Vadakkunnathan Temple during the Pooram. In fact, elephant parade is an integral part of the temple festivities in the state. November to May is the season of temple festivals in Kerala, and an elephant parade is a major attraction.

This is also the season of heated debates around parading elephants at public events. It is estimated that elephants are paraded in over 10,000 occasions in Kerala annually. The number of captive elephants in the state is 510, of them more than 400 are male. Only male elephants participate in festival parades.

According to activists, eight persons have been reportedly killed by elephants and over 300 instances of elephants running amok have been reported during the current festival season. In one such incident this February, two persons were killed in Thrissur by Thechikottukavu Ramachandran.

Festivals turn into a nightmare

Witnesses say that the scenario is almost the same during every festival season with an average of 12 lives being claimed by the elephants every year and causing injuries to hundreds of people in about 300 to 400 instances of tuskers running amok.

Even during the Thrissur Pooram, there have been several instances of elephants behaving violently and fainting. In 2012, an elephant had gone on a rampage causing chaos. Similar instances were reported in 1984, 2007, 2009 and 2012, elephants’ rights activist V K Venkitachalam told DH. However, fortunately, there have been no deaths caused by elephants at Thrissur Pooram.

A section of government officials and animal rights’ activists are now strictly opposing parading Ramachandran, especially after an expert committee appointed by the Forest Department recently recommended against parading him at the temple festival.

But the powerful lobby of elephant owners with known politicians as stakeholders, a section of the public and some ministers seem to be keen on parading the tusker at Thrissur Pooram, where tens of thousands of people converge.

Thechikottukavu Ramachandran, owned by a temple trust at Peramangalam in Thrissur, is suffering from total blindness of right eye and other age-related ailments. While his owners claim that he is 54, there are suspicions that he must be over 65 years and hence, been barred from parading at festivals.

Even though courts earlier passed restrictions on parading this tusker, those were bypassed. Ramachandran’s mahout Vinod said, “Every time, the damage is caused not due to Ramachandran’s vision problem or any other heath problems, but due to public disturbances caused to him during the festivals. Owing to the huge fan following he enjoys, there is always an uncontrollable crowd to see the elephant. Even in the recent Thrissur incident, the problem was with the frenzied atmosphere and not the tusker.”

In 2016, the Forest Department issued an order to strictly follow the safety norms like maintaining a minimum of three-metre belly-to-belly distance between two elephants and setting a timeframe for the Thrissur Pooram elephant parade. But the state government withdrew the order following pressure from various quarters. The district-level committees empowered by captive elephant rules to frame regulations on parading elephants also conceded to pressure. There have been instances of elephants being allowed to be paraded based on a written declaration by organisers saying they would own responsibility for any damages caused.

Elephants are an integral part of temple festivals in the state and the number of elephants participating in the parade is considered to be a yardstick to gauge the success of festivals. Parading sought-after elephants like Thechikottukavu Ramachandran, Pambadi Rajan and Trikadavu Sivararajan is considered as a matter of prestige. Elephants are mostly sponsored by individuals or business groups as an offering to the deity. The elephant owners are paid around Rs 2 to 3 lakh per day per elephant.

Extensive travelling during the season, extremely hot climate, a frenzied atmosphere, exposure to loud noise and harsh treatment by mahouts during training and parade have been the triggering factors for elephant-related tragedies in Kerala. Owing to interventions by the judiciary and an effective follow up by animal rights activists, there have been some regulations on parading elephants. However, elephant owners constantly flout the rules.

What really happens?

Venkitachalam, who runs Heritage Animal Task Force, an NGO, told DH that the basic restriction on preventing elephant parades between 11 am and 4 pm has been violated on several occasions and people often get close to the elephants. Elephants in musth are also often paraded and mahouts try to suppress the tuskers by inflicting wounds on them. During temple processions, elephants are made to walk for seven to eight hours without rest on tarred roads. 

As per rules, elephants should not be paraded continuously for five to six hours. This is not followed during many festivals, including the Thrissur Pooram, where the parade extends up to 10 hours, said Venkitachalam.

P Sasi Kumar, general secretary of Kerala Elephant Owners Federation, a forum of about 350 elephant owners in Kerala, said that a major reason for elephants turning violent was unrestricted access to the public. The government and police authorities should be able to control the crowd from coming close to the elephants instead of imposing any sort of ban on elephant parade as it is a part of Kerala’s tradition and culture, Sasi Kumar told DH.

While the federation, headed by MLA K B Ganesh Kumar, is up in arms against the ban on Thechikottukavu Ramachandran as well as restrictions of parading elephants, elephant rights activists said that for the elephant owners it is a matter of money as they earn lakhs of rupees during the season.

Those who are supporting the elephant parade during Thrissur Pooram point out that no elephant-related mishaps have occurred at the Pooram over these years. However, the elephant rights activists say that it was due to harsh methods used by the mahouts to control the elephants. All the four legs are locked with heavy chains and wounds are inflicted to control musth. All these happen even as norms prescribe stringent medical check-ups, said Venkitachalam. He also pointed out several instances of elephants showing violent behaviour during Thrissur Pooram.

A top official of the Kerala Forest Department said that the government should take a bold decision on the matter. “Obviously, we should not ignore our decades-old tradition of parading elephants at temple festivals. However, we should also not put innocent lives at risk,” said the officer who wished to remain anonymous as the issue is snowballing into a major controversy. The Forest Department and the Thrissur district administration which have banned Thechikottukavu Ramachandran from the parade are facing massive public ire.

The other side

It could even be the handiwork of elephant owners and other commercial establishments, as Thrissur Pooram has now gained a commercial value, the officer told DH.

“The government will only go by the reports of the district-level committees headed on the condition of elephants. If the Forest Department officials and experts maintain that an elephant may cause trouble if paraded in public, we will not favour parading it. Any pressure tactics by elephant owners will not influence the decision,” Kerala Forest Minister K Raju told DH.

“We are not insisting on a blanket ban of parading elephants, but are stressing on following prescribed norms. Festivals should leave behind good memories to cherish and not tragedies to mourn over,” said Venkitachalam. 

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