Living in captivity, and surviving it

no wild run this: If captive elephants die before their time, it would give rise to more wild elephant poaching and abduction, thereby affecting the wild population and fuelling illegal trade. AFP

A few years ago, Lakshmi, a relatively healthy temple elephant in Davanagere, Karnataka, died all of a sudden. When the forest department officials were called to investigate, they found that Lakshmi had died of constipation. It was the festival season and the elephant had been fed coconut and bananas for days on end, leading to her tragic demise.

Like Lakshmi, there are between 3,000 to 4,000 captive elephants in India used as temple elephants, work elephants or as tourist attractions. Most live in despicable conditions and, according to a recently released report, all of them have a very high chance of early death, especially the younger ones that have been separated from their mothers too soon.

Researchers add that if proper attention is not given to the dismal state in which the captive elephants are kept and cared for, their population may decline in the next 50 years, affecting wild elephant population as well.

Social animals

Elephants are extremely intelligent mammals with complex family structures, and a very active lifestyle when they live in the forests. The family is lead by a matriarch and consists mostly of sisters, daughters and their offspring. They travel an average of 30 km a day looking for food. When a calf is born, it is not only the mother but also the aunts and the sisters who have an important role to play in its development over the next few years.

The pace of the herd is adjusted, so the young can keep up. By watching the elders and older siblings, the baby learns which plants to eat and which to discard, how to use the trunk to play as well as to drink. Mothers and aunts are in almost constant affectionate contact with the young, cajoling with their trunk, waving the ears, letting them play under the belly, offering guidance, assistance and protection. These babies continue to learn till they are at least two years old and continue to be under watchful eyes of the elders till they are five.

Compare this then to the life of an elephant that has been held captive. The mammoth animal is deprived of space, stimulation and community. Most often, they are housed alone in cramped spaces, chained, moving on cement floors that can cause chronic pain, severe foot damage and arthritis. Sweets and cooked rice are unnatural food for elephants; yet, this is mostly what they are subjected to eat if they are in temples.

According to Compassion Unlimited Plus Action (CUPA), captive elephants spend most of their lives buffeted between prolonged periods of sedentary confinement when they are not “on the job” and overexertion under unnatural and unhealthy conditions when they are. When confined, they are tied up without exercise. As a result, captive elephants routinely die of tuberculosis, foot abscess, malnutrition, and countless other preventable illnesses.

Suparna Ganguly of CUPA says that 73 captive elephants have died in Kerala since 2016 while at least five died in Tamil Nadu in 2018. To compensate for these deaths, more are then captured from the wild.

Over one-third of the world’s captive elephants are in Myanmar, Thailand and India. A research team from the University of Sheffield and the University of Turku, in Finland, worked alongside the Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE) to study a population of 3,500 work elephants over a period of 54 years. They wanted to see how trends in elephant capture from the wild influenced birth, death and population growth of the captive counterparts.

They found that the years when wild capture was less, the captive elephant population became vulnerable and began to decline as juvenile elephants died periodically in captivity. It pointed to the dependence of captive elephant population on wild capture, without which it is unsustainable.

Professor Virpi Lummaa, who led the research, said, “The dependence of captive elephant populations on capture from the wild in the past is truly alarming. The problem with elephants is that they take so long to grow and reproduce and have very complex social lives, making them vulnerable to population declines when disturbed.”

Undeniably, if captive elephants die before their time, it would give rise to more wild elephant poaching and abduction, thereby affecting the wild population and fuelling illegal trade. On the other hand, if wild captures are curbed, the chance of a captive ‘workforce’ of elephants going down rapidly in the next 50 years is evident.

The team however believes there is a solution. If captive elephant lifeline can be increased by paying a little more attention to their needs, both the wild and captive animals can have a fighting chance to survive.

A better life

“One hopeful result is that we may see improvements in population growth if we are able to improve the survival of young elephants by just 10%. This shows we can really make a difference by improving welfare for these vulnerable individuals in captivity,” says Dr John Jackson, researcher from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences and lead author.

In India, organisations like Gaja Raksha, CUPA and Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) have already taken the initiative to work with captive elephants and their mahouts or other caregivers to create better conditions for the animals. Simple measures such as sheathing the elephant’s chains with rubber, and creating larger enclosures to providing a community feeling, especially to the younger elephants, can make a huge difference.

Many of the elephants, who have lived in captivity all their lives, do not adjust well to total freedom in a forest. Initiatives such as providing them a secure forested area and a life of semi-captivity can be a solution as has been provided by organisations like Wildlife SOS.

Looking at another problem area, WTI has conducted workshops with mahouts and forest officers in Kerala to teach new training methods for elephants that are less punishment-based like the traditional methods, and hence not a painful exercise for the animals.

“Elephant training like the teaching of any species involves capturing their motivations and rewarding correct responses. Science gives us an enlightened toolbox with which we can teach elephants to do what we want in a much faster and safer way than traditional methods,” says Dr Andrew McLean, a noted animal trainer who has conducted these workshops in India and Nepal and has seen positive outcome.

As the authors of the research note, it is not the trainers alone that can make a difference. Many of us see captive elephants used in temples and tourism and we have a role to play in ensuring their welfare is improved by raising a voice when we see the animals are not being kept or treated well.

Captivity is not the life choice an elephant makes, but if indeed its stellar strength finds use in timber-tourism industries or its God-like status finds a place in temples, the working class elephant deserves the premium care, attention, and respect from its caretakers and worshippers that is as magnanimous as the animal itself. 

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Living in captivity, and surviving it

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