Tamed and domesticated: hard life of captive elephants

A captive elephant put in a kraal in Chamarajanagar. DH photo

A high density of Asiatic elephants across its forests has put Karnataka at the centre of elephant conservation activities in the country. Alongside its thriving population of elephants in the wild, Karnataka is also home to a considerable number of elephants under captivity and has a long history of the domestication of elephants.

Until the enactment of Wildlife Protection Act 1972, Karnataka’s forests, especially the southern districts, were known for the cruel Khedda operations. However, with the official ban on such methods, the focus has shifted to elephant camps owned by the Forest Department where wild elephants are tamed and domesticated.

According to Forest Department officials, most of the elephants housed in various camps are either captured or rescued out of compulsion. “Known for their marauding acts, these elephants cannot be let out again into the wild. Hence they are ‘tamed’ at elephant camps to adapt to the requirements of the department like patrolling, kumki or safari purpose,” said a senior forest official refusing to be quoted.

After the rescue, the sedated wild elephant is caged in a scientifically designed wooden kraal whose strength is much more than that of the elephant, with the help of other elephants.

Usually, the kraals are made of strong wooden logs of eucalyptus, which are difficult for an elephant to break.

“Their rigorous training begins at the kraal and the duration of this training ranges from two to six months depending on the elephant’s reaction. Once inside the kraal, the elephant will gradually become habituated to lead the life of a camp elephant listening to the commands and directions of its mahouts,” said a retired mahout from Mathigodu elephant camp.

Trapped to train

To begin with, the ‘kraal’ed elephant is often flocked by other female elephants in the camp who would try to touch and befriend the elephant trapped in the kraal. As the new elephant begins to respond to the elephants and make friends, the next stage of training involving visual commands and sounds largely in Urdu and Hindi will commence. There are about 20 to 30 commands through which an elephant will be taught and made to interact with its attendants.

“That is when the elephant’s bonding with its men—mahout and kavadi, begins. During the course, they will attempt to hand feed the elephant with cooked food. While half of the diet is cooked food, another half will be raw including green fodder. Towards the end of these, the mahout will try to mount on the elephant and if he is comfortable and obeys him, it will be the sign that he has adapted to the environs and will be let out of the kraal,” the mahout explained.

Even though the elephants may come out of kraal within two to six months to live the ‘free life’, the chains attached to their legs will not be removed for the rest of their life, and their world will only revolve around mahouts and kavadis.

Depending on the elephant’s responses, they will be assigned with specific tasks of being a kumki or sent for safari activities, according to forest officials. It is also a general practice in some of the camps to allow captive elephants to venture into surrounding forest areas and mingle with other elephants or forage on green fodder.

According to a report on Captive Elephants of Karnataka, an investigation into the population status, management and welfare significance by prominent elephant experts, the elephant camps of Karnataka score over other centres like temples and zoos that also house captive elephants.

However, the increased breeding at these camps is still a concern considering space, food and budgetary constraints. While the elephants are allowed to forage on naturally available food, not all of them will be able to feed themselves satisfactorily.

Considering the nutrient quotient of the elephants and work assigned to them, the jumbos are fed with a variety of food supplements as prescribed by the veterinarians and Karnataka Forest manual of 1976.

Breaking their spirit

However, animal lovers often criticise the treatment of elephants. Dr Manilal Valliyate, chief executive officer of PETA opines that captive elephants are often trained through violence.

“Handlers typically break elephants’ spirits by forcing them into a kraal where they can not move or turn. When not working, the elephants spend their lives in chains and live in fear of being hit. Due to this lifelong abuse, captive elephants often develop neurotic and self-harming behaviour which is often evident with so many violent incidents in the recent past,” he pointed out.

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