On Thursday, the 10th anniversary of the founding of World Elephant Day, we take a moment to celebrate. Along with our festivities for the Olympic wins (and Neeraj Chopra’s marvellous gold), we rejoice a similar jubilant moment at home – the release earlier this month of the elephant named Rivaldo back in the wild in the Mudumalai Forest Reserve by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department after his treatment and recovery from injury.
The release and rewilding of an elephant is not an easy task. It requires scientific assessment, planning, regular monitoring, but above all a commitment to honour the inherent right of the elephant to live a natural life. This commitment shown by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department has the capacity to abolish misguided belief systems that argue that captivity can be a humane alternative in the life of elephants.
India has the largest population of elephants (Asian Elephants, Elephas Maximus), estimated roughly at 27,000. Of these, approximately 2,500 are held in captivity. While some elephants are in zoos or with forest departments, almost 1,700 elephants are privately owned either by temples or private individuals.
There has been a substantial decline in poaching and hunting of elephants in recent decades. In the 1970s, India’s wild elephant population was estimated at 17,000. In the five decades since, there has been a 70% rise in the population thanks to programmes like Project Elephant spearheaded by the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
However, in a rapidly urbanising India, with high levels of deforestation, this has caused conflicts and challenges. Elephants are increasingly seen as a threat to crops, to villages around elephant reserves, and to human life. Despite criminal prohibitions, tuskers fall prey to poachers who continue to feed the endless black market demand for ivory.
The result has been the deaths of many elephants by poisoning, explosives, and other brutal forms. Last year saw the horrific death of pregnant Elephant Saumya in Kerala’s Palakkad district from injuries inflicted by firecrackers concealed in fruit. Many elephants also die of electrocution and railway accidents thanks to the infrastructure that a growing urban India is carving through the forests.
Elephants at risk are often taken captive. This is widely misunderstood as a solution to neutralise the threat of conflict between humans and wild elephants. In reality, Elephants are highly intelligent, sentient beings with complex emotions. Their happiness, dignity and survival is linked to living as free animals in the wild. Captivity is a violent deviation from that.
An example of co-existence
This was the fear articulated by a Chennai Professor T Murugavel in his writ petition before the Madras High Court early this year, in response to which the forest department made a firm commitment to treat, assess and release Rivaldo.
Rivaldo, approximately 35 years of age, is a unique example of human and wildlife co-existence. He was among the 15 or so wild elephants in Mudumalai who were befriended, cared for, and named after famous football players by the late conservationist Mark Davidar. Many years ago a younger Rivaldo was suffering from a maggot wound on his trunk, and Davidar was the only one who could get close and treat him.
The story goes that as Rivaldo recovered, he would visit Davidar regularly at his home on his daily walk to say hello. Rivaldo’s recent capture was necessitated because he had another injury which was interfering with his breathing and the complaints of him being spotted wandering in pain were piling up. Davidar had passed on in 2013, leaving Rivaldo without the only human friend (and potential nurse) he knew.
One of the first cases where a captive elephant was freed into natural surroundings was a young temple elephant called Girija Prasad. Girija was illegally sold by an elephant owner/trader in Kerala, like cattle, to a temple in Bangalore in 1999. For years, he was tied up on all four legs oozing pus. In addition he had over 60 wounds on his trunk from constant prodding from the metal hook (ankush), to get him to obey the mahout.
After an eight year-long legal battle with multiple forest department and high court proceedings and orders, Girija was released to a Karnataka forest facility and declared free from private ownership in 2012. Girija’s story inspired Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre to research and publish over 50 reports assessing the welfare of captive elephants across India.
All elephants must be free
Despite our best efforts to recommend and devise methods to improve the welfare of elephants in captivity, we are left today with only one conclusion: captivity is not consistent with the welfare of elephants. All elephants, even those, that have been domesticated in captivity need freedom from chains, must be relocated to natural environments, and have access to safe and potential social interactions with other elephants.
By keeping elephant captivity alive, we are the animal like cattle, though they are listed under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, which affords them protection from poaching, killing and being traded.
But they are not cattle. In fact, they make for very bad cattle with high costs of upkeep and risks associated with the constant stress of captivity. In Kerala alone two or three captive elephants die every month, and many mahouts and bystanders have been killed by elephants from the rage and anger caused by the violence and stress of captivity.
Often, activism of all kinds, especially for the welfare of animals, is mistaken as an adversarial role vis-à-vis the government departments, and their agencies and officers. The work of Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre in the past two decades confirms that it is anything but that.
Effective, sustainable and long-term solutions for the welfare of animals, especially wild animals like elephants, can only emerge by working with the forest departments. The government and departments will respond to our collective moral compass, which should shun any use of elephants in captivity.
The single message from Girija Prasad to Rivaldo is of change, the key to which lies in our own actions. We need to come together to say no to elephant rides, processions and their use in temples for blessings.
We have a long way to go, but today we can stop and celebrate. We can hope that Rivaldo is the beginning of a radical change, where we will not mistake the momentary connection of mutual acknowledgement and empathy between elephants and humans as a claim to hold them captive, and then own, trade and exploit them.
Their freedom comes first and is non-negotiable.
Alok Hisarwala Gupta is an animal rights lawyer based in Goa.