In September, the Madras High Court passed two remarkable orders to protect captive elephants.
On September 23, in a petition filed to recapture Rivaldo, who has already been released back in the wild after having been captured once by the forest department, the Court led by Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee affirmed that wild “animals are best left in the wild”. And a day later, on September 24, in an ongoing case to determine the best future for all existing private and temple elephants in the state of Tamil Nadu, the same court stopped any further elephants coming into captivity or private ownership.
Both these decisions are unprecedented and must be celebrated. But the news across the Nilgiris in Kerala is disheartening, to say the least. Last month also marked the inaugural launch of the Pooram season with the Thiruvilwamala Nirmala Festival in Thrissur, where the highlight is a parade of caparisoned elephants.
On the same day as Justice Banerjee dictated an order to retain Rivaldo as a free animal in the wild, a 26-year-old elephant Parmeswaran, was chained, beaten and dragged to the Thiruvilwamala Temple in Kerala.
Like many before him, Parmeswaran had had enough of the beating, the chained confinement, the forced load of the nettipattam (headdress). Stressed and exhausted, Parmeswaran shook his body hard, throwing the mahout off his back and in almost allegoric symbolism broke the deepastambham, the cemented ceremonial lamp.
The media pathologised and pre-judged him with headlines of a “mad” elephant gone “violent” and “berserk”. The narrative reeks of our predisposition to blame the victim for an act of defiance, but not to examine the structure of oppression and violence that caused the elephant to retaliate.
The mahout was lucky. He had severe injuries that needed surgery, though he survived. But a 25- year old mahout named Vishnu who was thrown off and trampled in a similar rage by an elephant Gowindrajan in January this year in Thiruvananthapuram died immediately. He was the second mahout killed by Gowindrajan.
Kerala has a curious history of a blinkered kind of love for elephants, where despite widespread awareness of both the dangers and the violence to elephants embedded in the Pooram celebrations, the festival continues to thrive. This love is called Annapremam. And in today’s digital age Annapremis celebrate their love for their beloved elephants on social media, with dedicated handles for each famous tusker.
The reality is quite different.
Mahoutery is a dangerous job that requires a human to take control of an animal a few thousand times its size. Terms like art, craft, skill, culture and tradition disguise the violence coded into the means of communications between the mahout and the elephant. The greatest myth of all is that “captive” (which the dictionary defines as imprisoned) elephants are tame, domesticated animals with unconditional love and obeisance for their mahouts.
Between 2014 and 2021, animal rights activists from Kerala have documented over 50 incidents of captive elephants attacking their owners, mahouts, kavadis, handlers, or spectators out of stress and fear in retaliation to their torture-based training. Despite such real threats to human lives, the elephants are forcibly paraded for religious ceremonies.
Take the recent case of Thechikottukavu Ramachandran, a 54-year old tusker who is partially blind. He is also anything but tame. He has, on record, killed 13 people. The Chief Wildlife Warden, the second-highest administrative authority in a state under the Wildlife Protection Act, placed a ban on parading Ramachandran after he was found medically unfit by a five-member committee.
Yet under pressure from the public, the Thrissur district collector in 2019 provided an hour-long reprieve to participate in Pooram. The temple board has continued to parade him, because despite being known to be dangerous – or maybe because of it – he is widely popular. He fetches around Rs 2 lakh a day from Pooram rentals.
And this year, in 2021, the government has allowed the elephant to be paraded twice a week in Thrissur and Palakkad for temple festivals.
Violence at Pooram
Do people just come to watch elephants in the Pooram parades as a cultural attachment? Or is there a shared masculine adrenaline-inducing pride in watching humans control a wild animal, one that is already branded as dangerous? Pooram is not just a traditional cultural activity anymore. It has become almost a violent performative sport.
It is not just the mahouts who die during Pooram. The elephants die as well. A colleague of mine, an animal rights activist from Kerala, has documented approximately 190 captive elephant deaths in Kerala from 2016 till today, an average of more than three deaths per month.
This is far worse than anywhere else in India. An average of 100 wild elephants out of a total population of 27,000 die every year across India of unnatural consequences (0.3 %). In comparison, 35-40 captive elephants die every year in Kerala out of a population of approximately 500 – the highest death rate of captive elephants in any state (at 8%). Elephants can live up to 80 years in the wild, but in Kerala, many are dying in their prime before the age of 40 years.
Thirty times more elephants die in Kerala alone every year in captivity, in comparison to the unnatural deaths of the wild elephant population in the whole of India. This is a national crisis.
On April 8, 51-year-old Ambalapuzha Vijayakrishnan, a temple elephant owned by the Travancore Devosam Board, died from the stress and preparation for a Pooram celebration. Despite activist protests and evidence of deteriorating health – he had a degenerative swollen leg, from continued tethering and confinement to one place – he was given a clean chit by the government veterinarians and permitted to be taken from Kollam to Alappuzha.
The first captive elephant welfare rules in Kerala were enacted in 2003, and new rules were brought in 2012. In addition, the Supreme Court in 2015 warned of strict criminal action against any complaints of torture of elephants in preparation for the Pooram. But the continued culture of violence on Pooram elephants confirms the failure of the welfare regime.
Time to act
In March 2020, two animals activists from Kerala, Sally Varma and Preethi Sreevalsan staged a brave protest outside a temple compound in Thrissur, with massive sexist retaliation and attacks by crowds of male temple-goers.
They were only demanding that elephant Kalidas who was being prepared for the Pooram event later, be given water in the day both to drink and to cool his body. He remained tied on the hot burning ground with no shade for six hours before water was provided for him at 3.30 pm.
The time for welfare interventions (meaning the management of the captive elephants with better living and working conditions in captivity for Pooram) is now over. It has been tried, tested and failed. We have seen this repeatedly, and the incident with elephant Parameswaran last week has only confirmed it. Parmeswaran was in musth – a period in which an elephant cannot be made to work, and his handlers/owners did not have a required medical fitness certificate. In addition, he was beaten mercilessly by his mahout to perform for the Nirmala celebrations.
There was one change though this time. The public outrage over the attack on the mahout and the deepasthanam was directed at the elephant owner and the mahout. For once, the public connected their love for the elephant and with awareness of the abuse it suffered. This could herald a new moral compass. We need to phase out elephant use in all religious processions and functions.
Kerala is the beacon for the rest of India in so many ways – then why fail on animal protection? Two elephants support the state emblem of Kerala, and the elephant itself often represents Kerala to the world. In 2021, the animal cannot also be a victim of violence and abuse. We need decisive action and maybe a little bit of inspiration from Tamil Nadu.
Alok Hisarwala is an animal rights lawyer based in Goa.