On Thursday, an elephant at the Kodappully temple in Alappad, Kerala turned violent and uprooted a coconut tree that came crashing down on his mahout. The mahout was rushed to a hospital but died of his injuries. The tragic tale is also a common one. In the three years up to 2010, 71 mahouts were killed by accidents involving captive elephants, according to a petition filed in the Supreme Court by the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, a Bangalore-based NGO. In the same period the death toll among captive elephants due to ill-treatment was 215.

Some of these elephants have made the headlines. A year ago, Sunder was released from a temple in Mumbai to a sanctuary in Bangalore. He had been chained, beaten and wounded. Raju is reported to have cried when he was rescued from confinement in spiked chains. The less fortunate Bijlee and Poornima died of exhaustion and starvation.

Despite the provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, creation of special elephant task forces, deeming the Asian elephant as a Heritage Animal and its presence on the definitive global list of endangered species, it has been standard practice in India to use and abuse captive elephants often leading to violent behavior by the animal.

WRRC has fought many court battles on behalf of the Asian elephant, especially in Karnataka. It has approached the court to keep elephant migratory corridors intact and even to stop aircraft flypasts over Dusshera procession involving elephants. The latest petition in the Supreme Court is one that might change the fate of captive and wild elephants in the country.

The petition asks that the country slowly phase out all private ownership of elephants citing abysmal treatment and outright cruelty. The focus is on South India, especially in Kerala, where they are integral to many religious customs, from the big bang festivals to daily blessings to temple goers. In major celebrations, like the Thrissur Pooram, the battalion of decked up elephants cut sorry figures. They are heavily chained, bruised by shackles around their legs, nervous in the noisy chaos and forced to stand or walk for hours.

Most common form of abuse is leaving elephants chained for most of the day for years on end, said a wildlife veterinarian involved with elephant rescue. “Elephants are something around four tonne kilos and those four tonnes have to balanced out on four legs,” he said. “If you make them walk around only for 45 minutes, the rest of the 23 hours are terrible for them.”

Who can own an elephant?

There are more than 3,000 captive elephants in India and they’re not all in the temples of south India. Many are used to begging on roadsides across the country. Many are used in tourism in Rajasthan and in north India. Many are seen in mosque and church parades. It is illegal to capture wild elephants and with restricted supply they are often leased out for functions – a highly profitable exercise for elephant owner who can make Rs 50,000 from a single event.

The transfer of elephant ownership involves outrageous amounts of money, even up to Rs 1 crore.  The Wildlife Protection Act makes elephant trade illegal but captive elephants can be transferred from one owner to another. An elephant owner must get an ownership certificate from the Chief Wildlife Conservator of the state. Till a few years ago, ownership certificates were easy to get and almost anyone could own and elephant, said Suparna Baksi-Ganguly, trustee of WRRC and former member of India’s task force on elephants.

But with iffy background checks on where captive elephants are being supplied from, activists like Baksi-Ganguly suspect and many are being captured from the wild and pushed into the captive circuit. “We have only 25,000-30,000 elephants in the wild and these captures and deaths are a huge loss to conservation efforts,” she said. “Loss of tuskers can be deemed as hunting and poaching since their captivity and eventual untimely deaths reduce the genetic diversity of our wild elephant populations.”

Members of the wildlife trade monitoring organisation TRAFFIC have found grown tuskers and elephant calves being sold at animal fairs like the annual mela at Sonepur.

For now the Supreme Court’s Social Justice Bench has postponed hearing the captive elephant petition by a week. A court diktat to ban all private ownership of elephants, however desirable, throws up another question – where will all these jumbos go? “There are no rescue center in India except three – in Kerala, Haryana and Karnataka. Lack of budget and funding has rendered these incapable of housing confiscated or sick elephants,” said Baksi-Ganguly.