The death of 13 captive elephants in Kerala in the past five months has sparked a debate on the cruelty shown to these animals – an intrinsic part of the state’s grand temple festival tradition – and prompted a revision of the rules protecting them. The deaths follow 20 captive elephants dying in 2017 and 26 the year before, according to media reports.

On May 2, the state forest department announced that it had revised the Kerala Captive Elephants Management and Maintenance Rules, 2012, and would take strict legal action against those who torture or mistreat the animals.

PK Kesavan, the state’s chief wildlife warden, blamed the deaths this year on careless handling and wilful negligence. “Elephant owners make maximum profits during the festival season but pay scant attention to the well-being of the elephants,” he told “They do not give adequate food and time for enough rest to them.”

Kesavan explained that elephants are different from other captive animals and require special treatment. “Elephants need huge amount of food and adequate rest,” he said. “Denying them both will badly affect their health.”

According to K Venkitachalam of the Heritage Animal Task Force, a non-governmental organisation in Thrissur, an elephant needs 200 kg of tree leaves and 200 litres of water every day. “Unfortunately, a majority of the captive elephants get less than one-tenth the required quantity because of the festivals,” he said.

A parade of elephants bedecked with ornaments and carrying idols and colourful parasols is a major attraction in Kerala’s temple festivals. By unofficial estimates, more than 500 such temple festivals are held in the state between August and May. The number of elephants used in each festival ranges from five to 120. Thrissur Pooram, considered the biggest temple festival in Kerala, concluded on April 26 and boasted a line-up of 117 elephants.

Captive elephants in Kerala are overworked and underfed. (Credit: Heritage Animal Task Force)

Why elephants die

Animal rights activists say inadequate food and rest affects the digestive system and lungs of elephants and eventually kills them. Impaction, or the blocking of the digestive tract with faecal matter, killed 46-year-old elephant Thiruvambadi Sivasundar – a popular presence at temple festivals, including Thrissur Pooram – on March 11. The post-mortem found a big, hard ball of dung had clogged up his intestine. In February, Kodumon Deepu and Vayalassery Kesavan, both 52 years old, also died of impaction.

Kerala’s captive elephants are overworked and do not receive adequate rest because their numbers have declined in the past 10 years while the number of temple festivals has gone up. “In 2008, Kerala had 617 captive elephants. The number now stands at 404,” said Venkitachalam of the Heritage Animal Task Force. “On the other hand, the number of festivals has gone up to more than 500. These 404 elephants have to grace the 500-odd festivals. It is a huge task.”

He added, “With the increase in the number of festivals, elephants have to be transported from one festival venue to another by truck without much delay. Elephants have to stand in shackles during these long journeys. It deprives them of much-needed rest. It is another form of torture.”

Venkitachalam said elephant owners are bothered only about profit – they make Rs 3 lakh a day for every elephant they rent out – and not the welfare of their animals. “Hence they don’t give rest to the elephants,” he said.

The elephants travel long distances in chains from one festival to another. (Credit: Heritage Animal Task Force)

What the rules say

The revised rules promise to end this practice by identifying and monitoring overworked elephants in every district. Chief Wildlife Warden Kesavan said owners would be required to maintain a register of each elephant’s movements. “Officials will check the register regularly to know how many hours the elephant travelled and the places they visited,” he said.

The new rules stipulate that no elephant can be put to work during the musth period – a periodic condition in male elephants when a surge in reproductive hormones makes them aggressive and run amok, sometimes leading to the loss of human lives. Furthermore, a record of an elephant’s musth period must be kept and the animal given sufficient care and rest during this time.

Kesavan said district-level committees would play a crucial role in this exercise. “The 11-member district committee has a district collector as the chairman and assistant conservator of forests as the convenor,” he said. “There will be representatives from different government departments.”

He added that though these committees have been functioning since the rules were formed in 2012, a 2015 Supreme Court order had given them more powers. On August 18, 2015, the Supreme Court had ruled that elephant owners who paraded the animals in temple festivals would have to register themselves with the district committees and also mention how many elephants would be thus used. The order also said that if the elephant was tortured, the state could confiscate the animal and initiate criminal proceedings against the person responsible.

“We will strictly enforce [the] rule. It is time we ended cruelty to elephants,” Kesavan said.

The new rules have enthused animal rights activists. Venkitachalam said it would make the government more accountable to ensure the well-being of elephants. “Those who are concerned with the well-being of elephants can now inform the forest officials if they come to know about tortures,” he said. “I hope the forest department officials will act tough on elephant owners and festival organisers who do not comply with the rules.”

He added, “If they do not act, we will file right to information queries to know the truth. We will make them accountable.”