Thechikottukavu Ramachandran, the tallest elephant in Kerala, has long been the centre of a controversy. On Saturday, the Thrissur district administration revoked its ban on parading the elephant in the famous Thrissur Pooram temple festival in Kerala.

The decision eventually ended the debate that began in April after the administration banned the elephant from the festival citing its ill health and violent behaviour. The 55-year-old elephant has trampled upon 14 people since late 1990s and is blind in one eye.

Festival organisers and elephant owners had been demanding to rescind the decision since then, arguing the ban on the tallest captive elephant in Kerala at 10.5 feet would take the sheen off the state’s biggest temple festival, which is scheduled to be held on May 13 and 14.

The last time Ramachandran went out of control was just three months ago, on February 8, when he trampled upon two people at a housewarming ceremony in Thrissur district. Despite his notoriety, the jumbo enjoys a massive fan following thanks to his imposing physique. Fans have created at least 10 Facebook pages for him.

The Federation of Elephant Owners also threatened to stop renting out jumbos to festivals across the state if his ban to attend Pooram was not revoked.

Thechikkottukavu Ramachandran.

The controversy had taken a political tone with the BJP alleging that the Pinarayi Vijayan-led government was trying to disrupt temple rituals as it had done in Sabarimala last year. This was a reference to the government’s decision to implement a Supreme Court judgment allowing women of all ages to worship at the temple. Earlier, only girls and women not of menstruating age were allowed into the temple.

District collector TV Anupama declared on Saturday that a team of doctors has certified that the elephant is medically fit to be paraded in the festival.

The controversy has, however, put the spotlight on the stress elephants are subjected to during the 10-month long temple festival season in Kerala, which begins in August and ends in May.

Too many festivals, too few elephants

Parades of bedecked elephants bearing idols and colourful parasols are a common sight during the temple festival season in Kerala. According to unofficial estimates, more than 500 such festivals are held during this season.

At the Thrissur Pooram festival, apart from the elephant parade, ensembles of percussion instruments and a fireworks display are major attractions.

Animal rights groups say the festival season puts a huge amount of pressure on the state’s captive elephants who do not receive adequate rest for several months at a time.

One of the reasons for this is because their numbers have declined in the past 10 years while the number of temple festivals has gone up.

An elephant at a temple festival venue. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

In 2008, Kerala had 617 captive elephants. This figure is now less than 400, while the number of festivals has increased to over 500.

“The increase in the number of festivals puts pressure on the animals as these 400 elephants have to grace more than 500 festivals,” said Venkatachalam, founder of the Heritage Animal Task Force, a Thrissur-based non-governmental organisation working to prevent cruelty towards animals.

The number of elephants used in each festival ranges from five to 120. In 2018, as many as 117 elephants were part of the Thrissur Pooram parade.

“Owners get Rs 3 lakh a day for every elephant they rent out,” said Venkatachalam.

The huge amount of money at stake means owners even rent out elephants when they are in musth – a periodic condition in male elephants, when a surge in reproductive hormones makes them aggressive, which sometimes leads to the loss of lives. This condition can last a few weeks or months.

On Friday, a captive elephant brought for a ceremonial procession at a temple in Pathanamthitta ran amok damaging a few vehicles. On April 13, an elephant brought for a temple procession in Kollam district killed his mahout and injured many people when it went berserk.

Long journeys in shackles

The festival season is also particularly stressful for elephants because they have to be transported from one venue to another. For this, they are often loaded onto trucks and shackled, and have to remain that way on long road journeys without much sleep or food

Animal rights activists say inadequate food and rest affects the digestive system and lungs of elephants and eventually kills them. “More than 30 elephants have died in the last 18 months,” said an activist on condition of anonymity.

In 2018, a post mortem found that the death of 46-year-old elephant Thiruvambadi Sivasundar – a popular presence at temple festivals, including Thrissur Pooram – was due to impaction, or the blocking of the digestive tract with faecal matter.

An elephant being transported to a festival venue. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

Careless handling of animals and negligence by truck drivers have also hurt many elephants. On April 14, an elephant suffered deep gashes on his forehead after the driver of the truck the animal was being transported in went to fill fuel. “He drove the vehicle into the petrol pump without taking into account the height of the roof [of the petrol pump],” the mahout said.

In May 2018, following the deaths of 59 captive elephants since 2016, the state forest department revised the Kerala Captive Elephants Management and Maintenance Rules, 2012, to take strict legal action against those who torture or mistreat the animals.

The new rules stipulate that no elephant can be put to work during the musth period, a record of each elephant’s musth period must be kept, and the animal must be given sufficient care and rest during this time.

On May 9, the Kerala High Court directed district-level committees to strictly implement a Supreme Court order from August 2015 that banned sick, injured and pregnant elephants from participating in processions and festivals. The Supreme Court had also said that if the elephant was tortured, the state could confiscate the animal and initiate criminal proceedings against the person responsible.

The High Court sought the services of conservationist PS Easa to help the amicus curiae (friend of the court) to prepare a detailed report on the matter.

“We should try to sort out issues affecting captive elephants through dialogue with the owners and festival committees,” said Easa. “A confrontational approach will not help the elephants.”