Towards the end of 2020, a world desperate for feel-good stories celebrated the deliverance of “the world’s loneliest elephant” from three decades of captivity in Pakistan. Born in Sri Lanka in 1985 Kaavan was gifted to Pakistan as a young, frightened and lonely calf. His sole companion, another elephant from Bangladesh, died in 2012.
After years of campaigning and court cases, Kaavan was freed by a judgement from the Islamabad High Court, which notably built on the principle laid down by the Indian Supreme Court that animals also have an equal constitutional claim to a right to a dignified life. After boarding a Russian plane that stopped to refuel in Delhi, he finally reached a sanctuary in Cambodia where the singer Cher, who spearheaded the Kaavan campaign, serenaded him with the famous Cinderella song “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes”.
Around the same time, another elephant died in Goa, unnoticed by the media or even the government department meant to look after her interests. She was much older than Kaavan and from another corner of this warring subcontinent. Lakshmi Kumari was born in 1950, also the birth year of the Indian Constitution, faraway in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.
The Andaman years
The first documented proof of Lakshmi Kumari’s life is a 1999 document confirming her ownership in Andaman to a private individual. It mentions her age as 49 or even 50 and that she lived and worked as a timber logging elephant of Andamans.
The Andamans do not have a native elephant population, but demand for timber had led the British to create forest plantations there. And they brought over elephants from the mainland to drag logs of wood up and down steep slopes of the forest to meet the never-ending demands of urban consumption.
Lakshmi Kumari’s life had hardship, but need not have been fully bad. Using elephants for timber logging, while a cruel, exploitative practice, does at least treat them as regular working animals and allows them breaks. If she was lucky, some days she would be allowed to forage in the forest with hobbles tied to her leg. She probably could not get far, but must have enjoyed those few moments of freedom in which to smell the forest and find her own food.
A Compassion Unlimited Plus Action/Asian Elephant Research and Conservation study of elephants in the Andamans estimated that 30% of them were kept with no social contact with other elephants. Hopefully, Lakshmi Kumari was in the other 70% and despite five decades of captivity and hard labour, she had moments to be free, socialise, make friends and possibly even find an occasional mate.
The elephants of Andaman do something amazing: they swim across islands on their way to work or during their free time.
This natural behaviour was tapped by the timber industry to move elephants across the 500 plus islands of the archipelago but has also over the years become a tourist attraction. We hope that Lakshmi Kumari was a champion swimmer, maybe even like the elephant that was found 16-km off the coast of Sri Lanka, swimming towards freedom in an attempt to escape her captivity.
That first documented administrative proof of Lakshmi Kumari came when she was close to retirement from logging. But for elephants in India retirement too often means simply a change to a different kind of labour. In Lakshmi Kumari’s case, she still had years left for begging, bowing, blessing, carrying idols in the temples of Kerala.
On March 20, 2006, in her mid-50s, Lakshmi Kumari was microchipped in Andamans as part of a national policy to track all captive elephants and put an end to their illegal trade. This official recognition of her identity could have been a recognition of her as a subject of the Constitution she was coeval with – her microchip number “0006478847” the equivalent of her Aadhar. But instead, it was simply to facilitate her sale, affirming her as a tradeable commodity.
A brief stop in Kerala
Lakshmi Kumari was traded to Kerala in 2006 or soon thereafter. Dr Surendra Varma in the Compassion Unlimited Plus Action/Asian Elephant Research and Conservation report notes that in 2001 with the phasing out of elephants for logging many elephant owners began to sell them to Tamil Nadu and Kerala for temple use. These were a special class of businessmen/traders who have perfected the art of managing the system to ensure a constant supply of temple elephants across India, but mainly to the southern States.
In her mid-50s Lakshmi Kumari began a new phase of her life, with new handlers, a new environment, but most of all a whole new kind of work: temple processions, begging, and idol worship. In her walks to beg in towns, hours of temple blessings, or maybe during the grand Poozham celebrations, did she meet some of her old mates from Andamans?
Lakshmi was not an ideal Poozham elephant. She lacked the elegance of a perfect tusker, most notably having only one tusk. Her right tusk was gone, probably to fuel the ivory trade, which commonly chips away bits of the tusks of living animals. She would have been relegated to the margins of the Poozham events, to be traded away when a more aesthetically pleasing elephant was available. Her days in Kerala were numbered.
The next relevant document on record jumps six years ahead to 2012 when we first learn the name of her new owner, a certain P Muhammad Koya, a resident of Mallapuram, Kerala. We see a flurry of medical reports, veterinary certifications, affidavits from 2012, all affirmed in Kerala, which lead to an insurance policy. Lakshmi Kumari, a sentient animal, but also an owned chattel, was insured by Koya for a total sum of Rs 800,000 in 2012, at the age of 62 years against the risk of her upcoming journey/transportation.
The long walk to Goa
Goa, the great tourism-hub, is always looking for new ways to generate experiential revenue and at some point, a decision was made to add Thailand-style elephant parks. A total of four “spice farms” over the past two decades have acquired anywhere from 12 elephants to 15 elephants from Assam, Bihar, Andamans and Kerala for tourist rides and elephant trunk-spray baths. This has been very popular with tourists.
Unlike in the Andamans or Kerala, there are no rules of management, let alone retirement, that govern the welfare of captive elephants in Goa. For a seasoned captive elephant trader like Koya, selling ageing, one-tusked, reasonably tempered Lakshmi Kumari to Goa must have seemed a good opportunity. Somewhere in 2012 or 2013, Lakshmi Kumari made her way to Goa.
Under Indian law, a person can own a captive elephant but cannot resell it. Yet they remain a commodity and traders find creative ways to complete transactions as gift deeds, power of attorneys, and lease agreements.
Until 1991, the Wildlife Protection Act classified captive elephants as “cattle”, a wrong that stands rectified, but the practice remains unchanged. Captive elephants for those who own them, are always cattle: working animals, that can be traded at any time. To bypass the restriction on sale on captive elephants, Koya released power of attorney in the favour the new “owner”, allowing him full control and possession of Lakshmi Kumari.
Some details of Lakshmi Kumari’s life were disclosed to the Chief Wildlife Warden of Goa, in a 2016 letter, in response to repeated activist complaints that Lakshmi Kumari and other Goa spice farm elephants were being mishandled by cruel methods. The owner of the spice farm who purchased Lakshmi Kumari mentions in the documentation, perhaps with a tinge of guilt, that they had great difficulty bringing Lakshmi Kumari from Kerala in 2012. “She was afraid to enter the truck,” he writes.
This is the first time we learn that Lakshmi Kumari has a fear of something, or anything truly individual about her personality. Unable to load her on the truck, they made her walk. At the age of 62 or more, Lakshmi Kumari walked over 650 km from Kerala to Goa through often hilly, exhausting terrain.
We do not know whether it was summer or monsoon. Was she treated with affection in the towns she walked through and maybe made to beg one last time? Did she rest by the sea and perhaps dream of swimming again, frustrated that her new handlers, who changed so often, would not have known of her possible abilities from the Andamans? Was she just hoping to find a home, a safe space to rest and be free?
But in Goa, Lakshmi Kumari began the third phase of her labour: to work as an entertainer. Now she had to raise a leg and pose for tourists, give them rides and spray baths. None of this, or anything she was trained to, is a natural behaviour for an elephant. She had to be taught it and the tools of the teaching were sharp instruments, dug into the sensitive nerve endings behind her ears, tail and leg, to force her to learn, or suffer their pain.
The handlers administering these instruments changed over her 70 years. They would have been much younger than her, with less than half her life experience. They would have spoken to her in different languages. They spoke to her in Bengali and Hindi in the Andamans, in Malayalam in Kerala and bits of Konkani but mostly Hindi in Goa. But the painful messages were always the same.
Not all tourists were entertained by this. A series of complaints filed by appalled observers, taken forward by activists in Goa, had put a halt to the use of elephants in the spice farms, though occasionally ways were found to use them for events like the destination weddings that Goa is promoting. And then Covid-19 brought an end to even these.
Lakshmi Kumari spent the last five months of her life chained to her corner under the shed alongside her companion Chanchal a younger elephant that was brought from Bihar. Their third companion the handsome Babu, who was gifted from Gujarat, was tied in a separate shed, 50 metres apart. They had two sets of thick ropes on their necks and one hard chained rope in the back leg. They could bow down to eat, but barely turn to look at each other. They were tied up 24X7 merely because they wanted to move freely, a crime if you are a captive elephant.
Lakshmi Kumari finally passed away at age 70, a few months ago, ostensibly of old age and lung infection (a curious parallel with thousands of Covid deaths around the world, at the same time). Chanchal and Babu are still there, still chained and confined the same way.
The lost promise of compassion
Lakshmi Kumari’s life spanned that of the Indian Constitution, which in 1976, with the 42nd Amendment, inserted a constitutional duty to show compassion to living creatures. Lakshmi Kumari, like the Constitution, was a young 26-year old elephant in those days. It is doubtful if news of the 42nd Amendment travelled to the faraway Andamans and made much difference to her life, with its daily workload, captivity and constant prodding with metal hooks.
But, did a lifetime of captivity, and her consequent dependency on humans, take away her natural desire to be free? Lakshmi Kumari was a modern-day slave who lived, worked, was traded – abused and tortured – till she died, within the tenure of the Indian Constitution. As with slaves, we gave her a human name, but that could hardly conceal the indignity of her life.
The last six years of her life were spent with activists fighting a long battle to release her and Goa’s other elephants from a chained life, yet, to little avail. She was twice Kaavan’s age and had far more experience of the world than he did, but would never know the freedom for which a global campaign was fought for him – except perhaps in those brief moments of wandering in the forests of the Andamans and swimming in its seas.
And for most of her span of 70 years which she shared with the Indian Constitution she was entitled to a promise of compassion from it, and yet it was never delivered.
Alok Gupta is an animal rights activist based in Goa.