In Kerala, “temple elephants” bask in celebrity status despite being a public menace. These captive animals continue to be the favourites despite having killed 560 people in the past six years. The most-loved pachyderm in the state is Thechikottukavu Ramachandran with the maximum number of fan clubs. Then there is the one-eyed Ramachandran who has killed 10 people, including two mahouts, making it the top serial killer in God’s Own Country.
Despite this, elephants rake in good money when they are hired for processions, weddings and festivals. The ‘ekkam’ (rate for one day’s procession) of elephants has been increasing steadily; in the peak festive season, hiring an elephant for one day ranges from `1 lakh to `4.5 lakh. According to Elephant Owners’ Federation general secretary V Sasikumar, elephants that are over nine feet tall fetch a good amount in the peak season.
Ramachandran, one of the biggest captive tuskers in the state, fetched `4.3 lakh for a temple procession last season.
“The people of Kerala are known for their love for elephants, that are considered sacred from ancient times. Besides, there is an elephant economics behind the mushrooming of elephant clubs. If there are more clubs, the rate for hiring an elephant goes up,” says V K Venkitachalam, secretary of the Elephant Lovers Association.
Promoting fan clubs and buying elephant titles like Gajarajan, Gajarathnam, Gajednran, Gajathipathi, Kalabha Kesari, Gaja Veeran and Matanga Chakravarthi are a new trend. “Elephant owners are ready to shell out thousands of rupees for a good name as it fetches a good market value for their elephants and gives a celebrity status to the owner or to the temple committees that confer these titles in association with fans clubs,” says Venkitachalam.
Cochin Devaswom Board president M P Bhaskaran Nair disagrees. “There is no logic in conferring titles to elephants in association with fans clubs. The Devaswom Board has no role in this new trend. Forming fans clubs and conferring various titles are pure market-based strategies, apart from a genuine love for elephants.”
According to experts, it was the erstwhile maharaja of Cochin who set the precedent by conferring the Gajaraja title on an elephant at the legendary Arattupuzha Pooram (temple festival) in Thrissur. The maharaja had been attracted to the royal majesty of an elephant in the procession.
Sivan M K, secretary of an elephant club, says, “Earlier the elephant welfare committee had awarded these titles to royal beasts at the Gajamelas after taking into account height, length of tusks and trunk, shape of the ears and the royal posture. But now the practice has stopped. There is no such mechanism to promote sexy elephants. We are taking the initiative to award such titles to the elephants based on their vital statistics and character in association with various temple committees.”
Elephants don’t come cheap. With curbs on buying and selling elephants while demand is rising, prices have skyrocketed. A good tusker now costs `1.5 crore, up from `30 lakh a year ago.
Sources in the Forest Department say that since the Kerala Captive Elephant Management Rules 2003 bans trading in elephants in the state, the animals are being bought through under the counter deals such as with a 99-year-lease agreement on a ‘pro-note’ between the elephant owner and buyer. The deals are executed clandestinely since the custodianship of the elephant cannot be transferred under the state’s law.
As a result, many of those who keep elephants are not the legal owners. Since there is a huge demand for elephants in their 25-40s, prices of jumbos will soon touch `3-4 crore, officials say.
With the state witnessing an unprecedented dearth of elephants in the peak festival season and scores of programmes being added to the festival calendar every year, the escalating prices of elephants have also dealt a blow to festival organisers in the state, forcing them to hire pachyderms at exorbitant prices. There are less than 400 elephants in Kerala, whereas nearly 3,000 festivals require elephants in their customary processions and rituals.