‘Rein in mahouts to end elephant torture'

Jumbos are tortured to create dominance through fear and deprived of food and water, experts say to use positive reinforcement.
According to activists, mahouts use metal rods to pierce the flesh and cause damage to the bones and ligaments to make the elephant docile.
According to activists, mahouts use metal rods to pierce the flesh and cause damage to the bones and ligaments to make the elephant docile.Photo | Express

KOCHI: The recent torture of two captive elephants under the Guruvayur Devaswom at the temple Sheeveli Parambu, as evidenced by a viral video clip, triggered an outrage on social media. However, torture has been an integral part of the taming of elephants over the years in Kerala. No other state has the tradition of parading elephants for festivals. The only exception is Mysuru Dasara.

As tuskers are naturally aggressive, mahouts establish dominance to keep the elephant calm. Each time a new mahout takes charge, he tortures the animal to incite fear in its mind. It is this fear factor that makes the elephant stay calm in the midst of blaring music, ear-splitting fireworks, and an unruly mob, say experts.

The video showed two elephants -- Guruvayur Krishna and Junior Kesavan -- being tortured by four mahouts. While festival buffs argue in favour of preserving the tradition, animal rights activists have been vociferously demanding a ban on the parading of elephants at festivals like Thrissur Pooram.

“An elephant, as a wild animal, has the right to roam around freely. Instead they are kept in shackles, tethered in unhygienic surroundings, transported in trucks and made to stand in the midst of an unruly mob for hours. The bursting of crackers and the cacophony of percussion instruments create unbearable stress on the animal,” says Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) Idukki district president M N Jayachandran.

The mahouts torture elephants to create dominance through fear and deprive it of food and water, he points out.“They inflict non-healing wounds and prick them to control the animal when it shows a tendency to run amok. Most captive elephants die of torture but the postmortem reports are manufactured to hide the real reason. They cite indigestion and internal infection as the reason for death,” Jayachandran says.

According to activists, mahouts use metal rods to pierce the flesh and cause damage to the bones and ligaments to make the elephant docile. The current elephant training system has been passed on through generations. Most elephants exhibit stereotypic behaviour, which highlights their boredom, they point out. “The government has banned the use of elephant goads (thotti) made of metal. But most mahouts use this to control the elephant,” says Heritage Animal Task Force secretary V K Venkitachalam, who has been relentlessly campaigning against elephant parades for the past four decades.

“The thotti has a metal hook with which they pull the elephant’s sensitive skin behind the ears, on the cuticles and the inner part of the hind leg. This inflicts unbearable pain. Besides, they goad the elephant on wounds to make it obey commands,” Venkitachalam says.

On the other hand, most of the elephant owners argue there is an element of risk in handling captive elephants. According to them, the mahouts have to use positive and negative reinforcement measures to make the animal obey commands. At festivals where thousands gather, it is a tough task to control an elephant amid mental and physical stress. An experienced mahout can understand the mood of the elephant, the owners say.

The relationship between an elephant and a mahout is similar to a father-son relationship, says Vazhakulam Manoj, who has been doing the job for 37 years.

“The father punishes the child when it misbehaves, and similarly, we have to discipline an elephant. The mahout wins the confidence of the elephant by developing an emotional bond. Sometimes, the elephant may disobey. Our motto is ‘repeat the command 100 times, warn six times showing the cane, and use the stick thereafter,” he says.

He admits that there are a few mahouts who torture elephants, bringing disrepute to the profession.

“Nobody understands the tension of a mahout while parading elephants at festivals. The crowd these days is unruly. People don’t give space for elephants and some touch the animals. Around 50% of the incidents of elephants running amok are caused by the unruly behaviour of the people. We don’t need the thotti or the long stick when the elephant is calm. But when it runs amok, we have to use it to ensure the safety of the public,” Manoj says.

Researcher Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan, a member of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group under the International Union for Conservation of Nature, says that mahouts have traditionally been trained to establish dominance over the elephant to control it. “Though there are positive reinforcement methods, it is not easy to switch the practice. When we start training new elephants, these positive reinforcement measures can be enforced,” he says.

Kerala is the only state where male elephants are paraded for festivals. “The elephants will be aggressive during musth as the testosterone levels will be 60 times higher. Unshackling the elephant after the musth period is a tough task, and sometimes, the mahout will have to employ negative reinforcement to make the elephant obey his commands. The relationship between mahout and elephant will depend on the character of the elephants. And there are some very barbaric practices at some temple festivals, like the Thalapokka Matsaram. In the wild, an elephant holds its head high to express its dominance and that leads to a fight with other male elephants. So, the practice disturbs other elephants at a festival,” Sreedhar says.

He points out that tribal groups Malasar and Kattu Naicker of Tamil Nadu use positive reinforcement measures to tame elephants. The wild elephant Palakkad Tusker (PT 7), which was captured by the forest department last year, is being tamed by a 21-year-old tribal youth who employs positive reinforcement.

“There are only 400 captive elephants in Kerala and most of them are above 40 years of age as no new elephant has been brought to the state after 2003,” says K Mahesh, the owner of elephant Chembookavu Vijaykannan.“We take extreme care to ensure the safety of the elephant and do not allow the mahouts to torture them. Among the 400 elephants, only 200 will be available for parading during the festival season as other elephants will be in musth or under treatment,” he says.

Elephant in the room

Suggestions by Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan

  • Elephants with a history of repeatedly running amok may be paraded with stringent restrictions.

  • Musth cycles need to be systematically recorded since it is often noticed that jumbos create problems either in late musth or early musth stages.

  • When colic or impaction signs are observed in an elephant, it may be taken off duty for a minimum period of 15 days after its complete recovery. A similar gap should apply in the case of it running amok. If an elephant

  • runs amok, it may not be permitted to be paraded for a period of 15 days.

  • After a travel of more than 150 kilometres, an elephant should be given at least three days of compulsory rest before assigning more festivals.

  • There should be stringent restrictions against head-lifting competitions. Strict enforcement of a minimum distance of 10m between elephants and people, and 3m between elephants.

  • 399 - Current no of captive elephants in Kerala

  • 521 - No of captive elephants during census held on November 3, 2018

Elephant deaths after census

  • 2018 Dec: 3

  • 2019: 20

  • 2020: 29

  • 2021: 20

  • 2022: 22

  • 2023: 25

  • 2024: 3

Torture practices employed by mahouts

Create non-healing wounds in sensitive areas of the elephant, like hind legs, back of the ear lobe, around genitals and on cuticles, inflict injuries in the eyes, often blinding them. Prick the wounds using hooks, beat the elephant with long sticks fitted with metal bolts, starve elephants, denying food and water

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