Gentle giants chained for life

The recent death of a temple elephant in Tirunelveli and a PIL in the HC relating to three pachyderms belonging to Kanchi mutt has rekindled the debate on the effects of captivity on elephants.
Gentle giants chained for life

The recent death of a temple elephant in Tirunelveli and a PIL in the Madras HC relating to three pachyderms belonging to Kanchi mutt has rekindled the debate on the effects of captivity on these gentle giants and the quality of care they receive

CHENNAI: It’s a jumbo problem. Tamil Nadu has 124 captive elephants, of which 35 are in temples under the control of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Department (HR&CE), probably one of the largest in the country. But the quality of care has been a subject of huge debate. The painful death of 42-year-old Rajeswari, elephant of Arulmigu Sugavaneswarar temple in Salem and the recent death of 16-year-old Valli, elephant of Thiruvilanji Kumarar temple in Tirunelveli district due to alleged medical neglect are only tips of the iceberg, activists have pointed out. 

Because most of these temple elephants are deprived of their natural environment, with both legs chained for the most part of the day and forced to stand on a hard floor, they develop several medical complications such as pressure abscess, arthritis and foot problems. After a stage, there would be no takers for them and they would die in confinement. 

An all-India survey of captive elephants, conducted by the Compassion Unlimited Plus Action (CUPA) and Asian Nature Conservation Foundation (ANCF), showed the overall welfare rating for elephants in Tamil Nadu temples as 3.2. This specific rating is relatively low in comparison with other management regimes such as forest camps.   

Now, by virtue of a public interest litigation (PIL), filed by Muralidharan Sivalingam, founder of a voluntary animal welfare organisation, Indian Centre for Animal Rights and Education (INCARE), in the Madras High Court, the whole business of upkeep of elephants by temples is likely to be shaken up, although the prayer of the petitioner is specific to the three elephants belonging to the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam in Kancheepuram.

The High Court has admitted the case which is likely to come up for hearing after the court resumes post-vacation in June. The Tamil Nadu Forest Department has already filed its reply in the case, making clear its intention to take over custody of the Kanchi mutt elephants, which are currently under the care and maintenance of a private elephant care facility run by Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation (WRRC) and TREE Foundation in Kurumbaram village in Marakanam in Villupuram district since 2016, on the request of temple authorities. 

Chief Wildlife Warden Sanjay Kumar Srivastava has called this ‘illegal custody’ and has asked court to permit the department for translocation of all three elephants to any of the forest camps. But, curiously, both WRRC and TREE Foundation are registered with Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) and elephants were moved into the private facility on the recommendation of AWBI, which was endorsed by the Forest department via multiple renewals issued between 2016 and 2018. 

Express is in possession of all official communication exchanged between forest department, AWBI, Kanchi mutt, WRRC and TREE Foundation. Due to unscientific handling of elephants during their stay at the mutt, the three elephants —Sandya (47), Jayanthi (23) and Indu (39) — had developed chronic health problems requiring long-term medical care, especially Sandhya. 

An evaluation report on the welfare status of Kanchi mutt elephants, prepared by AWB in 2015, says Sandhya alias Kamatchi was the oldest elephant to come to the Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt. She was sold by the Hunsur Forest Division of Karnataka in 1981 and is blind in the left eye due to cataract, which was detected prior to 2007. The animal has chronic abscesses and can’t flex her affected joint since the bones in the joints are fused. This condition is a sequel to arthritis, potentially caused by being forced to stand and walk on hard concrete floor and being forced to sit down frequently for ceremonial purposes. 

Similarly, Indu from Kerala was suffering from severe split/crack nail condition and chronic ulcerative (non-healing) wounds on both elbow joints on forelegs. Jayanthi being youngest of the three had certain minor health issues. The same report also highlighted the lacklustre work of the Forest department. Sandhya from Karnataka, though sold in 1981, had her Ownership Certificate issued only in 1999. For 18 years,  she had no paperwork to prove her transfer from Karnataka and she remained as an ‘illegally owned captive’ animal. Similarly, Indu was sold to the Mutt in 1987. Her ownership papers were, however, issued only in 2001, after 14 years. 

As per the Forest department’s own confession, the elephants’ health in the private camp had improved, but the renewal period lapsed last year. “The Kancheepuram temple authorities and the TREE Foundation were specifically instructed to take action for translocating the elephants to the temple concerned after the extension period ended on January 3, 2018,” Sanjay said in his affidavit.  
However, Kanchi mutt has categorically stated in its chain of communications that it cannot provide an appropriate environment due to increased religious activities in the Kamakshiamman temple and prefers to keep the jumbos in private care in Marakanam. Mutt officials were not available for comment. 

Senior forest officials told Express that because Kanchi mutt was not ready to take care of elephants, the department would maintain them at mutt’s cost. Already, a comprehensive report was submitted by the Villupuram Conservator of Forest on February 2, which said members of the District Level Captive Elephant Welfare Committee had visited the elephant facility in Marakanam and found certain deficiencies and had recommended shifting of the elephants to MR Palayam Elephant Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, Tiruchy. 

Tiruchy rehab centre crucial 

Forest officials said the Tiruchy centre, despite having certain constraints such as limited availability of water, was being developed as an model centre to rehabilitate ailing and abandoned elephants. “To start with, Kanchi mutt elephants will be translocated to the Tiruchy rehab centre once High Court passes orders. Later on, after full infrastructure development, more number of elephants could be housed,” officials said. 

Forest Department had been working out modalities for rehabilitating such captive elephants at the owners’ cost without impacting the existing department-owned elephant camps in the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and Anamalai Tiger Reserve which could have posed the threat of spread of diseases.
Under Project Elephant, the Union Environment Ministry had asked States to house their ailing captive elephants requiring medical care at the Elephant Rehabilitation Centre, Ban Santour, Haryana. Officials said the department was planning to develop Tiruchy centre on the lines of the Haryana centre. 

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