Gods in Shackles: The tragic lives of India's 2,600 captive elephants

The story of Raghu and Ammu, featured in The Elephant Whisperers documentary may be one in a billion....

Published: 22nd March 2023 08:36 PM  |   Last Updated: 23rd March 2023 02:24 PM   |  A+A-

Sangita Iyer, Elephants

The author along with elephant calf Arjun. (Photo | Sangita Iyer)

The Elephant Whisperers, an Academy Award winner, reveals the human propensity for love and compassion.

Bomman and Bellie, who belong to the Kattunayakar tribe of the Mudumalai forest range that borders Kerala, were tasked with raising two orphaned baby elephants. Raghu lost his mother to electrocution, and Ammu, the second baby elephant, was abandoned by her herd trying to flee the raging forest fires. The Tamil Nadu Forest Department rescued these two babies and assigned them to Bomman and Bellie.

The story of Raghu and Ammu, featured in The Elephant Whisperers documentary may be one in a billion. It had a safe ending, as Bomman and Bellie showered them with tender loving care. But it does not reflect the sad stories of the approximately 2,600 captive elephants across India.

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In Kerala, abandoned baby elephants are often rescued after falling into open wells or being left behind by their herd.

Elephant calves Arjun, Poorna and Manu.(Photo | Sangita Iyer)

In January 2017, I met Arjun, a six-month old bull elephant, at the Kottoor Elephant Rehabilitation Center (KERC). He was rescued by the forest department and fostered by Ravi, a tribal man turned mahout. Just like Bomman and Bellie, he too nurtured Arjun and gave him unconditional love. And Arjun too had a companion in a few weeks -- three-month old Poorna. She was rescued from an abandoned well, and assigned to Ravi. They played and bonded in an open enclosure during the day, returning to their room at night.

At around two years old, they were moved to a larger open enclosure, and just like Raghu and Ammu, they too were cruelly separated from each other, assigned to new mahouts who were not nearly as nurturing and caring as Ravi. Then suddenly, in July 2021, Arjun died after contracting the deadly herpes virus. Although Poorna survived the virus, she still suffers the insurmountable grief of losing her friend.

Sreekutty, the baby elephant died
in June 2021. (Photo | Sangita Iyer)

Sreekutty, was yet another baby elephant rescued in 2019, assigned to Ravi. They even celebrated her birthday in 2020 with a cake made of elephant food. At around two years old, she too died of Herpes in June 2021.

These are stories of just three rescued elephants raised in a government-run elephant camp in Kerala. There are many more untold stories of such orphaned baby elephants that end up dying or living miserable lives. The reality is, no matter how hard the forest officials try, most abandoned elephants either die of deadly diseases or are tortured to submission. And in the process, mahouts are also killed by the elephants. 

In fact, the story of Raghu and Ammu has just begun. They will be assigned to a new mahout, who may or may not be as loving and caring as Bomman and Bellie. There are also many lingering questions. What would happen to Ammu when she grows up? Would Raghu be trained to become a kumki elephant? Are there plans to release them in the wild after they get older? 

Well, the general argument is, once they’ve been brought under human care, it would be hard for the elephants to survive in the wild. That myth has been dispelled by the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Africa. After rescuing and rehabilitating the babies, they are released back in the wild. These elephants do visit the trust frequently, because elephants never forget, but they have the freedom to do what they want. This model is being emulated by the Wildlife Trust of India at the Kaziranga National Park, Assam.

The problem is, unlike African countries India doesn’t have enough space, with 80% of the habitats having been destroyed to sustain the burgeoning human population. At 1.14 billion people, India houses 18% of the world’s population. Competition for space is intense. Given the loss of habitats, famished elephants enter the villages in search of food and water, only to be chased and bullied by unproductive men, pushing even the most docile elephants to retaliate. 

Clearly, humans are a grave threat to even the wild elephants, let alone the idea of releasing the captive ones. 

Electrocution, abandoned wells, reckless development, habitat loss, forest fires set off by poachers, poaching and other menacing actions of humans are responsible for these tragedies.

Rana is one of the bull elephants who has attacked at least eight people, including me. I had just finished feeding him some fruits and he slammed his head against mine so forcefully that it sent a sharp wave that traveled to my left ankle, instantly twisting and fracturing it. Five broken bones, including the tibia and fibula, left me disabled for 18 months. But it wasn't Rana's fault. His spirit and body had been broken so badly, that this was the only way he knew to cope with his suffering. Unfortunately, he will never trust humans for the rest of his life.

Then there are the "elephant owners" who lease out their elephants, as though they were some kind of a car with no emotions. Unlike the cars, elephants are emotional, intelligent and family-oriented animals. Their brain size is complex and three times as large as human brain, with a highly evolved cortical brain that makes them acutely aware and sensitive. Cutting edge studies show that the life span of elephants shrinks in isolation, as they are distressed being away from their families. These impoverished environments trigger post traumatic stress disorder.

Some of the heart-wrenching stories of bull elephants who had been tormented to death are featured in the Gods in Shackles documentary and book. The multiple award-winning film released in 2016, and the award-winning book, released in February 2022, exposes the dark truth behind the caparisoned festival elephants that are exploited for profit behind the insidious veil of culture and religion.

Mostly bulls are paraded in Kerala, as only bull Asian elephants have tusks (not females), and displaying their tusks adds glamour to the festivals. The mahouts we met while filming were young, inexperienced men, who seemed to derive some kind of masochistic pleasure in brutalizing a defenseless, shackled animal. Very few seemed to care about the welfare of elephants. Their main job was to feed, bathe and take them to the temples to perform the rituals. During the festival season that runs between December and May, elephants are transported through precarious roads and forced to stand on the back of open trucks. Unable to balance themselves during the drive, many of them collapse and fall off the truck, and some die.

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On the festival grounds, they are paraded beneath the scorching sun, deprived of food, water and shelter, tethered beneath makeshift tents, forced to listen to the terrifying explosions of firework. Many elephants run amok and kill people, only to be tortured and brutalized even more severely. On an average, 20-25 festival elephants die every year due to their appalling treatment.

The violence and exploitation of elephants is driven by the insatiable lust for money and the status quo. The owners, brokers, mahouts and religious institutions mint money, even as the elephants suffer.If the festivals had anything to do with culture, why would they charge a staggering amount of money to lease out one single elephant? It’s all about human entertainment and profits, with nothing to do with culture or religion! 

Elephants are the embodiment of Lord Ganesh, a Hindu deity with an elephant face, believed to be the remover of all obstacles, and a God who grants wisdom.And all religions preach love, compassion and kindness for all sentient beings.

Elephants are tortured and worshipped at the same time! Hubert Reeves, a Canadian astrophysicist, captures this tragic paradox succinctly. "Man is the most insane species. He worships an invisible God and destroys a visible Nature. Unaware that this Nature he’s destroying is this God he’s worshiping."

Elephants belong in the wild, period. They are genetically wired to wander across vast areas, socialise, create tools, eat, mate and promote dense forests. They consume a wide variety of fodder over 16-18 hours a day, and disperse seeds in their dung. Seeds become trees that absorb carbon-dioxide and give us oxygen. When you think about it, elephants are the Prana, the very breath of life. They've also been linked to mitigating climate change. And they do play a critical role in ensuring healthy forest ecosystems.

Yet, babies and sub-adults are abducted from the wild, brutalised and tortured into submission by being deprived of food and water for many days, until they surrender to the trainer who then puts the elephants through yet another training to learn human commands.

The dark and horrific practice of breaking their spirit is called Pajaan in Thailand, and Ketti Adikkal in Kerala (tying and beating).

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First, young elephants are torn from their families by using cruel methods to separate them from their herd, then the vulnerable animals are captured and taken to a remote location. Here the innocent baby or subadult is placed inside a kraal in precarious positions, with their forelegs and hind legs tethered to wooden poles, making it impossible for them to move. Then, using vicious weapons like the bull hook, they literally hook the elephant's ear -- a sensitive part of the body, beat, poke and prod other sensitive areas. And these poor animals are left dangling, day and night for at least seven days, deprived of food and water.

The situation is particularly dire for the captive bull elephants of Kerala when they enter their annual musth cycle. This is when their testosterone and energy levels surge, and they are overwhelmed by the urge to mate. They secrete musth fluid that emanates a potent odour to attract females. In the wild, they wander across vast areas, fight with other bulls to win over a female, and mate. This is how they deplete their energies.

But Kerala's captive elephants are starved for food and water, even as their primordial urge to mate is cruelly denied. The torture is intensified when they emerge from their musth. Seven to eight drunken men beat the living daylights out of this animal, driven by a misguided myth that the bulls may have forgotten their commands during the musth.

The festival revelers are totally oblivious to the suffering of elephants. It's mostly young, inebriated men, who dance to the drumbeat and trumpets, while the terrified elephants are tethered and forced to stand in one spot. They have sensitive hearing, their feet and trunk can feel even the most subtle, seismic vibrations.

Given the availability of such robust scientific evidence now, countries around the world are granting human rights to highly evolved and self-aware, non-human animals such as elephants, whales and dolphins, while recognizing animal sentience. Whereas, India has taken a regressive and catastrophic step in the name of religion, denying the nation's heritage animal the basic right to thrive freely in a sovereign elephant culture.

India's Wildlife Protection Act (WPA) is supposed to enhance the protection of the endangered elephants. But instead, the 2022 amendment has increased the threats they face.

In particular, Section 43 of the Wildlife Protection Act Amendment Bill (2022) will "permit the transfer or transport of a captive elephant for religious and other purposes by a person having a valid certificate of ownership."

In an age of mass extinction, this amendment to the Wildlife Protection Act is tragically ill-equipped to provide a safe future for the endangered Asian elephants. Worse still, the move to legalize elephant transfers will likely embolden illegal wild elephant captures, with a cascading effect on the forest ecosystems.

But there is still reason for some cautious optimism. Since the release of Gods in Shackles, the general public has become more aware, and some of the temples in Kerala have begun using chariots and robotic elephants. Hopefully, this trend will continue, and make elephant captivity a thing of the past.

For now, though, as the world celebrates the love story of Bomman, Bellie, Raghu and Ammu featured in The Elephant Whisperers, the enslaved elephants of India, especially those exploited in "cultural festivals" are wailing and sobbing.

Sangita Iyer is an author and an award-winning environment and wildlife filmmaker. She is also the Founder, Voice for Asian Elephants Society, National Geographic Explorer

India Matters


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  • Max Coutinho

    Absolutely true. No elephant should be used for any human purpose. They are wild animals and allowed to live in the wild. The only intervention that should be done is when their numbers go above a certain threshold bringing them in conflict with humans. Sterilization can probably achieve this like we do for cats and dogs. It's time to let them be. We have for centuries exploited these gentle giants! If this nation where the elephant occupies the seat of a God cannot do it who will?
    2 months ago reply
  • Dolores

    A well written piece by Ms. Sangita Iyer. A wide range of issues captive Elephants in India face & strive to survive has been brought to focus. Truth regarding the poor
    2 months ago reply
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