Known as the ‘Mega Gardeners of the Forest’ elephants are a keystone species and serve to indicate the health of the forests through their natural range.
By Dr Supraja Dharini
World Elephant Day: The Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) is the largest living land mammal found in Asia. Known as the ‘Mega Gardeners of the Forest’ elephants are a keystone species and serve to indicate the health of the forests through their natural range. As mega herbivores they can consume up to 150 kg of food per day through both grazing and browsing. Requiring in the region of 100 litres of water per day, they will often be found in areas where freshwater can be sourced such as rivers and large lakes.
The Asian elephant is listed on Appendix I of CITES, and classified as ‘Endangered’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). From the most recent census conducted in 2012 it is estimated that there are somewhere between 29,391 and 30,711 elephants spread throughout the Indian continent. These figures show only a small increase from a previous census undertaken in 2007.
World Elephant Day: Issues facing wild and captive elephants
Both wild and captive elephants face many issues currently. Wild elephants are routinely driven out of their natural forest habitats due to shrinking forest cover, thoughtless destruction of their ancient forest corridors, electrocution and poaching for ivory. Captive elephants have been poached from the wild, separated from their herds and trained under harsh and cruel methods. They have been exposed to inhumane work conditions in a supremely exploitative market; worked commercially in large and small temples to draw in crowds and offer blessings, tortured in circuses and overworked for money by agents and brokers who only view the elephant as another source of income.
Captive elephants are protected under Schedule 1 of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 (WLPA). Even so, many captive elephants do not receive appropriate care in keeping with the Act. In the last twenty five years, a sudden and rapid decline in the quality of elephant keeping and conditions of their captivity has been noted in Asia, including India. Captive elephants face a number of problems that need to be addressed to ensure both individual elephants and captive elephants in general are allowed a reasonable and acceptable quality of life. The most common problems presently facing captive elephants have been outlined below:
Unnatural living conditions:
Many captive elephants are kept in conditions very far removed from their natural habitat. Elephants are transported to temples for festivals where they may remain for days standing chained on a concrete floor or similar unsuitable surface. They are surrounded by people and constant noise, their feeding may be irregular and often they will only have access to clean drinking water at specified times. Once finished providing ‘blessings’ at the temple they are returned to small gardens and yards where they must wait alone until required once again at a temple.
Inadequately trained mahouts:
Although well intentioned, many mahouts do not fully understand the complex behaviour and biology of elephants and their physical and psychological needs. This typically is due to a lack of proper mahout training initially, and it can lead to many problems for a captive elephant including incorrect diet, unintentional mishandling, failure to communicate with the elephant properly, not identifying or addressing the elephants’ needs in a timely fashion, malaise on the part of the mahout and a host of other problems.
Lacking training, many mahouts are unaware of the proper care needs of a captive elephant. The elephant can suffer from vitamin and mineral deficiencies due to the absence of a nutritionally balanced diet, unclean drinking water causing stomach problems, lack of daily bathing opportunities, foot rot as a result of being kept on an inappropriate surface for extended periods and a lack of early diagnosis of an illness or injury that may require veterinary intervention.
Inability to socialize:
Elephants are socially complex mammals and under natural conditions form bonds with other elephants either temporary or permanent. Captive elephants are denied the opportunity to mix with other elephants and are doomed to a life of solitude which goes against their nature. This is particularly true of female elephants who would naturally spend their entire life within a herd while bull elephants may come and go and move between herds, or voluntarily choose solitude for periods of time, throughout their lifetime.
Unfortunately there are still captive elephants suffering from routine abuse. Trained through beatings and not positive reinforcement, their spirits are broken through the use of sticks, hooks and spiked chains wrapped around the lower part of their legs which often cause injury and may become infected. They may be denied food and drinking water and be subjected to long periods of sleep deprivation until they conform to their ‘trainers’ commands. As elephants are taken from the wild such methods are used, not only in India, but throughout the elephants’ range, to domesticate the elephant.
Many people who purchase or accept through a gift deed an elephant, are unaware of the needs of the elephant initially. After some time they come to realise that keeping an elephant is not like keeping a dog. The cost of keeping the elephant becomes overbearing, as does the commitment required to ensure the elephant has a reasonable quality of life. Realising their predicament, these people often wish to subsequently surrender the animal so that it may receive better medical and long term care although they still retain ownership of the elephant.
Occasionally conditions are so poor, abuse has been so great, or there is a lack of proper ownership documentation, it is necessary for the appropriate authorities to confiscate an elephant for the sake of its own welfare. Confiscated elephants must then wait while a suitable care facility is found for housing the elephant until it has been rehabilitated and a suitable permanent home identified.
Human – elephant conflict:
Although more prevalent among wild populations, human-elephant conflict does occur occasionally with captive elephants. Elephants subjected to begging or tourist entertainment in congested city streets may become agitated and display early signs of aggression. This may in severe cases lead to actual physical aggression and cause injuries to unwary people. While it is a very rare occurrence it is worth noting.
As the general population of elephants increases slowly, so too will the number of elephants finding themselves living in captive or ‘domesticated’ conditions.
Setting up Elephant Care Facility
The TREE Foundation had set up a care facility with permission from the Chief Wildlife Warden of Tamil Nadu Forest Department in 2015, to create a place of peace for injured, abused, neglected and confiscated elephants, where they can be rehabilitated after years of hardship. This was named the ‘Elephant Care Facility’ (ECF).
The Elephant Care Facility, created by TREE Foundation and another NGO, provided expert care and management of elephants that may have been inappropriately employed, misused, abused, confiscated, abandoned or orphaned during the course of their capture, training, preparation and years of servitude to their owners. The facility operated on chain free and positive reinforcement principles and had been designed in consultation with numerous experts to provide the elephants with peaceful and tranquil surroundings to assist in their recovery till September 2019.
The TREE Foundation with support from another NGO created the ECF in 2015 as a joint initiative to provide shelter and refuge for the Asian elephants, along with the view of increasing education and awareness about the natural world to all levels of society. The focus of this facility is to provide special care and management of the elephants that were initially identified as potential rehabilitation patients, and if required, extend this care to other vulnerable captive elephants that may be inappropriately employed, misused, abused and therefore confiscated, abandoned or orphaned during the course of their capture, training, preparation and servitude to their owners.
TREE Foundation and another NGO worked jointly and in partnership with the Tamil Nadu Forest Department, elephant experts, veterinary doctors, field biologists, researchers, etc. to ensure the provision of proper nutrition, medical and health care for each elephant during the course of its time in the facility whilst undergoing rehabilitation.
Three female elephants underwent rehabilitation at the facility, Sandhya (43), Indu (34) and Jayanthi (19) from the Kamakshi Amman Temple in Kancheepuram. They were housed at the facility as per the wishes of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam and with the blessings of both the Pujya Swamigals. The elephants had adapted very well to the routine of daily walks, grazing, interactions, indulging in mud wallow, mud bath and foraging. They had regular veterinarians check up with weekly health status reports being submitted to the Forest Department. They are under the constant surveillance of their mahouts and monitored by CCTV cameras to ensure their wellbeing. They were later moved to the MR Palyam TN Government facility in September 2019.
(The columnist is chairperson of the TREE Foundation. Views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)