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God's Own Country: A jumbo story

C.J. Punnathara


Elephants decked up for the Thrissur pooram in Kerala.

KOCHI, March 17

"EVEN when elephas maximus is being worshipped as a symbol of Lord Ganesha, the Asian elephant in India goes through hell on earth."

This eloquent statement comes from a study `A God in distress' by Peter Jaeggi. Though the canvas of the study stretches from North to South India, Kerala has received special attention.

Elephants in Kerala are famous for their symbolic and decorative participation in temple festivals. And, they are in great demand. Of the 600-odd elephants living in captivity in Kerala, almost three-fourths come from Bihar and the forests of North-East. Often the 3,000 km seven-day journey from Sonepur to Kerala in open trucks under scorching sun, chained, barricaded and cramped for space, is a harrowing experience for the elephants.

The possession of an elephant brings prestige and power as well as revenue to its owner. But over 80 per cent of elephants in Kerala do not even have a licence (owner certificate), which is mandatory under the law. The absence of this certificate has ensured that elephants have become a freely-traded commodity. Today, most captive elephants have no permanent homes, no trusted keepers or companions.

Guruvayoor in Thrissur is the only known camp for temple elephants in the world. Around 60 animals live here. They have been donated by people, from cine actor Suresh Gopi to Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. But the conditions of these temple elephants remain tragic.

The period of rut (musth) is a dangerous time for mahouts as well as for the bull elephants. During this period, the bull produces 60 times the male hormone, testesterone, making them aggressive and destructive to human life and property. The bulls are sometimes starved to make them feeble. "For many, it is difficult to understand that of all the representatives of Gods, Ganesha, has to lead such a life of hell... ," Jaeggi said.

Burdened with a history of such treatment, elephants become aggressive and attacks on mahouts is becoming frequent. Between 1982 and 2000, at least 188 mahouts died in Kerala from such attacks.

Earlier, recounts mahout Phillip Antony of Kodanad, mahouts used to stay with one animal and build a lifetime bond with the animal. Not any longer. Today, there is a quick turnover of mahouts and fondness between the animal and the keeper is never nurtured or sustained.

However, according to Dr Fred Kurt, Swiss elephant research scientist, the strong life-long bonds of an elephant to a single mahout belongs to the kingdom of beautiful legends. There has always been a first, second and third mahout for each elephant — much like a pilot, co-pilot and board mechanic.

The plight of the mahout is often worse. To the owner, the elephant is worth several times more than its mahout. Dr Kurt said, "there are bulls which killed more than 10 mahouts. But the elephants are insured and the families of the killed mahouts are fobbed off with ridiculous amounts of money".

The plight of the wild elephants is also pathetic. In 1992, the Government of India started the salvation campaign, `Project Elephant'. Indian experts believe that the most critical requirement for their survival is to retain the disappearing elephant corridors, linking one feeding ground with the next. But it has been a losing battle. As more people need more land, the last corridors are getting wiped out, rather than getting resurrected.

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