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Seeing the Mistreatment of Elephants in India Was Haunting

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"An emotional roller coaster ride" pretty much sums up my 21-day whirlwind trip to India. It took me through the lush hills and valleys in the Bandhipur area near Bangalore (the silicon city of Karnataka State), where wild elephants are thriving, as the conservation movement in this region is alive and well. Of the approximately 45,000 Asian elephants in the wild, more than 25,000 of them are in India, mostly concentrated in the Bandipur, Wynad and Nilgiris belt -- located in Southern India.

On the other hand it was gut-wrenching to witness the plight of the captive elephants. As mentioned in my previous blog there are approximately 3,000 captive elephants in India, 21 per cent of them (majority, male tuskers) in Kerala state where they're being used in temples for rituals and cultural festivities.

This past December, I visited some of the most prestigious temples in a place called Trishur -- Kerala's festivities hub -- where captive male tuskers adorned in glamorous ornaments are paraded on the streets to the rhythm of traditional drum beats and horns, between November and May following the harvest season. It's called Trishur Pooram. During this period people glorify deities by mounting specific idols on the back of elephants that are considered auspicious.

It felt like a cultural jolt to witness people dancing away gloriously to the drum beats and horns, as over thirty majestic elephants clad in heavy ornaments, followed the crowd obediently one after the other, as they carried as many as four men and a statue of their deity, their feet shackled tightly in heavy iron chains tossed around their body.

New arrivals were tethered to a tree in a confined space at the temple, as they anxiously swayed their bodies, visibly distressed by the massive crowds, the deafening whining sounds of the horns, and the scorching temperatures that hovered between 35 and 40 degree Celsius. The discomfort burdened by the approximately 400 kilos of burden on their back was hard to ignore, as much as the drooping and pathetic look in their eyes that revealed sad tales of neglect and torture.

Some of the bulls in the festivities had just emerged out of their peak "musth" -- a periodic condition in male elephants when they have extremely high energy levels, fuelled by the testosterone levels that surge up to 60 times higher than normal.

During this time, elephants in the wild wander for weeks looking for food and mate, fighting off the competing bulls, and gradually weaning off their fodder, all of which help burn off their pent up energies. However captive elephants are chained to a tree 24/7 until the end of their musth (that range between few weeks and several months). Desperate to release their energies, most often these animals try to break lose their chains and end up inflicting deep injuries on themselves.

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I was afforded a behind the scenes look at the plight of elephants that had returned from or were unable to participate in festivities. Thanks to a passionate conservationist friend Mohan, with whom I'd witnessed and shared the story of a tusker who was rescued from a trench in June 2012.

Among other elephants, we encountered a young tusker at a temple who had just recovered from his musth. He had serious injuries on all of his four legs, especially near his ankles, but sadly, the merciless chains that gripped his feet dug deeper into the wounds. Some of the elephant trainers I spoke with believed, the elephants' thick skin will prevent pain and suffering.

But an elephant biologist whom I interviewed was quick to refute that assumption. Ajay Desai, who co-chairs the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Asian elephants' specialists groups, has been studying elephants since the early-'80s. He explained, elephants are extremely tolerant but that doesn't mean they don't feel the pain, further elaborating, even though their skin is three inches thick it's actually more sensitive than human skin.

Speaking of the imperative to care for their feet, Desai said the elephants' feet are like their "second heart," for they bear the massive body weight, and the only way to maintain strong and healthy feet is through regular walks. Elephants in the wild walk 5-10kms every day in search of food and water, however those in captivity are subjected to a life of perpetual confinement.

Captive elephants used in festivities are like cash cows, that bring in loads of money during the festival season, but don't receive the care and attention they deserve, instead they're subjected to constant abuse and gross neglect. They are transported in trucks from one festivity to another in a matter of minutes, and deprived of the basic necessities -- adequate food, water and sleep. Even machines would collapse if they aren't maintained, but these resilient and tolerant animals have been putting up with such torture and abuse for centuries now and continue to toil for the benefit of humans.

In the grand scheme of things, ignorance and lack of information seem to be the root causes of pain and suffering inflicted upon these sentient beings. Few trainers seem to be aware of their intrinsic abilities to feel and communicate, and consequently these qualities aren't being leveraged enough to coax the elephants through kindness and compassion.

In my view, educating the mahouts on the biology and psychology of elephants would foster better appreciation for them, and could help alleviate their pain and suffering. So while I applaud the success of the conservation of wild elephants in India, the moral imperative to educate all stakeholders on the basic welfare of captive elephants is being ignored. This is more significant now than ever before, given that the Asian elephants are India's Heritage animals.

In my next article I'll share a sweet encounter with an amazing female elephant.