What would it take for a technologically advanced and modernized country like India to relinquish traditions that perpetuate animal torture and brutality?
It's commendable that India has banned use of exotic animals in circuses. But unfortunately the Animal Welfare Board of India has yet to ban elephants in festivities, particularly in Kerala, where the basic welfare of captive elephants seems to be ignored.
Although no humans were injured in the first casualty of the 2014 festivities, the tragic death of a magnificent elephant is gut-wrenching. Just this past week a 36-year-old temple elephant panicked during a festival and fell into a swamp in Kochi, Kerala. After 10 hours of rescue efforts the animal was pulled out of the swamp but sadly succumbed to its injuries in 15minutes.
No one knows what triggered the elephant, but apparently he had come out his musth period just a month ago. Nobody would ever know the physical and emotional torture the poor animal endured during his final hours as people poked and prodding trying to revive him.
This is nothing new. But for some odd reason when these things happen people are taken by surprise. Every single year elephant stampedes kill people and cause property damage, and in most cases have a tragic ending for the animals also.
Albert Einstein said,
"Insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different outcome."Many people seem to be oblivious to the fact that elephants are never wholly reliable in public, and even if captive bred and raised they're still wild animals that can't be "domesticated". And those who know this fact, still continue to use them in festivities.
The irony is, after inflicting so much physical and emotional pain and suffering, the tormented body was taken to Thrissur so public can pay homage. What could possibly be the purpose of such display of love and affection? If they genuinely loved these animals they'd take their welfare more seriously.
So what's the bait that's enticing so many people to organize such risky events? That's the daunting question. The answer is plain and simple according to a world renowned elephant biologist, whom I interviewed. Ajay Desai, also the Co-Chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) puts it succinctly,
"In Kerala it's been reduced to a commercial venture. This cultural thing is really absurd in the sense that culture is transient. We could go back to the very earliest culture and run around naked. That was a culture at one time, running around naked, killing animals with clubs eating berries why don't we go back to that?"
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This mad obsession for elephants in festivities is a fairly recent phenomenon, according to C.A. Menon, a retired insurance broker in Trissur, whom I also met during my visit to Kerala in December.
"Formerly there was no practice at all except once in a year or so there will be celebration of the annual festival when elephants will be brought and lined up. In the center the main elephant of the temple will be kept and performance will take place for two to three hours. Now the people have become very rich, the temples have become very rich."
Kerala's festival season that falls between December and May is a period of booming business for elephant owners, mahouts and brokers. Apparently anyone or any temple can organize festival with 20 or 30 elephants in short notice. All they need to do is contact a broker.
I was recently informed that a temple elephant was prised for a whopping 4.38 lakhs, i.e. RS.400, 000 or 9,000 U.S.D per day. Some temples seek out sponsorships for a lump sum cost of one lakh (RS.100, 000) per elephant for instance. They make a handsome profit of at least RS.15, 000 from each of the 10-12 sponsors, with the temple netting a minimum of RS.50, 000 per animal per festival, and in exchange, sponsors receive recognition on festive brochures, boosting their image and status in society. The elephants of course receive their fair share of torture and brutal treatment. In my previous blogs I've detailed the enormous pain and suffering these animals have to endure.
Essentially elephants -- one of the most intelligent animals on the planet -- are being leased out like vehicles. The only problem with that is elephants are huge vehicles with intense emotions and mood swings. Humans can control vehicles but not elephants.
World renowned elephant veterinarian Dr. Cheeran Jacobs told me he was invited to a temple to inspect nine elephants that are getting ready to participate in the festivities.
"It's all in the name of religion. What religion and tradition? You worship lord Ganesh and at the same time you use a lot of abuse. It's a God in chain."
Frankly, there are no Hindu scriptures I know of that requires use of elephants in festivities. And in fact, people in the northern regions of Kerala seldom use them according to Menon,
"In Malabar the whole festivities of the temple are called Theyyam, colorful performances by people and they don't use elephants at all - even then the festivities can go on."
Clearly Kerala's festivities have become a lucrative business, as elephants are being commoditized by a select few clever craftsmen that make all the profit, while the masses are being led to believe that Gods will be happy. People need to wake up to the reprehensible fact that in the guise of religion and culture India's heritage animal and one of the gentlest sentient beings of our planet is being tortured for human entertainment and profit.
Albert Einstein said:
"If we are to solve the problems that plague us, our thinking must evolve beyond the level we were using when we created those problems in the first place."
Perhaps the Animal Welfare Board of India may want to consider Desai's suggestion,
"Why can't you take a big step and ban elephants in all these parades and temple festivals when so many people have been killed?"