11/30/2014 11:52 EST | Updated 01/30/2015 05:59 EST

Hope for Kerala's Captive Elephants

A 72-year-old elephant, the famous Guruvayoor Padhmanabhan, is precariously balancing himself on three legs, as he is forced to do so to commemorate his 60 years of service at the world renowned Guruvayoor temple in Kerala. The image below seems to depict his 60th anniversary of slavery and torture, revealing an endless saga of pain and suffering.

The same day, an 83-year-old elephant was forced to stand on the tarred compound of Trissur town hall to pay homage to the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) Chairman, between 3-5 p.m. beneath the scorching sun, as seen below.

These are gross violations of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) Act 1960, the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 and the Performing Animals (Registration) rule 2001. To begin, regulations in India suggest, senior elephants over 65 are unfit to work. For instance, section 11b of the PCA Act states,

"If any person employs in any work or labour or for any purpose any animal, which by reason of its age or any disease infirmity ... is unfit to be employed, or being the owner, permits any such unfit animal to be employed ... he shall be punishable."

Photo: Courtesy, Heritage Animal Task Force

Guruvayoor Padhmanabhan trying to balance himself

Frankly, these violations should not come as surprise after a former Minister allegedly violated a law that he himself created during his tenure in March 2013. Mr. KB Ganesh Kumar, now a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), and the President of Kerala Elephant Owners Federation (KEOF), has been charged with violation of his own legislation, according to the Secretary of the Heritage Animal Task Force (HATF) Mr. Venkitachalam. Mr. Ganesh Kumar and 11 officials of the KEOF are facing criminal charges by the Palakkad District Collector who enforced the law that prohibits new elephant parades, and permits only three elephants in traditional parades. Mr. Venkitachalam says,

"Actually he is the only collector in Kerala who bravely announced a ban order on such elephant parade. But even after knowing the ban order imposed by the Collector of Palakkad district, Mr. Ganesh Kumar openly violated such magisterial ban order by parading 18 elephants. Many of the elephants paraded were blind and physically weak. Many of them have a history of running amok in the past few years."

He is also outraged that the 18 ornate elephants were forced to carry more than 1000 kilos of weight on their back, and is particularly concerned for the eight senior elephants that participated in that parade. He bemoans, the MLA has violated the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, and the Kerala Captive Elephant Management and Maintenance Rule 2003 that specifically states, the maximum weight including the chains should be thousand kilograms or less. In this regard, Mr. Venkitachalam has called for "a high level enquiry" on Mr. Ganesh Kumar who is alleged to have "violated the Oath of office and secrecy that he had taken as MLA of the state legislator."

These kinds of gross violations of State legislations by the law makers themselves speak volumes about the plight of captive elephants, as reflected in the latest statistics. Mr. Venkitachalam claims, as of Oct. 27 2014, 24 captive elephants and 112 wild elephants have died due to various types of torture and mismanagement. And Dr. Jacob Cheeran a prominent and well-respected veterinarian in Kerala referred me to a report in the local daily Malayalam Manorama that says,

"According to the Government census of 2010 there were 702 captive elephants in Kerala. Last year's census give the figure as 360. During the last three years 277 elephants died out of old age. Missing elephants' number is 65."

But amid all bad news, there is reason to be hopeful, as conservationists in India are working hard with key stakeholders, including the handlers and owners, to change their attitudes and mindsets in creating better living conditions for Kerala's captive elephants.

For the third time in just four years Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) hosted Dr. Andrew McLean, one of the world's foremost equine behavioural practitioners. He has been training elephant handlers in Kerala and Assam (North Indian state that has more than 1400 captive elephants), on alternate humane techniques. Dr. McLean's implements science based positive and negative reinforcement strategies that focus on training the elephants in the least intrusive manner and ultimately building trust between the mahout and the elephant.

Photo: Courtesy Wildlife Trust of India

Dr. Andrew McLean with elephant trainers

Around 50 key stakeholders, including the local MLA, leading scientists, elephant owners and key stakeholders participated during his first visit, when they were presented with a video on elephant training in Nepal. This was followed by the first mahout training in Kerala in December 2013, and this year, just over 20 mahouts participated in a refresher course. WTI's long term goal is to train elephant trainers who will then train other elephant handlers in the community.

Kerala's Minister for Forest & Environment, Mr. Thiruvanchoor Radha Krishnan has thrown his support behind this WTI initiative. He unveiled Dr. Andrew McLean's book on humane training of elephant calves that has been translated into five languages including Malayalam - Kerala's native language. In an email to me Dr. Ashraf Kunhunu, WTI's Senior Director and Chief Veterinarian sounded optimistic,

"The very fact that both the training programs were held in collaboration with the respective state governments show that the government is welcome with the idea...They all agree that the training method we propose is humane and will work with captive born calves."

Kerala Forest Department is planning to train five elephant calves every year, as Assam is working toward establishing a mahout training center that could become India's hub for elephant training. And hopefully the existing captive elephants in Kerala would never again be forced to balance themselves on three legs or walk on tarred roads under the scorching sun.

Photo: Courtesy, Wildlife Trust of India

Dr. Andrew McLean's translated book in Kerala