The Perils of Captivity of India’s Celebrity Elephants

A really sad piece in this week’s New York Times Magazine profiles a few celebrity elephants in India and the perils of captivity that they endure.

The captivity of elephants in south India goes back thousands of years. At first their use was mostly practical — tanks in wartime, timber forklifts in peacetime. In Kerala, elephants have been status symbols since the feudal era, and today most of its captive elephants are owned by private individuals. And it’s the only state in India where elephants are widely used for temple festivals. When or why this tradition started is unknown — no scripture commands it — but you can imagine how it may have happened: elephants were housed at temples between battles and were gradually integrated into religious festivities. Eventually, as soldiers and loggers replaced their elephants with machines, festivals became the best way owners could turn a profit on such high-maintenance animals.

Celebrity elephants in India.

Celebrity elephants in India.

Twenty years ago, Kerala elephants would appear only at whatever festivals were within walking distance, and few elephants were famous. Now they’re trucked all over the state to the highest bidder, the price driven up every year by the enthusiasms of the superfans who form associations to honor their favorite animals, urge festival organizers to feature them and trash-talk the competition. “You call that an elephant?” they write on their rivals’ Facebook pages. “Go tie him up in the cow barn.” The fans are especially concerned with what’s called lakshanam — a term that elephantspotlight.com defines as “the sexy features of the elephants.” A fan named Sujith told me: “The ivory should be clean white. The tail should be like a brush, and the trunk should reach the ground.” (Sujith’s own favorite elephant, he said, was out of commission this season: he was hit in the hind legs by an S.U.V.)

Celebrity elephants at a festival in India.

Celebrity elephants at a festival in India.

Although most elephant festivals in India are Hindu, Kerala is unusual in that its population is a quarter Muslim and a fifth Christian, and those faiths have jumped on the elephant bandwagon, too. At a Muslim festival I went to, rowdy young men rode up and down the road throwing confetti from the 60-odd elephants they rented — some of the same elephants that carried idols at Hindu temples the day before.

There is a conflict among India’s population on what should be done to protect these elephants:

…the solution to the harm inflicted on and by elephants is self-evident: their captivity should be banned — or at the very least, elephants should no longer be used in festivals. Tradition or not, they’re wild animals that belong in the forest. But Raman Sukumar, the founder of the Asian Nature Conservation Foundation and perhaps the world’s leading expert on Asian elephants, says it isn’t that simple. Asian elephants have been on the endangered-species list since 1986, yet contrary to trends nearly everywhere else in the world, the wild-elephant population in southern India has actually been increasing over the past several decades, with elephants now living in places where they hadn’t been spotted for hundreds of years. The trouble with this is that deforestation and booming human populations have shrunk and fragmented their habitats, which means elephants are increasingly coming into conflict with humans — raiding crops, running amok in forest villages. Thirty years ago, Sukumar told me, wild elephants killed around 150 people a year across India. Today it’s closer to 500. When wild elephants exceed the capacity of their habitats, the only alternative to capturing them is culling them, which is to say, shooting them dead.

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Additional reading:

1) This excellent 2006 New York Times piece titled “An Elephant Crackup?” which highlights how elephants have become more violent, prone to attacking villages and humans.

2) George Orwell’s classic essay “Shooting an Elephant.” One of my favorite works by Orwell outside of 1984.

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