With the World Environment Day (5 June) just gone by, focus has turned once more on the various aspects of environment and its problems. One of the issues that constantly looms before us is human interference at all levels. This includes interaction with other animals, especially wildlife. Apart from domesticating animals, we take pleasure in keeping them in captivity, either as pets or in zoos.
Wild animals also live in this world. One wonders why we can’t let them live in their own space and be with their own species? Why do we catch them and force them to live in captivity? One cannot help but be concerned about these animals, particularly the way they are treated after being caught.
They are used in circuses to entertain people, kept in zoos so that we can visit the place and spend our leisure time watching them. We go to elephant camps and enjoy riding them or being showered by them. The list is endless.
We have seen the way caged birds, especially parrots, are treated. Often food is given to these poor winged creatures only after they obey their masters and perform some gimmicks.
The other aspect is human-wild animal encounters. These conflicts are a result of the loss of habitat and competition for waning resources. But in such cases, we often portray the animal as the villain, though in reality the animal is reacting in panic when surrounded by an unruly mob.
A survey conducted by Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS-India) found that people associated elephants with “menace”, leopards and tigers with “attack” and bears with “mauling”.
Such a perception, especially when combined with lack of effective wildlife management strategies at state and Central levels, can prove detrimental to the cause of wildlife conservation and peaceful co-existence between humans and wildlife.
But the question remains: Were these animals meant to be treated like this? If a life-form more powerful than humans were to exist on earth would we accept it if that life-form treated us the way we treat other animals? The answer would surely be a big NO. So why do we do this?
No country for elephants
We celebrated Save the Elephant Day in April. Unfortunately, the ground reality is not a pretty picture. We highlight here, on this occasion, some issues and shed some light on the painful life these poor elephants live. Though big in size and shape they are still very beautiful and emotional but, sadly, are forced to live and die a painful death.
India is home to the Asiatic elephant (Elephas maximus) and, according to estimates, there are approximately 30,000 wild elephants in the country and around 3,500 captive ones. It’s a wonderful sight to come across a herd of elephants while visiting most wildlife sanctuaries in India.
But on the flip side, we also come across elephants at temple ceremonies, circuses, zoos, ferrying different kinds of loads in cities, as decorative items at high society weddings, so on and so forth. They are also used for joy rides at many places.
Most of these elephants are often captured as calves and have to undergo a ruthless training process called “the crush”, whereby these beautiful creatures are beaten, poked and starved into submission by their handlers. And then they are relocated to areas where they do not belong.
Take for example, Rajasthan, which has a very hot and dry climate. Though elephants don’t belong to Rajasthan, we see them at quite a few places, like Amer Fort and Tripolia in Jaipur, near havelies in Bikaner and other places of tourist interest.
The elephants are subjected to the severest kinds of abuse in Rajasthan. The natural habitat of elephants is cool and shaded forest full of nutritious food and soft muddy, grassy land to walk on.
But that’s not the scene in the desert state. The gentle giants are fed limited food, and that too non-nutritious, and they are forced to live fairly solitary lives. They are made to walk on hot man-made tar roads carrying heavy loads and people on their backs.
Amer fort at Jaipur is a beautiful building of historic significance, but this place, unfortunately is plagued with animal, specifically elephant, abuse. The pain that these elephants are put through is unimaginable.
They are forced to give joy rides to tourists trudging up a hilly cemented road, which becomes unimaginably hot during the scorching summers in Jaipur, lasting about 20-30 minutes. Unwillingly, and forced by mahouts with ankush (a sharp edged iron tool used to goad or control elephants), even though it is banned), they have no choice but to slowly walk to the Fort a number of times a day.
The working hours stretch over 12 hours a day but in return they get no food or water, as feeding and drinking might result in the elephants urinating and defecating during the rides.
Because of these tortures the elephants develop multiple health problems including foot injuries, impaction (blockage of digestive tract), damaged eyes and fatigue caused by their unnatural activity. And the worst thing is that these problems normally become fatal and we lose one more beautiful animal.
There are about 110 elephants used for rides at the fort. And the other irony is that majority of the elephants in Amer are females (because they are easier to tame and control). All the pachyderms suffer from mental disorders, such as stereotypic behaviour, due to the conditions they are forced into. They have repetitive behaviours like swinging back and forth for a really long time.
Not for rides
The way the elephant’s body is structured, it is not meant to be ridden at all. It is not supposed to ferry any loads too, but at Amer a heavy wooden seat, which weighs about 50-100 kgs, is harnessed on its back. Two people sit in it along with the mahout sitting on the neck. This is a lot of weight for an animal that doesn’t have a back to support any weight.
At places like the Elephant Junction in Thekkady, temples at Thrissur and Guruvayur in Kerala, one can see how these elephants are cruelly treated so that we can be entertained. They are forced to stand on two legs, sway to music, spray water on tourists who ride on their backs and other such gimmicks.
The condition of elephants in Kerala, where they are attached to temples, is much worse. They are painted with harmful chemicals during festivals which leads to skin diseases, which are never medically treated.
They are always tied up in chains at the training centres. They are tied up even when they are brought to the river for a bath, or during feeding time. Even baby elephants are treated in the same manner and no mercy is shown.
People throng to the river to watch them bathe and it’s really a sad feeling to see how a poor mother tries to protect her young one from onlookers and the trainers prodding her and her baby with rods and the dreaded ankush.
It’s sad to report that the death rate of these elephants in captivity is quite high. This year (2018), till February, six elephants have been reported to have passed away.
Abuse of elephants is not hidden. Everyone knows about the magnitude of elephant abuse. They are constantly tied up with chains, beaten severely and often kept unfed. In both these places the natural behaviour of elephants are suppressed.
There is urgent need for all come forward and devise ways to curtail these severities, both on the part of the public and also the government. We have already deprived our future generations of a number of wild species, which have become extinct.
The question facing us today is: In future, do we also want to see elephants in picture books and animated movies only? Surely, they have an equal right to enjoy freedom just the way we humans do.