India is home to the largest number of Asiatic Elephants. They're not only a part of our natural wildlife but also hold an elevated status in Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Like the cow, the elephant is also worshipped in South Asian countries. But behind the veils of deification, the mighty animals face a lot of violence and torture in the name of tradition.
Elephants are social and nomadic animals that move through large traditional home ranges to known sources of food and water. Sadly, the forests they once knew have turned into tea gardens and paddy fields, or have been submerged by dam construction or devastated by mines. A number of them get captured for religious purposes and trained brutally like the ritual worship in Guruvayur temple, Kerala which owns more than 60 elephants or are killed by poachers for ivory.
Despite all this, one of the greatest threats to elephant conservation in this era is the problem of human-elephant conflict. Where elephants previously had large tracts of forest land that they could traverse, there are now concrete jungles. Fragmentation in the paths of elephant routes means that they come in contact with human settlements while they are migrating. In India, there are many areas where people are living directly in the paths of elephant herds. This confrontation between humans and wilderness often results in damage to property and loss of life.
There's also an entire business model based on elephants. Mahouts, (elephant riders) train their captive elephants and use them for rides, performances and ritual worship. Their livelihoods depend on these animals and because of their size, which can be threatening, elephants go through torturous training periods to be tamed. They're isolated and live in horrid conditions since mahouts barely earn enough to feed their own families.
However, there are still some positive stories of good relationships between elephants and their caretakers, as shown in Kartiki Gonsalves' Oscar-nominated documentary, 'The Elephant Whisperers'. It narrates the story of Bomman and Bellie, a middle-aged couple who belong to the indigenous Kattunayakan tribe, and their heartwarming relationship with the baby elephant Raghu and later with Ammu, another calf elephant. The film sheds light on the loving relationship between the couple and the baby elephants, whom they care for as if they were their own children; building a deep emotional connection with the lovable jumbos.
Institutions like the Mahouts Elephant Foundation are on a mission to rescue elephants from mahauts and compensate them or work with them to facilitate a humane, symbiotic partnership with elephants. Since there has been a massive loss and fragmentation of forest areas where elephants could roam free, the only way they can live peacefully now is with the help of human beings that understand and value the animals and don't harm them for their own gain. What's needed is a softer approach for a conflict-free relationship and to put into practice the same love we say we have for these giants, intelligent, and gracious animals.