For those who grew up in Kerala, the sight of Elephants on the roads is nothing out of the ordinary. Led by two paapaans (mahouts), they would be walked to a nearby temple, or you’d see them being transported in the back of a huge lorry. The pachyderm is a constant fixture at temples and festivals, and even the odd wedding or event. Their imposing stature, generally calm demeanour and kind eyes are something that turned many people in the state into elephant lovers. Some go so far as to create Instagram and Facebook accounts under titles like Elephant Lovers Kerala and Elephants. There are even dedicated pages for the famous elephants such as Thechikottukavu Ramachandran. Elephants have been closely entwined with Kerala’s history, culture and even literature. It is a motif that is closely associated with the state’s identity.
With a large population of wild elephants that find their natural home in the mountains of Kerala, it has been as much a native to Kerala as the people. Visitors who come to Kerala often embark on elephant sanctuary visits and try to catch a glimpse of wild elephants during safari rides through Munnar or . But over the course of the last four decades, their numbers have dwindled. There has been loss and degradation of habitats that have contributed deeply to this. Thankfully, there continue to be institutions like the Kottur Elephant Sanctuary and Rehab in Trivandrum and Kodanad Abhayaranyam in Ernakulam that work towards protecting and rehabilitating elephants.
But in talking about elephant rehabilitation, there are cases of immense destruction and wreckage that have been caused by rogue elephants peppered throughout the history of Kerala. Most recently, the elephant Arikomban who raided rations shops to steal rice in the Chinnakanal area of killed at least 10 people and injured many more has started a conversation around elephant rights-related laws and regulations in the state. While the Kerala Forest Department worked hard to find ways to capture and contain the situation, many animal rights activists opposed their move to capture and contain the elephant. The proposed idea of taking the elephant to Kodanad Elephant Center and Parambikluma Tiger Reserve was met with vehement opposition and protests. But in online spaces, there was a subset of people who were against containing the situation at all. Many a Malayali elephant lover talked about letting the wild elephant be in his ‘big-bodied playful’ ways, despite the loss of life, property and much more. But eventually, Arikomban was tranquillized and sent to the Periyar Tiger Reserve under the watchful eye of a wildlife veterinarian and a team of 150 people.
But the dichotomy of letting the elephants be is what started bringing up further conversations centred on the passion and love that Malayalis have towards the state animal. Kerala has the highest number of captive elephants in the nation — a whopping 700 elephants are owned by temples and even private parties. Most of them are brought out for, events and some even continue to work at timber yards and mills. A large amount of money and resources are poured into the ownership, care and management of these captive elephants. For many temples, Elephants are a part of their religious practice and have followed practices that date back centuries that employ elephants during their festivals. These elephants are adorned in ornaments, some even solid gold, and they lead the processions.
However, these 700 elephants are rented out for festivals and parades across the state, as they can fetch high sums for each appearance. They are subjected to the constant barrage of parade sounds like drums, horns and even firecrackers. They are transported across the district lines in and walked on tar paved roads and made to go through the processions without sufficient recuperation. Some make these appearances even while injured or despite being too old. When the festival season begins, these elephants are pushed to their limits; some mahouts even resort to cruelty to keep them going. There have been videos shared online that show the cruelty that these elephants are subjected to. Every year, at least a few of these elephants that are pushed to their limits, break under it and cause stampedes or gravely injure the mahouts. In the last decade, expert biologists have talked about the need to find better ways to take care of the elephants that are in captivity, as many seem to be dying prematurely.
Possible solutions would be to give better training to mahouts, provide more space and care to the elephants and create better ways to tame the elephants. Despite a huge uproar surrounding the lack of care received by elephants in captivity in the state, which led to the Animal Welfare Board commissioning a report, there have been no changes. As recently as March 2023, a -based NGO for Research on Animal Rights had reached out to the Chief Minister of the state for raising an inquiry into the deaths of captive elephants, which make up almost 138 cases in the past five years.
There is an active conversation that is rising through the weeds in light of all the harm to elephants and human life that has been caused by the practice of revering elephants, but mistreating them nonethless. While many continue to rage against the idea of alternatives as it feels like a disservice to their religious practice, others who call themselves elephant lovers but simply want to bask in their proximity to the seemingly grand animal without real concern for their wellbeing. This dissonance is being increasingly addressed in online spaces, with , and lengthy comment threads that make one truly question what is being done to the animal that is the state’s symbol.
But out here in the real world, there have been alternatives on the rise despite many who cry outrage at the idea of removing elephants and the grandeur they bring to festivals and the cultural and religious value they hold. There are now elephants that were employed in place of live ones (gifted by PETA to a temple in Kerala), and many temples have chosen to forego the use of elephants at their festivals. This slow-moving change is hopefully taking us closer to a brighter future for the elephants that Malayalis continue to call their state symbol, without subjecting them to the cruelty and harm that has unfortunately become the norm.
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