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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

More than 200 Kerala elephants die from dismal conditions 

A Thrissur-based animal welfare group said 210 of the elephants were wild and 18 were captive ones

This photo, taken on October 14, 2017, shows a handler washing an elephant at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple Complex. Subhash Sharma / The National
This photo, taken on October 14, 2017, shows a handler washing an elephant at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple Complex. Subhash Sharma / The National

More than 200 elephants have died in Kerala in the past year, a statistic that illustrates the dismal conditions of the state’s official animal and emblem.

A Thrissur-based animal welfare group said 210 of the elephants that died were wild and 18 were captive ones.

“We included the statistic in a petition that we sent to the president [of India] two weeks ago,” said VK Venkitachalam, president of Heritage Animal Task Force (HATF), which has been campaigning for the better treatment of the giant mammals.

“Elephant deaths are regularly reported in the small papers. They don’t always make it to the big dailies or the English-language papers."

Mr Venkitachalam said that the “only way to get an accurate picture” of the magnitude of the problem is to trawl through the online local papers for reports on elephant deaths, something he does on a daily basis.

This photo, taken on October 14, 2017, shows a handler cleaning an elephant after bathing it at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple Complex. Subhash Sharma / The National
This photo, taken on October 14, 2017, shows a handler cleaning an elephant after bathing it at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple Complex. Subhash Sharma / The National

According to figures released by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change on August 12, Kerala has 3,054 elephants, an increase from 2,735 in 2012. It is estimated that roughly 700 elephants are kept in captivity by temples, camps, or other institutions.

“We don’t know for sure how many captive elephants there are,” Chitra Iyer, founder of Society for Elephant Welfare, told The National.

“Many elephants are unregistered. We call them ‘dupes’, short for duplicates.

“If the main temple elephant isn’t able to perform in a parade, the dupe stands in and, really, no one knows the difference.”

Ms Iyer said that the increase or decrease in the number of elephant deaths every year was not an indication on whether the situation was getting better or worse.

“The situation has been the same scary situation for many, many years now,” she said.

Of the 210 wild elephants that died this year, 86 were killed by electrocution. As human dwellings encroach into elephant territory, people erect fences and run electricity lines through them.

“You see forest areas being rented out or sold to farmers or to people to develop resorts,” Mr Venkitachalam said.

“As per the law, they have no right to pass electricity through these fences, but the forest officials are not initiating the right legal action when these electrocutions happen.

“They charge them for a more minor offence, so that people get out on bail. That’s why this continues.”

Meanwhile 68 wild elephants died of injuries from explosives, which are used to clear forests, and 14 were shot by villagers.

In a state that is nearly one-third forest, encroachments are growing more and more common. Last year, the district of Palakkad — home to the famous Silent Valley National Park — lost nearly 3,820 hectares of forest land. The district of Wayanad, which holds a wildlife sanctuary, lost 1,740 hectares.

In 2014, Kerala’s high court directed the government to recover all forest land that had been illegally encroached since 1977. But by September 2016 — the deadline imposed by the court — the government requested more time, because it had recovered just 280 acres, less than 2 per cent of the total encroached forest land.

This photo, taken on October 14, 2017, shows two elephants roaming around at the Elephant rehabilitation centre at Kottoor, Kerala. Subhash Sharma / The National
This photo, taken on October 14, 2017, shows two elephants roaming around at the Elephant rehabilitation centre at Kottoor, Kerala. Subhash Sharma / The National

When elephants are deemed a public menace — even if they are young — they are captured. The state sends these animals to elephant shelters or camps, after which they are auctioned.

“I’ve been to some of these camps, like the one outside Thiruvananthapuram,” Ms Iyer said. “It’s only masquerading as a shelter. All these elephants are kept in chains, even the babies. They’re kept in terrible conditions and not allowed to walk around at all.”

Kerala’s temples regularly buy elephants but take poor care of them. In 2015, the Supreme Court directed all temples in the state build effective shelters for their elephants, but these orders have not been consistently followed.

Last year, inspectors from the federal Animal Welfare Board of India assessed the welfare of elephants used in the annual Pooram procession, organised by a temple in Thrissur.

In their report, the inspectors found that “prohibited weapons … were rampantly used against elephants … and many of the elephants suffered from painful abscesses, marks of injuries on legs from constant chaining, impaired vision, cracked nails and wounds that were deliberately hidden with black material”.

Also, since captive elephants are forced to walk frequently on tarred roads or the tiled courtyards of temples, their feet chafe and blister.

“You’ll see that with these elephants, their legs have many wounds,” Mr Venkitachalam said. “When this happens, elephants refuse to eat properly. Their blood circulation slows. They catch other diseases. And out of neglect, they die.”

“The government’s policies just don’t favour the animal,” Ms Iyer said. “They just want votes.”