The largest land mammal to walk this Earth, the majestic elephant has always been a symbol of national pride and integral to India’s rich culture and heritage.
However, Asian elephants as well as their African counterparts are under the constant threat of poaching, habitat loss, human elephant conflict and severe abuse in captivity.
This incessant exploitation of this species has long since put them under the “Endangered” category on the IUCN Red Data List of threatened species with their wild population remaining close to 30,000 to 50,000 in the wild (Source: International Elephant Foundation).
Of this estimated population, approximately 60% Asian elephants reside in India.
Thus making India the last remaining stronghold for Asian elephants and crucial to the survival of the entire species.
The Asian elephant populations in India are critically threatened by rampant poaching of wild elephant calves, which are illegally trapped, trafficked and sold into captivity to be used as begging elephants on streets and in temples, for rides at tourist attractions, and as performing animals in circuses.
Today, nearly 3,500 elephants continue to be held in captivity across India, many of them illegally procured. Revered in Indian mythology and culture, it is ironic to see these very animals being treated with hostility, violence and
severe abuse in captivity.
The indoctrination process of any elephant in captivity is extremely cruel, scarring them both physically and psychologically.
Cruelty begins right from the very moment when an elephant is seized as a calf from its mother, which denies it the love and care from its matriarchal herd critical for the well-being of a calf. Instead, the calf is trained through negative reinforcement via abuse and neglect.
Traditional elephant training called ‘katti azhikal’ or ‘Phajaan’ uses severe punishment and torture, such as regular merciless beating with sticks, starvation, to inflict pain and fear to the extent that the spirit of the baby elephant is broken and crushed and they eventually become submissive to their masters.
The elephant then spends the rest of its life in constant fear and has to be beaten frequently to keep the fear reinforced on a daily basis.
While it is heart breaking, it is important to know that every single elephant you see begging on the streets, in temples, at weddings, circuses or on joy rides have all been broken the same way.
It is important to realize that there is just no other way to make a wild elephant “ride able”!
It might be your dream to ride an elephant, but it is an elephant’s worst nightmare!
Riding an elephant may seem innocuous considering the large size of the animal, but the reality is quite different, and extremely shocking. Coupled with the fact that these elephants are beaten mercilessly to make them “ride-able”, the excruciating pain that elephants suffer to carry people on their backs adds to their misery. The people carrier (or Howdah) on the elephant’s back is extremely heavy (weighing between 200 kilos to 600 kilos) and causes irreversible and permanent damage to the elephant’s spine.
Elephants suffer severe exploitation at Amer Fort near Jaipur where they are forced to trudge up steep slopes on cobbled stone pathways in the hot sun that cause severe damage to their delicate footpads.
The elephants are deprived of proper nutrition and social interaction thereby stifling any possibility of natural behavior during the rides – and possibly worst of all, there is no free access to drinking water available to them even as temperatures in Jaipur reach upwards of 47°C in the summer.
After hours of thankless and exhausting work giving joy rides to tourists at Amer Fort, these elephants then walk long distances on hot tarred roads to other tourist spots or to wedding functions where they continue to work without respite, sometimes late into the night. Elephant owners exploit the elephants out of view of authorities to evade the law.
Another startling irony is that insurance companies are not likely to provide medical insurance cover for injuries, death or an accident occurring from riding a wild animal as this is hugely dangerous and risky.
It is certainly unsafe for tourists to ride elephants as they are after all wild animals and are capable of trigger reactions like fear, stress, anxiety and anger causing them to go out of control, run amok and retaliate against their abusers.
Very often in a bid to escape their torturous lives, these elephants run amok, putting at risk lives of tourists, innocent bystanders as well as their mahout (handler). Several foreign tourists have been critically injured and killed while riding elephants in Amer Fort and other places in India.
The elephant riding industry indulges in a lot of illegality and elephant handlers and owners flout various laws and rules and often use illegally procured elephants.
Despite not being a native species of Rajasthan, as elephants require lush and dense jungles to survive and thrive, elephants have now become synonymous with tourism in Rajasthan. All the elephants of Rajasthan have been transported from other states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Assam etc. The status of many of these elephants remains illegal in the state as they are often purchased illegally, transported into the state illegally or bred illegally. All these activities are prohibited under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 that provides highest protection to the endangered elephants in India.
The Chief Wildlife Warden and State Forest Department is to ensure that welfare of elephants is not compromised in any way, however, despite stringent provisions and monitoring, the illegal trafficking and trade of elephants remains rampant in Rajasthan with the Forest Department having identified several elephants that are in illegal possession, yet the owners carry on their evil business blatantly making a mockery of the law.
Elephant owners creatively use forged certificates for multiple elephants. The demand for elephant rides driven by ignorant tourists is driving this unethical and illegal industry forcing the authorities entrusted with ensuring their welfare, to turn a blind eye to the cruelty that these captive elephants face on a daily basis.
This grotesque industry can come to an end! All it will take is for the tourists to become aware of what illegality their few moments of fun is fueling. If tourists refuse to ride elephants, all this abuse and exploitation will grind to an abrupt halt permanently. As long as there are lucrative profits to be made by exploiting these animals, the illegality and abuse of the animals in the tourism and entertainment industry will persist.
India has already lost 98% of its wild elephant population in the last 10 decades. At this rate of loss, we could lose the entire wild elephant population in the next 5 to 10 years, if steps are not taken to conserve and protect this species. To lose the few remaining wild elephants to fuel the demands of tourism industry is extremely irresponsible and could spell doom for the entire species.
Responsible Tourism is the key and the answer to elephant protection and ending the illegal and brutal practice of elephant exploitation in India.
THE VIEWS AND OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN THIS ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR AND DO NOT REFLECT THE VIEWS OF SPEAKIN, ITS MANAGEMENT OR AFFILIATES. SPEAKIN MAKES NO REPRESENTATION AS TO ACCURACY, COMPLETENESS, CORRECTNESS, SUITABILITY OR VALIDITY OF ANY INFORMATION ON THIS ARTICLE AND WILL NOT BE LIABLE FOR ANY ERRORS, OMISSIONS OR DELAYS IN THIS INFORMATION OR DAMAGES ARISING FROM ITS DISPLAY OR USE.
Author: Kartick Satyanarayan
Kartick Satyanarayan is the Co-Founder and Chairman of Wildlife SOS. He is a Member of the IUCN Bear Specialist Group (Sloth Bear Team Expert), the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, the State Wildlife Advisory Board of the Government of Jammu and Kashmir, the State Wildlife Advisory Board of the Government of Uttar Pradesh, the Central Zoo Authority’s Captive Elephant Evaluation Committee and the Executive Board of Friendicoes- SECA in New Delhi.