Every year, many of India’s tourists seek out a certain bucket list experience: riding an elephant. What most of them do not realize is that the lives of these animals are far from idyllic. Most of these creatures reportedly endure tremendous abuse and die earlier than their free brothers and sisters. But activists and advocates are working with lawmakers with various degrees of success to protect these animals.
Elephants in Culture, Their Lives in Captivity
India is home to about 27,000 elephants, roughly 2,500 of which are in captivity, according to Sangita Iyer, founder of Voices for Elephants, a nonprofit activist group bringing a voice to captive elephants.
Captive elephants are commonly used for religious festivals and tourism experiences. Amer Fort in Rajasthan and temples in Kerala are known to have a high number of captive elephants, according to World Animal Protection.
They are also considered sacred by Hindus and are seen as a link to Lord Ganesh. In Kerala, home to many ancient temples, it is common to see, especially during festival season between December and May, elephants decorated with headdresses and used in celebratory street parades. These can command thousands of dollars for an appearance. But their day-to-day life resembles nothing of the life they could lead in the wild.
“A lot of people don’t even know these elephants are caught in the wild. They think they are captive-born elephants. That’s the first thing that needs to be set straight, especially for tourists.” Iyer said, whose documentary Gods in Shackles illustrates captive elephant treatment. “These elephants are darted. They are beaten and brutalized for 72 hours by drunken men. … They are not even given food and water. They surrender for some food and water … all so people can be entertained.”
Elephants are highly social animals that must stay with their families in the wild. When captive, they live in cramped spaces and cannot exercise. Often chained and shackled when not in use, many will develop sores and wounds on their legs. They are also deprived of the wholesome varied diet they receive in the wild. This, in combination with the abuses, has reduced captive specimen lifespan to around 40 years, compared to 70 or more in the wild.
“When not giving rides or performing, elephants were typically chained day and night. Of the elephants observed by our researchers that were not engaged in an activity, 42% were kept on short chains of 3 meters or less. This severely affected their mobility,” said Nicole Barrantes, U.S. campaigns assistant for World Animal Protection. The nonprofit recently released a report, Elephants, Not Commodities, looking into the treatment of captive elephants in India.
Elephants in the Wild
Elephants are considered endangered in India and play a vital role in maintaining natural ecosystems. An adult elephant may spend up to 19 hours a day feeding, according to the World Wildlife Organization, and produces more than 200 pounds of dung daily and can roam up to 125 square miles. This is critical for dispersing germinating seeds and expanding trees and plant life to replenish oxygen in the air for both human and animal life.
Elephants also clear paths in dense forests and maintain grasses and tree heights in areas they roam. And because they drink water daily they are aware of water sources and become a conduit for other species to find it.
Cause for Despair – and Hope
Grassroots movements have worked to institute change in the treatment of elephants and limiting captivity practices. But it is common to see lax enforcement of rules passed in the 1980s and 1990s banishing capture, and regulating treatment standards for those who have already been captured.
“In 1992, the Indian government started ‘Project Elephant’ to ensure better welfare for captive elephants through management guidelines and workshops,”Barrantes noted. “They ruled that captive elephants must be microchipped and that owners need to provide a valid ownership certificate. However, cases of unregistered elephants regularly occur.”
Advocates like Iyer even face cultural and political backlash for their efforts.
“When you stoke the cultural and religious sentiments, it just gets completely out of control,” Iyer said. But she has also established relationships with foreign departments that have been receptive to investigating abuse, she says. When she travels to India, Iyer works in rural villages to educate people there about what is happening and to teach them how to live with the animals and minimize conflict.
“Education and empowerment of local people is definitely making an impact,” she said. “Change is slow to come. The wheels of bureaucracy turn very slowly, but change is inevitable.”