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Elephants in conflict with nearby communities face a cruel future

Asian elephant

Captive elephants, such as this one, are forced to submit to a life behind bars. ArranET under a Creative Commons Licence

I just read a lovely story by Cynthia Daniel in YES! Magazine. Three African elephants called Toka, Thika and Iringa have been retired from the Toronto Zoo where they showcased their magnificent exotic charms to visitors. The trio were moved from a two-acre paddock to their new habitat – an 80-acre sanctuary created in the verdant Californian hills – for them to end their days in peace and dignity.

I’ve always hated zoos and circuses. Couldn’t bear to see lions, tigers and elephants forced to perform tricks, so completely out of sync with their natural majesty. It seemed terribly wrong to force a magnificent animal like a lion or tiger to jump through a flaming hoop. Even crueller when you consider that fire is the one thing the big cats are supposed to dread.  

The Californian sanctuary is the brainchild of the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), a non-profit that allows abused, abandoned or retired performing animals to live ‘in peace and dignity’.

Not many people give a thought to retired performing animals. I’ve felt a pang or two when I’ve heard of a racehorse being shot because it had passed its prime. And the term ‘put to pasture’ is not something one seriously gives much thought to. So it’s really heart-warming to hear about an initiative like PAWS.

Living as we do on the edge of the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, we hear many elephant stories, not all pretty. Our much-maligned forest department gets a lot of flack from animal rights activists for catching and taming rogue elephants. All of us who live here love our pachyderms, even the rogue ones. But it’s one thing to be an armchair activist and another to be confronted by the reality of elephants who’ve killed hapless local residents.

What can the forest department officials do? They’re damned by the locals for not moving rogue elephants and leopards or marauding monkeys that destroy entire orchards, and prosecuted by animal rights groups for capturing the killer elephants. Experts inform us that, like humans, once a herd of elephants gets used to ‘easy fast food’ they become hooked. They tend to return to human habitats to graze off easy-to-reach crops and orchards. A poor farmer’s entire income can disappear in one single night if the jumbos come a-partying. So capturing the herd and relocating them is not the solution, apparently.

Taming the huge elephants is a skill but the breaking-in process, which lasts a week, is a tough and cruel one. The animal has to be broken into submission. It is first tied to a wooden frame or between two tree trunks. Here, it is rendered totally immobile. At this stage, while it is desperately wrenching at the ropes and chains, flailing violently though impotently with its trunk, it is introduced to its mahout (elephant keeper). To break her in, the young elephant is struck with an elephant hook and beaten repeatedly. At the same time, the mahout talks to her in a calming voice.

Fear, pain, thirst and hunger finally break her, forcing her to give up all resistance. She is then surrounded by tame elephants who teach her to become a beast of burden – a working elephant. I’ve watched adivasi mahouts who never beat their elephant but talk to him or her all the time. The breaking-in is another process, a pretty nasty story. More and more elephants are turning rogue or destructive. So we need solutions like PAWS for them in areas where human-animal conflict abounds.

One solution is for animal lovers to buy up huge tracts of land and convert them to sanctuaries for brutalized animals. It needs specialist groups to take on specialist problems and find workable solutions. Any takers?

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