New Internationalist

Elephants in conflict with nearby communities face a cruel future

Asian elephant [Related Image]
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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  1. #1 Prabir KC 06 Nov 13

    There are rogue departments too. The rail authorities in Jalpaiguri- where speeding trains knock down elephants in their natural corridors. The expansion of tea cultivation in forests and hill areas. The huge rate of increase in human populations. The conflict certainly needs to be solved. Rogues on both sides are a product of a process- some may need taming!

  2. #2 Ludwig Pesch 06 Nov 13

    The problems posed by the return of much smaller wild animals, promoted by the European Union, seem insignificant by comparison (wolf, lynx). Although some countries here have considerable forests, intensive farming is never very far to seek, and farmers understandable dread seeing some of their cattle eaten by predators long extinct in their lands. On similar lines, large herbivores are reintroduced and obviously easier to integrate in rural areas. Monetary compensation often works fine.
    “It is also because people are leaving the countryside, which leaves more space for wildlife,” [...] The wildlife resurgence isn’t all good news, however, as the booming numbers of wolves and other large predators are becoming a concern for farmers who raise livestock.
    Source: European Wildlife Conservation Efforts Paying Off - Science News - redOrbit
    Address :

    It is hard to imagine new sanctuaries to be established in India. In the Indian press, we read about forced eviction of ’tribals’ from their ancestral lands for the benefit of investors and tourists. Would compensations ever reach those intended?
    In existing ones, constructive engagement with the government officials concerned would surely save much energy and invite contributions as well as funding.
    Even the acquisition of large areas for the benefit of (growing) elephant populations, wherever viable as well and morally justified as argued in this blog, would sooner or later generate new outside pressures as to make this a Sisyphean enterprise.
    Establishing local monitoring groups, involving capable teachers, students and wildlife experts might be the best answer for dealing with day-to-day challenges as described here.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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