The Hidden Plight of Temple Elephants

Our newest board member, Drusti Klein, is a writer for the Blue Dot Post where she first wrote about the hidden plight of temple elephants. As our focus is normally on the African elephant and the ivory trade, we are excited to have Drusti’s input on Indian elephants and their use in temple rituals.

Do you have a blog post you’d like to share about elephants? Email us here to be considered!

I have been to India several times. One memory I always carry with me is of temple elephants. India (as well as other Asian countries) have temples that “care” for one or more temple elephants. I use the word “care” loosely. Many would find it ironic to learn that temples who supposedly worship & care for these sentient beings, actually do the exact opposite.

This video of Sunder was recorded undercover. Celebrities like Sir Paul McCartney worked tirelessly to move Sunder to a sanctuary. All the social media brought attention to Sunder’s plight and put pressure on the Indian government to do something. Today, Sunder lives at a sanctuary and getting the proper care he needs! The video is disturbing, however necessary, so one can understand what is really happening to so many other temple elephants in India.

Fastforward to Sunder’s new life thanks to Bannerghata Biological Park (BBP) and PETA India. BBP and PETA India have teamed up to form India’s first free-roaming elephant sanctuary in a fenced, forested land. This allows Sunder and all other elephants the ability to enjoy their space without being chained into place (which is the common way captive elephants in India are kept).

Temple elephants are common in India and as can be seen in the case of Sunder, far too often their needs are not being met & they are subjected to cruel training methods or excessive forced labor conditions. However, currently more elephants live in captivity in Asia than in the wild and with the issues of land management, if all temple elephants were to be set free, there would not be enough space for them to co-exist in the wild with the human villages nearby. While many temples mistreat their elephants, Mayapur Elephants strives to establish and promote a more humane treatment of temple elephants. By inviting the outside public to get involved in developing and supporting their program, Mayapur Elephants hope to lead by positive example. They hope to motivate other temples to adopt their policies and practices, thereby improving the lives of these sentient animals. I was so impressed to learn (first hand) that the donations they receive are uses SOLELY for the purpose of funding their elephant program which includes costs associated with veterinary care, food, mahout, and other costs directly related to providing the highest level of care for their two temple elephants: Laksmipriya and Bishnupriya. Helga Illo who started Mayapur Elephants has worked hard to make sure her temple elephants are taken care of properly. Check out this video to see their bond. Hopefully, more temples will take the lead of Mayapur Elephants!

But why elephants are used in religious ceremonies?  Asian cultures admire the high intelligence and good memory of elephants that symbolize wisdom and royal power. And although Asian Elephants have been elevated to the status of Indiaís heritage animal, and considered by many Hindus as the embodiment of Lord Ganesh, they are being subjected to gross neglect and exploited for human entertainment and financial gain. Brokers and owners pocket a lot of money buying and selling elephants.

During the festivities the elephants are forced to stand motionless for 10-12 hours and tolerate the scorching heat, temperatures hover in 104- 122 degrees range. On top of this, there is no physical exercise for these elephants that would otherwise be grazing the lush jungles. As of right now, there are no guidelines on the type of training tactics the mahouts (trainers) use to control the elephants or make them them perform amid the chaos of the festival. If you look at the festivals in detail, you will see the heavy chains tied to the elephant’s feet and around their body. I would say this is their ‘training tactic’ and it is not a very humane one.

Kerala, India is known to have elaborate religeous festivals involving elephants dressed in ornate and heavy dressing. What many do not know is that Musth Bull Elephants (Male) are used and tortured during festivities in Kerala, India. In the Asian species of elephants, only males have tusks. They are even called ìtuskersî in India. Of the more than 3,000 captive elephants in that nation, over 21% (at least 700 of them) predominantly bulls, are in the southern State of Kerala, India.

Keralaís festivities kick off between December and May, exactly when mature bulls undergo an annual cycle called Musth ñ their peak sexual arousal period. This is key to understanding the pain and suffering of Keralaís captive elephants.

During Musth, the bulls forage extensively in the wild and build their fat and energy reserves, as their testosterone levels surge by 60-100 times more than normal. These factors increase their sex drive, making them dominant and aggressive. However in captivity Musth bulls are isolated and tethered 24/7 in a tiny space mostly to a tree or pole, allowing only the handlers to feed and care for them. Unable to expend their energies these bulls become violent and attack their handler, inflicting themselves with injuries, and often they inevitably end up getting beaten and poked with long poles (with metal tips) and bull hooks, causing them pain and suffering. Not only are these bulls deprived of their basic drive to mate, but also punished for something natural and instinctual. Can you imagine that these amazing animals are not only being deprived, but also punished for the natural instinct to mate?

Sangita Iyer is a biologist and experienced documentary film maker who has worked in the media industry for over a decade. She is now putting her efforts into bringing light to the reality of the Indian festivals in Kerala, India. For the Love of Elephants is a feature-length documentary film in the making. It exposes and reveals the dark side of Kerala’s glamorous cultural festivities that exploit captive elephants for profit and the constant torture these supremely gentle and intelligent animals suffer. Check out her documentary, For the Love of Elephants to see how you can help make a difference, too. More recently, she has made progress by changing the hearts and minds of some locals in Kerala. Already, some well respected priests have spoken out against the use of temple elephants in festivals and a few have agreed to be interviewed. This is a huge step forward since priests in India are very keen on having elephants parade about during their ceremonies. Keep going Sangita! She is truly making a difference for these sentient beings with her hard work and dedication.

Most people may think one person can’t make a difference in this world but I say this world needs the one person who thinks they can make a difference, then change can really happen.


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1 Comment

  1. Ann

    This is absolutely heart-breaking. This is when I am so grateful that I firmly believe in karma.
    That any living creature can be treated in such an appalling manner just turns my stomach.
    This is when I really wish that I was one of the wealthiest people in the world, because I know it takes money to deal with matters such as this. All I can say is Thank You for rescuing Sunder. May many more be rescued.

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