When Audrey Gaffney first read about Raju, an elephant kept in chains with spikes embedded in his ankles, she couldn’t stop the tears pouring down her face. “In fact, I cried again and again: I found over the next few days I just couldn’t get this story out of my head, I couldn’t stop thinking about Raju,” she recalls.
“I couldn’t believe the cruelty of my race.”
The young elephant had been snatched from his family, she explains – his mother either would have been killed or spent weeks searching and crying for him – and he was beaten into submission. Raju then spent the next 50 years forced by his handler to beg in the street, starved, frightened and suffering infected wounds to his flesh. By the time of his rescue, he had resorted to eating plastic and paper.
Going on to discover that Raju was just one of thousands of elephants treated this way in India, Ms Gaffney, a single mother from Liverpool, was spurred into becoming an activist for the first time. In the four years since, she says, her life has changed beyond recognition as she dropped her wariness of social media and teamed up with other volunteers working to raise awareness of the horrors to which the temple elephants of India are subjected.
Taken from their families in the wild, shackled, beaten, whipped and exploited like slaves, these elephants – ironically India’s icons – are painted and dressed in colourful decorations, to be paraded in regular festivals and processions organised by religious temples.
They are the world’s forgotten elephant victims of mankind. While the world has focused on the threat of extinction to Africa’s elephants caused by the ivory poaching crisis and the cruelty of tourist elephant rides in Thailand and Cambodia, the plight of their captive counterparts in India has remained largely hidden from public gaze.
Photographs and videos posted online have shown how, away from the glitz of the festivals, these sensitive, intelligent and naturally sociable creatures are tied to the spot by ropes or chains that eat into their skin and inflict agonising injuries to their legs; they are hit with metal rods or bullhooks – sharp tools – and “trained” with punishments to hold their heads high.
When the six-month festival season begins in December, they are forced to walk for miles in searing heat on hot, stinging tar roads and ridden into processions noisy with crowds and fireworks – terrifying for a creature whose home is the forest. While still shackled in chains they are made to run races or carry people, and are subjected to “painful and unnatural” “head-lifting” competitions.
Some elephants are carted from one festival to another – in some cases hundreds of miles – and despite suffering sometimes infected wounds from the chains, are ridden in searing temperatures by people who apparently see no harm in what they do.
The southern coastal state of Kerala has the highest number of festival elephants, about 500 out of 3,500-4,000 across the country. Action for Elephants UK (AfE) brands Kerala “ground zero for elephant torture”, and has called their illegal treatment “the worst case of animal cruelty in the world”. The plight of the 150 captive elephants in neighbouring Tamil Nadu is feared to be just as bad.
Footage posted a week ago by local group Kerala Suffering Elephants (KSE) reveals how an elephant named Gurvayur Nandan was paraded at a festival until dawn, before being transported for eight hours standing on the back of a truck in the scorching sun for eight hours without rest to a separate event that ran until midnight (see video above).
Malnourished and deprived of medical care, captive individuals of the endangered species rarely survive this “unrelenting neglect and torture” for a natural lifespan. The mortality rate in Kerala is shocking: 58 have died in 27 months, and already in 2018, 12 have succumbed, according to KSE. In seven years, the death toll is 350. “There could be no more damning proof of the hellish conditions and treatment meted out to these elephants,” says Maria Mossman, founder of AfE.
For all the abuse, injuries and mental torment, it’s not the pain or infections that usually kills them early, it’s “intestinal impactions”: a blocked colon caused by being fed the wrong diet and insufficient quantities of water. The condition means they die “a miserable and painful” early death.
Campaigners have had enough. Gathering outside the Indian High Commission in London, they staged a protest to draw the attention of the New Delhi government and the world at large to the animals’ plight. Wearing large elephant masks and waving placards, they came from a variety of backgrounds; some had travelled hundreds of miles to be there.
What unites these women – and yes, the campaigners are nearly all women – is a shared abhorrence of the “abuse and torture”. They adamantly deny attempting to interfere with religious culture.
“Temple elephants are not part of any tradition,” explains Ms Mossman.
In fact, the cruelty behind Kerala’s rituals is thought to have begun about a century ago as India’s nouveaux riches started to buy elephants to flaunt their wealth. Denise Dresner, a co-organiser of AfE, recalls the heart-wrenching moment that opened her eyes to the scale of the problem: “In 2013 I saw a video by Peta of Sunder the temple elephant being beaten. This was something I’d never witnessed before.
“An elephant was on its side on the ground, struggling to get up. His feet were shackled and he was being beaten violently by several men, over and over again. He kept struggling, unable to get away from the blows raining down on him. I learned later he had been kept in a dark shed and beaten incessantly for seven years.
“That moment of seeing him being beaten and tortured was seared into my brain and heart. It’s an image that will never leave me, one that shows the extremes of human violence and brutality towards other living beings. The unspeakable cruelty perpetrated on these majestic, sentient and highly intelligent creatures must end.”
For Maria Harper, another protester, it’s the duration of the suffering that is worst. “What upset me most was when I realised the length of time the temple and festival elephants suffer,” she says.
Seeing the photos and hearing the accounts is harrowing. But Ms Mossman says it’s vital if their welfare is to improve. “The world needs to know how handlers use banned weapons and restrain them with heavy shackles, often tightened so severely that they cut through the flesh, causing raw bleeding wounds that are seldom treated. “They are often forced to stand in the same position 24/7, in their own urine and excrement, suffering from foot rot. They are beaten and tortured time and again.”
Some mahouts think nothing of whipping an elephant to make it bend to his will, such as climbing into a truck. But the abuse doesn’t end there.
Most of Kerala’s captive elephants are bulls. When they enter their annual musth – mating season – their testosterone levels and energy surge, so the mahouts tighten their shackles further until the creatures are unable to move. In addition, food and water are restricted to weaken them.
But then comes the cruellest torture yet. Several men, often drunken, beat the chained elephant for up to 72 hours relentlessly. The practice is based on a superstitious belief that the elephants may have forgotten their commands during their musth, and is designed to break the elephant’s spirit, “reminding him that his masters are in control”.
All bull elephants in Kerala undergo this horror every year.
These practices are banned by the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960 and the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, but campaigners point out that the laws are routinely ignored.
Elephants are paraded with no ownership papers or parade certificates, or with fake fitness certificates, breaking the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, which says they cannot be exploited for profit, AfE says. Recent laws banning the use of disabled, sick or pregnant elephants in festivals are also ignored.
“India has very good laws but they are ignored daily and the abusers go unpunished,” says Ms Mossman. “Not only are elephants intelligent and sentient beings, they are an endangered species. It is the duty not only of India to enforce the laws to protect them, but of the world to hear their cries of suffering and respond to end the brutality against them.”
She and KSE agree that making profits and keeping the status quo are at the root of the problem. “These sentient animals are seen only as commodities, earning huge sums of money for their owners and the temples,” says Ms Mossman. “Exploited under the veneer of culture and religion, they are big business. Everyone, from the chief minister downwards, has a stake.”
The 3,000 temples that rent out elephants to festival organisers are run by four devaswom (socio-religious trusts), appointed by the state government, and each temple earns many millions of rupees from festivals.
Any elephant that makes it beyond 60 is purposely neglected and abused – treated as a disposable item – so the owners can make hefty insurance claims, according to AfE.
Sangita Iyer, who was born and raised in Kerala and made an award-winning 2016 film, Gods in Shackles, revealing what goes on behind the scenes at the festivals, is convinced greed is to blame.
“Elephants are allowed to die so the owners can receive the payouts. There’s a whole insurance industry surrounding this, in which the owners and brokers make the most profit.”
According to India’s Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, which in 2014 petitioned the Supreme Court of India to order better conditions for the animals, another factor is young men showing off. “Today’s mahouts are in it for the glamour and the thrill. Unlike the mahouts of the old, who learnt the ways of handling the elephants over time, these guys know only oppression and violence,” one rescuer says.
Nor does Ms Iyer particularly blame festival-goers. “Most people are unaware of the crushing burden these elephants carry, in the literal sense, on their backs, and in their hearts and souls. Most people don’t realise the brutality that these sentient beings undergo to entertain them. They are so hypnotised by the majestic, ornate elephants and lost in their own selfish world that they don’t even look at the raw bleeding ankles.”
However bad the suffering of the individuals, the abuse has wider repercussions. KSE warns it could even lead to the extinction of Indian elephants.
Taking young elephants from the wild has a serious impact on wild elephant populations in India and elsewhere, activists fear. People’s lives, too, are being put at risk. Some elephants, driven frantic by their suffering, break free and run amok. Behind media reports of people being killed by a rampaging elephant there almost always lies a story of a brutalised animal.
There have also been 300 incidents of elephants running amok in the first three months of this year. Earlier this month there were unconfirmed reports of elephants running amok at festivals in Ernakulam and Kollam districts. Unofficial counts puts it at 20 incidents in one week.
Action for Elephants is warning prime minister Narendra Modi these rituals are not just harming the country’s most iconic wildlife, but also India’s multi-million-pound tourism industry and reputation. “We hope tourists and visitors to India will make ethical choices and will shun all forms of elephant tourism that use elephants in any unnatural way, whether in festivals or for trekking or rides or any other purpose,” a statement by the group says.
The London demonstration coincided with a visit to London by Mr Modi for the Heads of Commonwealth meeting, who received a letter from activists, pleading for him to enforce its widely flouted anti-cruelty laws. It says: “While we urge you to consider immediate measures to enforce the laws and stop the cruel abuse of these elephants, the end goal is to see the use of elephants in temples phased out altogether.
“In this day and age, when we have gained so much knowledge about the intelligence, emotional capacity, and social bonds of these majestic creatures, and when we know how endangered they are, we believe that all countries have a duty to protect them, treat them humanely, and give them sanctuary.”
India is positioned to take a global lead in ethical wildlife tourism, the letter says.
Signatories include primatologist Jane Goodall, TV star Michael Palin, author Jilly Cooper, TV presenter Anneka Svenska and radio presenter Nicky Campbell, as well as MP Zac Goldsmith.
Filmmaker Ms Iyer believes educating the public is the only way to achieve change. “Ignorance and arrogance make for a bad potion, and unless and until we are able to create attitude shifts in the public eye, there’s little hope for these sentient beings.
“There is no point in fighting the owners or brokers. Enlightening the people is the only way to stop the audience from participating in festivals that use live elephants, and reduce demand for such cultural festivals. When the demand dies down, the elephants will be ultimately phased out.”
The Indian High Commission in London did not respond to a request by The Independent to comment and refused to send anybody to open the door when visited in person.
There are some glimmers of hope, however. Occasionally, news of progress made by welfare workers on the ground emerges, and an elephant rescue can become a stand-out memory for followers. The film that startled Ms Gaffney was called Raju the Elephant Cried on the Day he was Released from Chains. His rescue made headlines.
Ms Dresner says she followed each step in a protracted legal case to free Sunder with her heart in her throat. “Finally, when he was freed, the joy was overwhelming. Like so many others, I then followed his progress in his new home at Bannerghatta Biological Park, crying (happily) with every bit of good news: his healing leg, his first swim in the pond, his making new friends, his putting weight on his skeletal frame.”
Fellow demonstrator Joanne Smith agrees. “The terrible delays with the court case were so hard to take but the day Sunder was given his freedom was thrilling,” she recalls. “It proved to me that we can make a difference with hard work and determination.”
In the past two years, three temples have done away with renting elephants for festivals. One used mechanical stand-in; another used an 8ft dummy made of plaster of Paris and bamboo. Organisers say they may even offer the model to neighbouring temples for their own festivals, allowing the idea to catch on.
The London protest and letter also have the support of Absolutely Fabulous star Joanna Lumley, whose message was: “One of the most influential Indians of all time, Mahatma Gandhi, said: ‘The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.’
“India! Listen to his words and implement them. The world supports your laws against cruelties to temple elephants, but only you can ensure that they are enforced.”
And that, say campaigners, really would be worth a celebration.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies