A baby elephant is rescued from the pit with the help of kumki elephants (Courtesy: Nagaraj B.N.)

O.P. Kaler, the former Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, in conversation with Dr P.S. Easa

in Interview
Published on: 23 September 2019

Dr P.S. Easa

Dr P.S. Easa holds a PhD on Elephant Ecology and Behaviour and has about 40 years of experience in wildlife research and management. Currently, he is the Chairman of Care Earth Trust, an NGO in Chennai, Chairman of Evaluation Committee of the new zoo in Thrissur, Technical Committee Member of Elephant Rehabilitation Centre at Kottoor in Neyyar and Member of IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group and EIA-related committees in Kerala.

O.P. Kaler, the Former Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests talks about the captive elephants in Kerala.

Dr P.S. Easa (PS): On the future of captive elephants in Kerala

O.P. Kaler (OP): I have verified each and every captive elephant in Kerala. Actually, when I joined, nobody knew how many captive elephants were there in Kerala. The record stated there were 702 captive elephants in Kerala. That was an answer submitted to the Legislative Assembly of Kerala every time—702 captive elephants in Kerala. I took the record of each elephant in Kerala. Over the years, as many years as we can go back, nobody entered into the record the death of any elephant out of 702 while reporting to the government. How many came to Kerala—that was also not recorded. So I analysed the overall figures. Actually during that time, many elephants came, many elephants died. And, in between, many more things happened to captive elephants. The first one, as per the record, is staying with owner A in Kollam district, but when I verified, it is not with A or even B, but with C, who is living in Kozhikode or Palakkad. I noticed there were 116 elephants where the name of owner had changed. Similarly, I found out that an elephant that was in Thrissur is now somewhere else. That list was also coming to 120.

When we come to the future of elephants in Kerala . . . See, I worked in the headquarters from 1999 up to 2003. It is more or less a business actually. Now at that time, in 1999, one captive elephant cost 40,000 [rupees] in the Northeast, people were spending nearly 1,00,000 rupees (there) and in Kerala, it was reaching 1,50,000 rupees. But at that time, in 1999, it was (worth) three to four lakhs in Kerala. It takes almost a month from the Northeast to Kerala. Hence, anybody was able to save, at that time, around two to three lakh rupees by bringing one elephant from the Northeast through Bihar to Kerala. Now coming to the future of elephants in Kerala, Bihar has taken a decision on the movement of captive elephants (across the state); it can neither come nor go. I have also analysed from where all these 702 elephants came to Kerala. None of the elephants originated from Kerala, actually. They all came from outside, because there is no breeding of captive elephants in Kerala. In the past, the Forest Department has given some elephants to private owners. But to a large extent, it has come from the Northeast and Bihar through Sonepur mela.

PS: On the effectiveness of the Kerala Captive Elephants Management Rule

OP: It is really appreciated that it was Kerala that came out with rules in 2003, which were further amended in 2012. Even the MoEF (Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change) and CEC (Central Empowered Committee) came out with similar guidelines, in 2008, for the management of captive elephants. See, my experience is wherever any legislation is made and the implementation is weak it means it is a failure. Now, the role of captive elephant management was given to the District Collector. That means for any festive activity the DC will hold a meeting and scrutinise the activities. That was not taken care of as needed. Maybe the DC was not free for that because they have so many other issues to look after. Another thing is that the Forest Department is only operating in the forest.

PS: On captive elephant and ownership certificate

OP: See, Dr Easa, actually no elephant can be transported without ownership certificate. All elephants that came to Kerala, from all the states throughout India, their ownership was there. And, only among illegal parties did the owner never report to the Chief Wildlife Warden after transporting the elephant to Kerala. In fact, according to the rule, after transporting the elephant the owner should report to the Chief Wildlife Warden within 30 days. There is no provision in the Wildlife Act that ownership certificates should be reissued. In Kerala, some 280 elephants do not have an ownership certificate. The reality is they have certificates from the original states. What should have been done was reporting to the Chief Wildlife Warden after transportation, which was not done. I think it was the 2003 amendment of the Wildlife Protection Act.

PS: Correct.

OP: There, Section 41a or 40a, says that GoI can also decide on declaration and rethink. I think that is not needed actually. That is my personal feeling. There is already the power with the state, as per Section 40, Subsection 4. There was no need of another section for that. Let the state decide. Another important thing is that, for any authority, when an issue is there it has to be settled. After inserting that section in 2003, the GoI had so many opportunities, they had so many meetings. I have seen the minutes of many meetings of the MoEF and CEC, but they have never taken any decision. Why? Why to drag an issue where people are involved? Can they ban it? If they can, then ban it. Five other animals are already banned. If they cannot, then it is better to take a decision. Let the state government take a call on it as per Section 40, Subsection 4. I think Kerala has represented two to five times to the MoEF and CEC.

PS: On captive elephants, tradition and welfare

OP: Anyhow, Dr Easa, it is evident from what is happening. I have analysed the death of elephants in Kerala. How many elephants died in the past and at what age? The elephant in the wild lives for up to 80 years. This is actually evidence that there is something wrong. I have analysed that on average death of captive elephants occurs at the age of 40. That is not the lifespan of an elephant. Anyone can analyse the records. Whatever we say, whether we love elephants, people really love elephants. There was the death of an elephant recently, it was in the papers. I don’t remember its name. So, people love elephants, majority love them. However, for some it’s just business. Certain people don’t love them, they have just kept elephants for their livelihood. It’s up to us on how to carry forward the tradition, culture and love for the animal in the future. It is all reciprocal, mutual. If you love the animal, it loves you back. If you have many animals, whom would you love? They are like paid workers. In reality, we don’t know how much they care for the animal. That attachment varies from one mahout to another. It’s not known to us. Neither the president of the temple nor us are present there every day.

PS: On captive elephants and ivory trade

OP: That has happened in Kerala. Actually one of the cases happened recently. The basic reason is that the Forest Department has never maintained a record. We initiated it actually. Whenever permission was given, there was a register, an entry was made there. For many elephants, ownership certificate was not there as per our record, the Forest Department record. He is requesting us for the cutting [of tusks]. In such cases, when permission was given, the tusks would be cut and handed over to him. In other cases, they can apply for it (the ownership certificate) as per rules, to the Chief Wildlife Warden within seven days. That is the rule. Such cases have come when I was counting all the elephants in Kerala. I could not find the records for 112 elephants. I handed it over to the Vigilance [and Anti-Corruption Department] and they found that many elephants were not there. How did these elephants die and where did their tusks go? These are mysteries we need to solve.

PS: On the stock of ivory by the state

OP: The MoEF issued a directive in 1994 (which was reiterated again in 1996) that Kerala should burn all the ivory. Even the Chief Wildlife Warden of Kerala had taken this up with the Government of Kerala to burn the ivory as it is done in several countries, such as China and several African countries. But the State Wildlife Board, based on the report of Chief Wildlife Warden, decided against burning it. It is better that the MoEF and CEC take a call on it and make an appropriate decision.