Vivek Menon, Chairman, IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group in conversation with Dr P.S. Easa

Vivek Menon, Chairman, IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group 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.

Vivek Menon Chairman, IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group speaks on the life of captive elephants in Kerala.

Dr P.S. Easa (PS): On the history of captive elephants

Vivek Menon (VM): There is a long history of keeping elephants in captivity that goes back thousands of years. And in those thousands of years you see change already happening. They were used to defend the nation, if you look at the Arthashastra. In statecraft, the advice to the king was to use elephants to protect the nation—for use in battle. Then, we have seen elephants being used for logging during the British period of colonisation. Then there are other uses. In Kerala, in particular, in religious processions that started with Hinduism of course and spread to other religions. Even this has been a fairly old tradition. If you ask me what the future is, I can see the change happening anyway. I am not sure, going into the next century, whether the children of tomorrow will want elephants to be used in this sort of processions. One, rituals are changing. Two, ideas of how an elephant should be kept are also changing. So, in both ways, eventually, these traditions will die. But, I am not saying that it should die. The two are different things. But, as society changes, as we become more of a materialistic society, looking for instant gratification, I think these sort of long-held traditions may change. And we should be ready for that.

PS: On elephants in festivals: tradition and welfare

VM: There are two things. One, definitely it is a tradition; nobody can say that it is not tradition. And it goes back a number of years. But I do not think it is only present-day welfare that is an issue. I think in the past also the welfare issue must have been there. Today, elephants are being used far more commercially than the tradition that may have originally evolved. And it is the commercialisation of the tradition that is causing all the problems in large measures. Of course, if you go with the purest view that a wild animal should not be kept in captivity, then obviously keeping any animal in captivity, especially an intelligent and social animal, involves some amount of cruelty. But most certainly, it is the burgeoning of the use of this animal, the commercialisation that is surrounding this, the business interest that is surrounding this. Keeping the animal in captivity is more of a problem than the tradition.

PS: On the role of the Specialist Group

VM: Well, I think the Specialist Group has a lot of knowledge and skill on the management of elephants, whether wild or captive. We must harness this skill to produce guidelines that are workable in real life. While I know that Kerala has its own guidelines already, let the global specialists’ group also contribute to think on what guidelines can be used, which are good in terms of science and welfare. But also practicable, which can be used to increase the welfare of the elephants. Which is what all of us want. The animal that we all love so dearly to be treated well. The average interstate Malayali will also like that the skills of the SG is being used to increase the welfare conditions of captive elephants.

PS: On the present practices of parading

VM: I think that should be absolutely banned. Animals that are ill, or in musth (which is not an illness but a natural phenomenon) or are injured should in no way work during that period—that is a basic tenet of a respectful life. If something is ill or injured, we should let them rest. We should not use them to make more money. Apart from that fact that the animal is suffering, it is a great threat to human life. Especially when you are using them in crowded places, where most of the festivities are. An elephant in musth can be a threat as we have seen regularly and it must not be used at all.

PS: On the deaths of mahouts and elephants

VM: I think the condition of mahouts is as pitiable as that of the elephant. That is what the traditional people are not talking about. People talk about temple traditions. The tradition of mahout-ship is dying. Today the social recognition of the mahout is lesser than that of a driver of an auto. Whereas, a mahout’s tradition of looking after elephants is handed over from generation to generation, and it should really be far more respected than going to a driving school and learning how to drive a car. I think, given the fact that their social standing is going down or they are addicted to alcohol or drugs, you can see that the care they take or used to take of the elephants is also gone now. This may not necessarily be due to the mahout; this may be due to the owner forcing the mahout to do unreasonable things at times. But this may also be due to the fact that the newer breed of mahouts coming into the field are not as rigorously trained. That’s one of the reasons. Second is what we just talked about—that if the elephant is suffering or in musth, the chances of a mahout being able to control the animal are less. So it amounts to causing injury or even death in many instances to himself and to innocent bystanders and as a retaliation the animal is also killed. Apart from that, bad husbandry conditions mean that there are chances of the animal dying fast. Another important point in Kerala is the use of palm fronds and others as the main diet of the elephants. If you know elephants, you know that the palm leaves can’t be its regular major diet. Many elephants are dying because of constipation. And I think Malayalam is the only language in the world which has a word for elephant constipation. Is it that it only happens in Kerala? Why did we evolve the word for it? Most definitely one should look at the diet as well.

PS: On the traditional training methods

VM: I think there are good parts of any tradition that should be retained. But there are also bad parts of a tradition. For example, the traditional training or capture methods will be called barbaric by today’s standard. I think we should move on. I don’t think everything traditional should be preserved. Sati was a tradition of India, but we have decided to move away from it. Like that, newer things can come in. But those skills, methods and art forms that will contribute to the maintenance of the animals in the future should be kept. If that goes, tomorrow we will not be able to help even the wild elephants. You need to have people who are able to go and approach the elephant, to treat the elephants, and these mahouts have that skill. We should preserve that. How to do it? We need to have a programme that encourages these skills. We have master craftsmen in the country. It’s a programme of the Government in India. We have master of artists, which was a programme of the Government in India, where people who have generational skills are not only rewarded but encouraged to pass on their skills to new generations. Not just mahout-ship, but the whole host of nature-related skills, whether it’s a tracker in the forest or a mahout, we should have a whole series of master naturalists, which could be created by the Ministry of Environment or even state bodies, which gives some monetary incentive for the person to pass their skills to the next generations.

PS: On elephants and tourism

VM: Not only internationally, even the young generation of Indians are very sensitive to these sorts of issues. Especially internationally—people will start boycotting festivals and other events if these animals are not being displayed properly. Besides, whether or not it is helpful for tourism it goes against the very ethics that every Indian should in any case practise. So I’m against any such malpractice, even if it means loss of revenue or loss of income.