New AVMA elephant standards may help the working elephants of India
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2008:
SCHAUMBURG, THRISSUR, BANGALORE–Far from India, and
perhaps not even thinking of Indian temple elephants, the American
Veterinary Medical Association executive board on April 12, 2008
issued a new policy on the humane treatment and handling of elephants
which may eventually influence the care of more working elephants in
India than the entire elephant population of the United States.
“Elephant handlers and veterinarians generally use two tools
in handling and training elephants, tethers to restrict movement
temporarily, and a shaft with a blunt hook near one end known as a
guide,” explained a May 6, 2008 AVMA press release.
The “guide,” in India, is called an ankus, and in the U.S.
is more commonly called an elephant hook.
“Elephant guides are husbandry tools that consist of a shaft
capped by one straight and one curved end,” states the new AVMA
policy. “The ends are blunt and tapered, and are used to touch
parts of the elephant’s body as a cue to elicit specific actions or
behaviors, with the handler exerting very little pressure. The ends
should contact but not tear or penetrate the skin. The AVMA condemns
the use of guides to puncture, lacerate, strike or inflict harm
upon an elephant.
“Tethers provide a means to temporarily limit an elephant’s
movement for elephant or human safety and well-being,” the new AVMA
“Tethers can be constructed of rope, chain, or nylon
webbing. Their use and fit should not result in discomfort or skin
injury. Forelimb tethers should be loose on the foot below the ankle
joint. Hind limb tethers should fit snugly on the limb between the
ankle and knee joints. Tether length should be sufficient to allow
the elephant to easily lie down and rise. The AVMA only supports the
use of tethers for the shortest time required for specific management
The AVMA acknowledged that it adopted the new policy to avoid
the passage of bills proposed in several states to ban the ankus
and/or chaining elephants as a primary means of confinement.
The significance of the AVMA policy in India is that it gives
the humane community a specific international standard to point
toward, in absence of specific Indian standards, in responding to
rising concern about working elephants running amok in public
places–especially at temples during religious festivals, and
nowhere more than in the southern coastal state of Kerala.
One of just two Indian states that permit cattle slaughter,
Kerala is notoriously indifferent toward enforcing animal welfare
legislation of any kind. Thiruvanathapuram, the Keralan capital,
has often openly defied the decade-old Indian national policy against
killing street dogs, allege Animal Rights Kerala founder Avis Lyons
and other local activists.
But the elephant situation is a bit different, because
ignoring humane standards of elephant care gets people killed, often
before thousands of witnesses.
“Since January, rampaging elephants have killed 18 people,
including eight mahouts, across Kerala,” wrote Ka Shaji in April
2008 for the news magazine Tehelka.
Elephant rampages occurred at 26 Kerala temples in 120 days
between October 2007 and February 1, 2008, including at 15 temples
in January alone, reported K. Santhosh of The Hindu. That was after
elephants “killed 49 persons, 44 mahouts and five others, in the
state between August 1, 2006 and March 15, 2007, according to the
Kerala Elephant Lovers Association,” Santhosh added. “In all, 147
captive elephants died during the same period.”
“Unethical treatment provokes elephant fury,” KELA secretary
V.K. Venkitachalam told Santhosh. “Elephants showing signs of musth
are featured at festivals instead of being given rest.
Poorly-trained mahouts are appointed. Many of the mahouts suffer
from alcoholism,” Venkitachalam added.
Former Kerala cabinet minister K.B. Ganesh Kumar, now
president of the Kerala Elephant Owners’ Federation, told Santhosh
that “The Federation will direct mahouts not to drink while they are
on duty. We also plan district-level squads to prevent elephants
showing signs of musth from being featured in festivals.”
But Ka Shaji, for one, expressed little confidence that the
Kerala elephant industry is capable of self-regulation –partly
because the numbers of elephant-keeping entrepreneurs are believed to
be rapidly growing, taking advantage of an abundance of young
“rogue” elephants who are captured from forests in other regions and
broken to labor as a prelude to logging. In earlier times the
elephants were used in the logging work itself. Now tractors are
used, and the object of capture is chiefly just to get the elephants
out of the way.
“Currently, some 700 elephants are in captivity across the
state,” up from about 650 a year ago, wrote Ka Shaji. “About 260
are with the devaswoms, the temple bodies, while 440 are
individually owned. Kerala Forest Minister Binoy Viswam last year
said that all elephants will be retired at the age of 65 years,” a
relatively meaningless promise, since elephants who work on pavement
in urban traffic are typically unable to work–or live–much past 45.
“But no follow-up action has been taken,” Ka Shaji charged. “His
other elephant-friendly initiatives such as fixed work hours and safe
transportation for the elephants also remain on paper.”
Transporting elephants instead of obliging them to walk long
distances to their temple appearances is among the KELA
recommendations for avoiding rampages. Tired elephants become
cranky–as do elephants who become too hot, unable to cool off in a
body of water, as they would in the wild.
The India Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 and the Kerala
Captive Elephants Management and Maintenance Rules forbid parading
elephants during the heat of the day, between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.,
but the managing committees of the Thiruvambadi and Paramekkavu
devaswoms on March 17, 2008 petitioned the Kerala government to
waive the rules during Thrissur Pooram and other major religious
Some action has been taken on the pledge to retire elephants,
Daily Telegraph Cochin correspondent Amrit Dhillon reported on April
5, 2008. “India’s first retirement home for elderly elephants opens
next month inside a tranquil forest at Kottur,” Dhillon wrote.
“Paid for by the state government, the home will buy old elephants
for a nominal sum from owners who cannot or will not look after them
The first 30 elephants to be retired to the 1,000-acre refuge
are to arrive in May 2008, said Dhillon.
In Karnataka, the state to the north and east of Kerala,
“the government has for the first time cancelled the elephant
ownership certificate of a temple due to ill-treatment of its
elephant,” Compassion Unlimited Plus Action co-founder Suparna
Ganguly recently told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “CUPA battled since 2004 to
wrest the much abused elephant Girija Prasad,” also called
Mani-kantan, “away from the Aiyappa Swamy Temple in Bangalore,”
Ganguly wrote. “Pressure went on through three chief wildlife
wardens and many meetings with various bureaucrats and politicians,
including then-chief minister Dharam Singh. The case went through
many hearings in the Karnataka High Court,” argued by CUPA attorney
“Eventually the 18-year-old bull elephant was confiscated by
the Forest Department,” Ganguly continued, “but his legal status
was ambiguous. CUPA partly supported him through his four years at
various government centers, and kept a strong tab on his welfare.”
The Karnataka High Court refused to convict the Aiyappa Swamy
Temple authorities of cruelty to Girija Prasad, and an appeal to the
Supreme Court of India in February 2008 brought no immediate results,
but on March 13, 2008 current Karnataka chief wildlife warden used
his executive authority to cancel the temple’s ownership certificate
and retire the elephant to the Shakrebyle Elephant camp, in Shimoga
District, about eight hours away from Bangalore.