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The Politics of Elephants

Tuesday, August 25, 2015
Deb Bailey

Before heading home, I signed up to do some volunteer work with the Elephant Freedom Project in Kegalle, Sri Lanka.  It proved to be a lesson in how Asian elephants are being used for human benefit. Most of the assumptions I had about “domesticated“ elephants were well off the mark.

Throughout the areas of India and Sri Lanka that I visited, it was evident that elephants are hugely symbolic for both countries and cultures.  Everywhere we traveled we saw elephants depicted in carvings, statues, fabrics, pictures, and photographs.  A popular Hindi god, Ganesh, is part elephant.  One might think that with such importance, the elephant would be respected and protected.  In fact, the Asian elephant is in trouble and on the endangered species list because of  humans.

Elephants in the wild are social, intelligent animals.  The females and the young herd together; bull elephants are solitary creatures.  Elephants exhibit characteristics that suggest cooperation, self-awareness, memory, and even compassion. They only reproduce in a sustainable way when they are in the wild.  “Domesticated’ elephants are owned.  Historically, owning an elephant has been a status symbol and ownership was restricted to the powerful, the wealthy, and Buddhist monks. Some families have been elephant owners for years; the right to own can be passed down to the next generation.  Owners hire “mahouts” to handle the elephants. Many mahouts stay with the same elephant for years.  A mahout is responsible for the behaviour of the elephant.  The mahouts that I observed do not use love and encouragement to get their elephants to mind. 

Commands are barked out harshly. If the elephant does not obey, it is up to the mahout to ensure that it does.  To this end, mahouts use a long stick and a bull hook.  A bull hook is a nasty piece of equipment with two metal prongs at one end and is used to hit the elephant to ensure that it does the mahout’s bidding Owning an elephant is a lucrative business. Elephants are rented by their owners to tourist centres, for riding, industries like logging and for use in festivals.

During the festivals, elephants are dressed up in lavish garments and take part in parades. All of these activities are stressful for the elephant.  The swaying elephant that seems to be dancing is actually a stressed elephant.  Elephants do not exhibit this behavior in the wild.  Between working long hours in a stressed state and being whacked into submission by the mahout, elephants have been known to rampage and trample their mahouts to death.  While I was at EFP, an incident occurred at an elephant-riding place just down the road.  We all know what it is to just not want to go into work.  So it is for the elephant I assume. One elephant decided enough was enough and refused to obey the mahout.  The terrified tourists on the elephant found that their 15-minute ride turned into an hour on an unhappy elephant as the mahout attempted to get the elephant to obey commands. An out of control elephant is not good for the mahout resume and I am sure that the elephant paid a price for its “disobedience.”

Each “domesticated” (owned) elephant must be registered. However the elephant owner registry is not open to the public prevue and the government grants few new permits. There are numerous problems with this historic system.  There have been accusations of bribery over the issuing of ownership permits. Throughout the past 10 years, baby elephants have been stolen from the wild and then with falsified documents trained and pressed into service in order to cash in on the substantial revenue an elephant can bring.

The Elephant Freedom Project works towards making the lives of Asian elephants better.  The EFP has been unable to gain permission to own an elephant and so they must rent elephants from owners.  While they stay at the Project, they are free from participating in industry, free from hours of giving tourists rides, and free from being shackled and hit.  They are still pulled for festivals by the owners.

Their mahouts at the Project are not allowed to utilize bull hooks but they still carry them. Elephants may have a chain around one foot but they may not be shackled.

For the most part the chain is intended to make the public feel safer when they see an EFP elephant going for a walk along the road or in a park.  (In reality, an elephant with one chain on its foot cannot be restrained if it decides to go ‘walkabout’.)  The public can be a little testy about elephants walking around.  As humans have encroached on the elephants’ habitat, elephant-human interactions have become problematic. (Similar to Canadian bears and cougars).  Elephants eat about 200KG of vegetation a day and do not seem to understand that they are not to eat vegetation that humans also want.  It is seldom a good idea to try and shoo an elephant away and those who have tried were sometimes injured or killed by an annoyed elephant.

The elephant currently at the EFP is Raja, a 50-year-old male elephant.  Chain marks on his legs from years of being shackled were evident.  Despite the fact that he can move in an unlimited way, he takes only small steps as if he were still shackled.  Although he is in a large enclosure with vegetation within easy walking distance, he does not forage and eats only that which is given to him or within a few step of his position.  His mahout is clearly nervous about not being able to use a bull hook (except in an emergency).  The mahout knows that he will have to take Raja to perform in festivals and that the elephant will have to behave while there. He does not really want people at the Project to fraternize much with the elephant.  We were able to “give” him a bath while Raja lay down in a shallow river and follow him at a distance on his twice-daily walks.  Unlike the two younger elephants who were previously at EFP when we registered, we were not allowed to get ‘up close and personal” and frankly I did not want to.  I had mentioned to the owner of the Project that I was amazed that Raja allowed us to get close to him at all based on his past interactions with humans.  Apparently elephants do not forget but they do forgive.

We left the EFP as Raja’s owner was putting him in the perahera in Kandy.  To get there, Raja and his mahout would walk down a busy road for two days.  Two more male 40-year-old elephants are expected at EFP in September.

After all our SJP experiences, we ask participants how they have been impacted and so I’ll list the ways in which my experience impacted me:

  • I won’t be riding elephants ever.  I was once one of those tourists who would have thought it fun to go on an elephant ride and would have considered this much the same as riding on a horse.  Now I know differently.
  • I wondered how to balance the humane treatment of elephants versus the economic needs of countries like Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka where tourism is a growing industry providing both money and employment.
  • I thought of how recently it was that we had decided that keeping Orcas in captivity was inhumane and that there are still many places where these and other animals are still kept in areas that are not in any way like their natural habitat.  Most, if not all of these animals are kept mainly for human entertainment and for the economic gain.  So we also have our own work to do towards humane animal stewardship.
  • We discussed the rational for the need to find themselves a political ally who could assist them rather than remaining on the fringe with the owners of the project The Project has a lot to offer to the tourist industry and as such could add to the economy as well as awareness around the state of the Sri Lankan elephant.  This could tap into to an alternate market.  If this could be done, we offered to write a letter of support to EFP.

While I was in Sri Lanka, I did go on a trip in a wildlife preserve where we saw elephants roaming freely.  There were babies of all ages roaming with their moms, and a persistent bull elephant who wandered into one group to see there was a female interested in hooking up.  Since none were, he stomped after our jeep for a bit warning us to get moving- which we did.

Although we were still intruding on the elephants in some ways, it was an intrusion into their world rather than a complete removal of the elephant and conscription into human activates.  To me it was a less conflictual way to get close to these unique creatures.