Thrissur pooram
File photo: Volunteers hold colourful umbrellas from atop caparisoned mammoths as they indulge in 'Kodaimattom', during the annual Thrissur Pooram Festival held in Thrissur District in the South India state of Kerala Image Credit: PTI

The tragic death of a pregnant wild elephant in Kerala after reportedly eating an explosive laden fruit has resulted in an outpouring of grief on social media. From gross misreporting to imparting communal colour to the incident, the story has taken many forms. However, it has also brought to focus the issue of mistreatment of animals in India.

Elephants are used all over Asia as work animals but nowhere in the world is their role central in religious ceremonies as in Kerala. There is a whole industry out there, from trapping wild elephants (which is now banned) training them, buying and selling, mahout training schools to making glittering traditional ornaments or chamayams for them.

Gulf News is focusing on the treatment of Kerala’s captive elephants, which are primarily used for religious ceremonies and for logging in forest areas.

Elephants and Kerala

Shyam Krishna, Senior Associate Editor

Elephants are a quintessential part of the culture and traditions of Kerala. No temple festival is complete without the attendance of at least one elephant to carry the idol of the deity. The tuskers are no longer a preserve of Hindu temples, having crossed the religious divide. The caparisoned jumbos now make regular appearances at Muslim and Christian festivals. Even the marketing people too have tapped into the appeal, employing them for promotional activities and tourism.

Elephant sightings are common on the streets of Kerala. There are at least 700 of them in captivity, and more than 7,000 in the wild. Captive elephants are mostly owned by temples and individuals (it’s considered a status symbol), while the wild ones roam the wildlife sanctuaries in the state.

With elephants playing such a central role in Kerala, it’s little wonder that it occupies the pride of place as the state animal. Even the state government’s emblem sports a pair of elephants.

The lives of these gentle giants have been celebrated in Kerala’s folklore and fiction, some even personifying them. Vyloppilly Sreedhara Menon’s Sahyante Makan (Son of Sahya/Western Ghats), narrates the life of a captive elephant, who yearns to return to Sahyadri or the Western Ghats. Kottarathil Sankunni’s Aithihyamala (Garland of legends) portrays the lives of legendary elephants in Malabar, Kochi and Travancore. Chowalloor Krishnankutty, Puthoor Unnikrishnan and others wrote extensively on the lives of tuskers.

A temple ceremony in progress in Kerala
An elephant feeding ceremony in front of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvanathapuram Image Credit: PTI

Origin of elephant use in Kerala temples

The origins of elephants’ association with Kerala temples are largely unknown. The oldest available record refers to Arattupuzha pooram in Thrissur where more than 100 caparisoned elephants were paraded regularly, according to researchers Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan and Anindya Sinha. Dating back 1400 years, it is also called the devamela or devasangamam (rendezvous of the gods and goddesses).

The annual cultural feast has echoes in the present-day Thrissur Pooram where two temples face off in an exhilarating contest headlined by parasol-sporting tuskers and an array of drummers.

A mention of caparison on an elephant in Melpathoor Narayana Bhattathiri’s Aṣṭamiprabhandha is deemed to possible proof of elephant parades in temples in the late 1500s to early 1600s. An anecdotal account referred to the pageantry of 15 elephants at the Thripunithura Temple, and there are several written accounts of similar temple festivities between 1700 and 1800, researchers say.

The tradition continues to this day. The presence of at least an elephant has become mandatory for temple festivals in the state.

Mahouts spend almost all their time with their elephants. Image Credit: Cpver Asia Press

A captive elephant’s life

Capturing and taming wild elephants are fraught with risks and involves plenty of torture. Wild elephants are trapped by using pens or stockades (they are traps) and female decoys. Other methods include chasing and lassoing them from atop trained elephants, employing nooses concealed in the ground, and pit traps.

Elephants caught in traps are dangerous, so they are broken before being brought out. Their skins are slashed with knives, and trained elephants are used to push the captured beasts into submission. The wounded, hungry and exhausted animals are hauled by tame elephants and slammed into wooden cages. And ‘elephant crushing’ begins.

The mind and spirit of elephants are crushed by employing horrendous techniques. The crush cages allow for only minimum movement. Unable to move and deprived of sleep, the starved animals are rewarded with food only when they accept harnesses without a struggle.

Subdued elephants are ready for sale and training. Repetitive and systematic training methods teach the animals to respond to simple commands. The capture of tuskers is banned in southern India, and the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve protects the elephants in Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

Kerala now has to rely on elephants caught in the northern parts of the country, and the animals are taught to respond to commands in Malayalam. Aanakkoodu in Konni is a well-known training centre in Kerala. After training, the elephants are ready to be deployed in temples or timber yards.

The tortured life of a Kerala temple elephant

Jaya Chandran, Assistant Editor

Elephants are always wild and the notion that those in man’s custody are friendly with us is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain that binds the animal. The elephant is not a big dog awaiting. We cannot domesticate it. We can only tame it by breaking its will. And we do it by unleashing excessive, brutal and unjustifiable violence on the hapless animal that has been trapped.

Elephants are wild animals but they are born and brought up in the security of large groups that sometimes can be as big as 30 or more in the case of Asiatic ones. They are intelligent social beings with very strong family bonds and relationships within the group that they remember. They have been known to ensure safety of all animals in their group when moving around, they take care of the young ones and the elderly and they mourn their dead and sometimes even perform burial like actions.

The trauma of an elephant separated from its group, fell into man’s trap and forced to live with its torturer is unimaginable, to say the least. What we then build is a relationship of fear and obedience. And to extract obedience from such a fearsome magnificent animal, we need to constantly remind it of the pain it will go through otherwise.

Elephant legs
Hind legs of a captive elephant in chains with unhealed wounds Image Credit: Twitter/Diana Romanos @romdia


The first step in disciplining the animal is to instill fear in its mind. Physical pain and mental torture are the ways used to inject this fear, of course. The training sessions are held in specially crated cages. Baby elephants are tied up and beaten mercilessly without giving food or water for days until they wilt and become ready for obeying commands. Once the elephant is seen receptive, mahouts give them food and water and the training continues in this cruel fashion until the animal is ready to obey every commands that the trainers give. By that time the animal must have become familiar with all the weapons the trainers use and the punishments he will get if disobeyed.

Generally, it is the bull elephants that are destined to endure much of this torture as they are the ones that are in demand in religious events because of their tusks and height.

A number of torture/training tools are used to discipline and manage captive elephants in Kerala.

Bull hook

The bull hook is used by mahouts and helpers to control elephants. Using this, a mahout sitting atop an elephants can stab at or pull its skin near various vital pain points of the animal such as eye, ears, etc. and stun it with excruciating pain. Traditional guidelines say the use of hook should only impart pain, not injure the animal, but it is never strictly followed and there are many incidents of wanton use of the tool resulting in grievous injuries to the elephant.

Bull hook
Image Credit: Courtesy of CUPA, Bangalore

As per the latest order, hooks with metal parts are banned, but even this has been violated many times, often during prestigious festivals such as Thrissur Pooram, observers say.

Sticks – Long and short

There are different types of sticks used to beat up the elephant.

The short one is slightly fat at one end and normally used to beat the elephant without injuring it. It is applied at places where it feels pain. But some mahouts have used it on the eyes

The long one is about 10 feet in length and is used for stabbing at the joints to impart pain. The sharp end can pierce the skin and cause serious injury.

Both these types of ticks are profusely used during disciplining and training of the elephant that the animal carries the fear for them throughout its life. The mortal fear that the animal has of the stick is so much that if mahout wants to leave the elephant for a short while and doesn’t want to tie it to a tree, all he has to do is lean one of these sticks against the animal’s body. The elephant would stand right there for hours for fear of the stick falling down if he moves as much as an inch.

The height of an elephant with deity on its head is a prestigious affair in festival circuit and this becomes obvious during ceremonial arrangement when elephants stand together. The tallest one is considered a winner and mahouts and trainers employ devious tricks for this. One common trick is to beat the elephant’s feet with these sticks. The elephant, in pain, would lift its head further. The fans are delighted. Owners are happy. No one sees the elephant’s pain.

Abused animals
Image Credit: Courtesy of CUPA, Bangalore


Mahouts and helpers always carry knives and the usage is plain and obvious.

Chatta vranam or a wound that teaches discipline

It is a deliberate wound inflicted on an elephant so that it can be controlled easily by applying an object like stick or chain on it later. These wounds appear at the back of the elephant mostly on hind legs and chains are wrapped over it so that it is always in pain, fear and in control.

Chains and Hobbles

Most of the temple elephants are chained in more than one part of the body. Fore legs, hind legs, middle of the body and neck are the usual places. Apart from this, hobbles are often used to prevent their free movement. The chaining duration was found to be 18-22hrs in a major study on Kerala temple elephants by animal protection group CUPA India.

The blind elephant that killed 13 people

One of the most popular elephant in Kerala festival circuit, Thechikkattukavu Ramachandran, is a prime example of what happens to an elephant in captivity. Reportedly the second tallest Asiatic elephant alive, he has killed a total of 13 people including 6 mahouts and four women.

Like most of the human work force in Kerala, this elephant is also an import from the northern Indian state of Bihar. Originally named Mothi Prasad, he was brought to Kerala at the age of 18 and finally received the name Ramachandran when he was bought by Thechikkotukavu temple, in Kerala.

In between, he had lost sight in one eye after one of the helpers allegedly got drunk and beat him up. The other eye is now affected by cataract. Now about 56 years of age, the elephant can barely see the surrounding. The nearly blind elephant with the history of abuse reportedly gets frenetic easily amid the crowd and while in ceremonial procession and has killed even a fellow elephant. The dangerous elephant is however still very much in demand among the so-called elephant lovers due to his height and domineering stance.

Hindu priests and devotees open the door of the southern gopuram of the Vadakkumnathan temple to formally announce the beginning of the Thrissur Pooram

He is the one who heralds the opening of the most famous of Kerala temple festival, Thrissur Pooram. There are even official orders against him participating in crowded festivals, but organizers manages to flout them with abandon.

Elephant in limbo

While Ramachandran’s tragedy is playing out in front of an exuberant albeit indifferent fan base, the plight of Nandan, a 45-year old elephant kept in Punnathoor Kotta, the elephant stable of Guruvayoor temple, the biggest owner of elephants in Kerala, is well worth a Guantanamo comparison.

A file picture of Nandan, from a video taken in 2015.

Reportedly tied in one place for the last 20 years, the emaciated elephant was not able to sit, stand or lie down properly, precariously balancing its body on three legs, as seen in a video released by Liz Jones, of Save The Asian Elephants (STAE) in 2015.

A pet only in your wildest dreams

Every moment spent with human beings is torture for the elephant. We are unknowingly subjecting them to untold cruelty when we drag them into our midst. Because biologically they are not made to live among humans. Their bodies are designed to live a completely different life, in a completely different environment.

Here is what happens to them when we forcibly make them our pets

Sensitive feet

Elephants don’t have hoofs and instead they are covered in a soft padding. This is useful for leafy forest floor but not the tarred city roads where they are forced to walk kilometres in scorching heat. The sensitivity of their feet can be understood from the fact that they can hear the vibrations on earth using their feet and this is often used as a means communication between elephants.

Watch: How they listen with their feet


It is a severe condition that has led to the death of many captive elephants in Kerala. Called Erandakettu in Malayalam, it is caused by undigested food that blocks the intestine. If undetected and untreated in the early stages of the disease, impaction of the colon leads to the painful death of the animal. Captive elephants are usually fed with leaves of palm and coconut tree which are full of indigestible fires. It has been pointed out that these leaves should be replaced with fodder grass to no avail. There is also the strange belief among Kerala elephant keepers that the animals love what humans eat – like a proper meal with boiled rice and vegetable curries. It has been recorded that, out of 56 elephants that died in the state in the last two years, 34 had impaction as cause of death.

Lack of sweat glands and standing in scorching heat

Elephants have very few sweat glands and they are located on the feet, near cuticles. Lack of glands means they are not able to control body temperature like other mammals and it was thought that flapping of ears is a means to cool itself in the scorching heat. However, latest studies have indicated that the largest mammal on earth can actually control blood flow to specific areas of its body which can be used to control body temperature.

Fire, explosives and loud noise

It is the fate of the captive elephants to live with what they fear the most. Being wild animals they are afraid of fire, loud noises and explosives. When wild elephants wander into areas of human areas, people chase them away with loud noises and firecrackers. It is the same elephants that have to endure relentless high decibel sound throughout the temple procession while standing under the glare of spot lights and traditional fire torches for hours.

People use firebombs to chase away elephants wandered into an Indian village
People use firebombs to chase away elephants wandered into an Indian village

Life during musth period

Musth is a phase that bull elephants go through every year. During this period, when the testosterone levels will be upto 60 times higher than the regular period, the elephants tend to be markedly aggressive and easily turn violent. During the period of musth, they are banned from doing work, including taking part in any ceremonial events that endangers public life.

However, greedy elephant owners and event organisers ignore or hide that fact and force the hapless animals appear at as many events as possible for huge fees. During musth, the elephant will be in a highly distressed state due to secretion from its temporal ducts and can turn violent at the slightest provocation. Elephants becoming violent and trampling or goring the mahouts and spectators are not an unfamiliar sight in many Kerala religious festivals because of this callous attitude of its handlers.

An elephant goes berserk during a temple event in Kerala Image Credit: Gulf News Archive
African, Asian and pygmy elephants

Elephants are the largest land animals with massive bodies, large ears, and long trunks. Females generally lead herds, and the matriarch is usually the biggest and oldest in a group of cow elephants and calves. Bull elephants most often roam on their own or form smaller all-male groups.
The African elephant is the largest of the species, weighing up to 8,000kg and can be as tall as 4 metres. They are categorised into savanna elephants and forest elephants due to their physical and genetic differences. Forest elephants are smaller.
Asian elephants are significantly smaller than their African cousins, tipping the scales at 5,500kg. Smaller, rounded ears are a distinct feature of these elephants which have three subspecies: the Indian, the Sumatran and the Sri Lankan. Unlike the Africa species, only the bull elephants in Asia grow tusks.
The pygmy elephants of Borneo are the smallest of the Asian elephants. And the gentlest. With oversized ears, plump bellies, straighter tusks and long tails, these baby-faced animals are genetically different from other Asian elephants, WWF studies show.
- Shyam Krishna, Senior Associate Editor

Elephants in circuses and tourism

Alex Abraham, Senior Associate Editor

Circuses have been a mode of entertainment for many years around the world, and India has been no exception. During their hay days, animals and human beings entertained large crowds that had limited exposure to other forms of entertainment. While elephants, lions, tigers, monkeys, dogs and other animals were used to perform in front of enthusiastic crowds, outside the arena their lives were miserable.

Animals, including elephants, were abused using sticks with nails, whips with metal wires and metal rods with sharp tipped hooks. They were severely injured and forced to train or travel with little or no veterinary support. Following numerous reports about the abuse of animals, the government implemented regulations to prohibit the training and exhibition of animals protected under the Wildlife Protection Act. In 2018, India’s federal government banned the use of animals in any sort of mobile entertainment.

While the ban on the use of elephants in circuses was welcomed, when it comes to using elephants for tourism, there are two distinct views. On the one hand, some feel that tourists should only observe elephants, and not ride, walk or feed them. However, to achieve this, elephants would first need to be broken using cruel measures. On the other hand, others say elephants can be ridden in an ethical way and that riding does not harm them if the payload and the number of hours is regulated.

India has around 3,500 captive elephants, most of them used to entertain tourists. They are found in zoos and temples and are used to carry tourists at forts and in forest reserves. But there are also some organisations which take care of injured and sick elephants. The Wildlife SOS Elephant Conservation and Care Centre in Mathura, the Kipling Camp in Madhya Pradesh and the Smiling Tusker Camp in Assam are examples of places where one can interact with elephants.

Asiatic elephants in a circus. (File photo for illustrative purposes only)

Efforts to ban use of elephants in religious events and where it stands now

There is no clear understanding about how the practice of using elephants in temples started. It is believed that they helped carry heavy stones used to build pillars in the temples, while in some places the elephants carried water for the sactums. Over time, the temple deity was carried on the forehead of the elephant thrice a day as party of a daily ritual. While this can be done by a human being or another animal, such as a horse, it is likely that elephants were preferred because its height increased the visibility of the deity.

In 2019 Kerala’s government banned the tallest tusker in India, Thechikkottukavu Ramachandran, or Raman, from opening the Thrissur Pooram, Kerala’s biggest temple festival. Raman is a celebrity, both in the real world as well as on social media, with thousands of fans. But he has also killed a dozen people and three other pachyderms and is partially blind. However, the communist government’s efforts to ban the superstar were given a spin, with many saying Hindu customs and traditions were now under threat. The ban was eventually revoked.

Whether elephants are used in temples or in the tourism industry, the fact remains that mahouts often torture them and the majestic creatures live a life chained to misery and brute force. A few years ago, following reports that captive elephants, including those owned by the temple body in Kerala, suffered silently due to neglect, India’s Supreme Court directed that tuskers in custody be registered and covered by insurance. The court has also issued guidelines to protect the elephants at religious events.

A total ban has been imposed on involving a ‘musth’ elephant during celebrations, they cannot be chained or hobbled with spikes and organisers must ensure sufficient food and water for the pachyderms. Also, during the celebrations, the flaming torch must be held away from them. Despite these rules, elephant owners have been parading them in extreme weather conditions and during high-decibel bursting of firecrackers.

A handler washing an elephant in an elephant sanctuary in Kerala, India
A handler washing an elephant in an elephant sanctuary in Kerala, India Image Credit: Girish/Gulf News reader

Tuskers that stand out for sheer grandeur

Akhel Mathew, Correspondent

From the broadness of their foreheads to the hairs on their tails, elephant lovers go into every feature of tuskers to rate them on the handsomeness index. Some of the basic considerations include a trunk that is long enough to hit the ground and curl up a bit when the tusker is standing, and cream-coloured nails that are in good condition.

Across all those parameters, some elephants simply stand out.

The most famous of them all in Kerala was Gajarajan (elephant king) Guruvayur Keshavan (1904-1976) which was donated to the Guruvayur temple by the Nilambur royal family in 1922. The majesty of Guruvayur Keshavan which stood a shade over 3.4 metres tall, is still the standard against which elephant lovers benchmark other tuskers.

Among the present crop of captive elephants in the state, seven that are considered the most majestic and grandiose are: Thechikottu Ramachandran, Chirackal Kalidasan (both Thrissur), Pambadi Rajan, Puthupally Kesavan, Erattupetta Ayyappan (all Kottayam), Thrikkalavur Sivarajan (Kollam) and Mangalamkunnu Ayyappan (Palakkad).

These gajarajas, or elephant kings, can command anywhere upwards of Rs 100,000 for a single appearance at a festival or important occasion. These superstars do not normally undertake more than 40 such public events a year, making their presence at a function so much more prestigious. Even among the highly rated, some like Thechikottu Ramachandran command a higher premium than the others.

Ravindranathan Nair, treasurer and acting secretary of the Kerala Elephant Owners’ Federation told Gulf News that the daily food expenses for these tuskers can cost anywhere between Rs 4,000 and Rs 5,000, besides the mahout’s wage of a shade under Rs 1,000.

Interestingly, the elephant craze as well as the locations of some of the state’s best elephants are mostly towards the south of the state, more specifically from Palakkad to Thiruvananthapuram. Elephant lovers say this could be because this is the geography which has the most number of temple festivals each year.

Kerala’s elephants and their fan clubs

Talk of superstars in Kerala and the names Mammootty and Mohanlal spring to mind immediately. They are indeed stars in tinsel town, but there are others who can match them in fan following, hero-worship and even having statues erected for them, namely Kerala’s stately tuskers.
Kerala’s elephant fan clubs are now organized on social media, with exclusive groups for each tusker.
“There are so many social media fan groups for these tuskers that it is difficult even to keep track of all messages in the groups. It has come to a stage where there are 4-5 fan groups for elephants in each ward of a panchayat”, P.V. Gireeshkumar, a pharmacist and elephant lover based in Kidangoor, Kottayam district told Gulf News.
“Unlike fan clubs for movie stars, we rarely have a get-together, but that does not take away the keen interest of the fans towards the elephants they admire”, says Gireeshkumar.
The elephant has always been part of Kerala’s culture and tuskers are an unavoidable fixture at festivals, despite the courts having laid strict guidelines about parading the pachyderms. In the past, elephants were widely used by the logging industry to haul timber but now that job has mostly been taken over by cranes.
Elephant fan clubs on social media groups believe that it was their cumulative efforts that attracted wide attention to the recent death of a wild elephant in Kerala. The jumbo had accidentally eaten a country cracker-laden coconut that was targeted at wild boar.
Court rulings and protests by animal welfare groups have made it increasingly difficult to keep and raise captive elephants, but elephant lovers and owners feel that the jumbos are safer in human custody than in the wild.
Referring to the increasing restrictions, Kerala Elephant Owners’ Association treasurer and acting secretary, Ravindranathan Nair quotes statistics of elephant deaths in the wild versus those among captive elephants. “Over the last ten years, only 160 captive elephants died while there have been roughly 860 elephant deaths in the wild”, he says.

- Akhel Mathew, Correspondent

Animal welfare activists, elephant fans differ

Following the death of a pregnant elephant in Kerala’s Mannarkad forest division, arguments have flown thick and fast between wild life protection activists and lovers of captive elephants.

BJP leader and well-known animal protection activist, Maneka Gandhi said, “The forest secretary should be removed and the forest minister must resign”.

There were others like the Humane Society of India, an NGO that works against cruelty to animals, which offered Rs 50,000 to anyone helping to bring the culprits to book. Police later arrested a person who is accused of having placed a country cracker inside a coconut, apparently targeted at wild boar that destroy crops.

Elephant fans on the other hand, disagree with arguments that captive elephants suffer cruelty. “Some time back there was a movement to free all circus animals from the ring. It is worthwhile to inquire how many of the freed animals survived”, says Ravindranathan Nair, treasurer of the Kerala Elephant Owners’ Association, who owns two elephants himself.

A general argument against NGOs that work for animal protection is that they are heavily funded by international agencies and that the NGOs are merely obliging their funding agencies and making money. This is strongly refuted by the NGOs.

P.V. Gireeshkumar, who is an elephant lover and a member of the forest task force for elephants, says captive elephant owners are unfairly targeted. “You find cows tethered in the sun, and dogs caged in numerous homes in the state, but NGOs point fingers at captive elephant owners. It is probably because elephants are big that they attract attention of the NGOs”, he says.

What an owner says
Sunil Kumar (44), an elephant owner and mahout from Vaikom, spends his days taking care of his 45-year-old pachyderm Mavellikara Ganapathi. He first started getting interested in the care of elephants when his elder brother started the job of a mahout. At the age of 15, Sunil would accompany his brother to his job.
Ganapathi has been with Sunil for the last 20 years, and over the course of his life, Sunil Kumar has taken care of three elephants.
“It is almost a full time job. I feed him thrice a day, and bathe him every day,” he said. When bringing his elephant out for festivals, Sunil Kumar spends 24 hours working to ensure the elephant’s safety and comfort.
“For an elephant with a good temperament and based on size, the average price of an elephant can go up to one crore (Dh500,000). And bids for temple processions start at around Rs 20,000 (around Dh1,000) and go up to Rs 2-2.5 lakhs (Dh10,000 to Dh12,500),” the elephant lover added.
Speaking about the truth to widespread sentiment about cruelty to elephants in captivity, he said, “Times have changed, earlier one would never think about hurting the elephant. Nowadays, there are some who would hurt them, so there is truth to these allegations.”
Sunil however felt that the laws in place currently covered all possible instances of cruelty well. He added things were better nowadays because there is a stricter enforcement of laws by authorities.

- Dona Cherian, Senior News Editor

Laws in place for the protection of captive elephants

Dona Cherian, Senior News Editor

In Kerala, the laws designed for the protection of captive elephants and penalties for proven cruelly are laid down in Kerala Captive Elephants (Management and Maintenance) Rules 2003. From feeding regulations and space to rules to be followed by the mahouts or elephant caretakers and trainers, this document lists several rules when it comes to the maintenance of captive elephants. We look at some of these rules here:


The person who trains and takes care of the elephant, the mahout, has to be someone with certified experience of at least 3 years according to the document. He ensures that the elephant is fed, bathed daily and also alerts the owner to any illness, parasitic infection or musth. Mahouts have to be certified and trained periodically while also being tested for diseases that could be passed on to the animals. Mahouts should not drink when caring for the elephant.


Musth is a periodic surge in testosterone – up to 60 times than normal – in bull elephants characterized by aggressive behaviour. During this time, even well-trained mahouts maintain their distance so as to not aggravate the elephant. Elephants in this phase should not be made to work or participate in events. A vet should be notified by the owner when musth phases occur so proper care can be given to the mammal.

A mahout walking with an elephant on the road in Kochi, Kerala
A mahout walking with an elephant on the road in Kochi, Kerala Image Credit: Shutterstock

Space regulations

The minimum floor area for captive elephants according to this rulebook are as follows:

- Weaned calf shorter than 1.5 metres: 5 metres by 2.5 metres

- Sub adult elephant of height 1.50m to 2.25m: 7m by 3.5m

- Adult elephant of height above 2.25m: 9m by 6m

- Cow elephant with unweaned calf: 9m by 6m

Apart from this, if the space has a covering, the structure should be at a height of at least 5.5 metres. In case the top of the structure uses iron sheets, it should be covered with gunny sacks, mats made of coconut palm leaves and/or grass.

Transport regulations

- Before transportation, the owner must get permission from an authorised officer such as the Chief Wildlife Warden and also get a valid health certificate from a vet to ensure that the elephant is fit to travel by rail or road.

- The rules state that the elephant should be fed and watered before loading on to the vehicle. It should also be ensured that there is enough food and water to consume en-route.

- Elephants should be not be made to walk more than 3 hours at stretch and not more than 20 kilometres in distance in a day. Any distance over 50 kilometres must be in a vehicle.

- Elephants carried on trucks should get at least 6 hours of rest for every 8 hours of travel.

- Trucks with lengths below 12 feet cannot be used to carry adult elephants. Calves of height shorter than 1.5m can be transported in these.

- One truck can carry either two weaned calves (shorter than 1.5m), or one cow elephant with unweaned calf or one adult or sub adult elephant of height above 1.51m.

- Pregnant cow elephants in advanced stages of pregnancy should not be transported on trucks.

- Each truck should be accompanied by two assistant mahouts.

- Any sedation given to control nerves should be prescribed by a vet.

- The journey should be as stable as possible with least number of jerks and sudden shocks while driving.

- During night travel, reflectors should be attached to tail and forehead of elephant

Elephant on a truck
An elephant being transported in a truck Image Credit: GN Archive


Based on height, the green fodder supply rules are as follows:

- Weaned calf of height lower than 1.5m: Not less than 100 kg

- Height of 1.5m to 1.8m: Not less than 150kg

- Height of 1.81m to 2.25m: Not less than 200kg

- Height above 2.25m: Not less than 250kg or 5 per cent of body weight

Potable water from a river or running source should be provided along with succulent foods during hot summers.

Work and carrying weight

Elephants with height lower than 1.5m cannot be used for carrying loads while elephants shorter than 2.10m should not be used for logging operations. In terms of carrying loads, the maximum weight that can be carried for elephants is based on their height.

Height between 1.5m and 1.8m: Not more than 150 kg (only fodder and the mahout himself) and no logging

Height from 1.81m to 2.25m: Not more than 200 kg in load

Height from 2.26m to 2.55m: Not more than 300kg

Height from 2.55m up: Not more than 400 kg

As for logging, no elephant of height below 2.10 metres can used for logging. Elephants between height of 2.10m and 2.25m should not carry logs exceeding 750 kg in weight while those taller than 2.25m should not carry logs heavier than 1000kg.

Other than this, logging rules include good-quality harnesses that not expose the animal’s back and chest. Timber logging over steep and rocky areas is prohibited and so is the use of the elephant’s tusks or jaws constantly for dragging logs.

The rules also state that elephants should not carry loads for more than 8 hours a day. They should be given two hours to rest after five hours of continuous work. They should be given water after every three hours of work.

Elephants are often mistreated at the Thrissur Pooram festival. Image Credit: Shutterstock
An elephant over 65 years of age is considered as retired and should be exempted from work. However, a healthy elephant older than 65 can undertake light activities and work, but only under the strict watch of a vet who will issue periodic health certificates.

Temple processions

In a 2008 directive to the Devaswom board, the government lays out specific rules for elephants being used for temple functions and processions.

The directive starts off with instructions to not create more annual festivals than the ones traditionally being celebrated and to also not increase the number of elephants used in these festivals. Only elephants that are insured, fitted with microchips and those with certified ownerships registered with authorities in Kerala can be used for any temple procession or function. The vet who issues the health certificate for each event should ensure that these conditions are met before issuing the certificate.

Details of all events that includes elephant processions should be submitted at least 72 hours prior to the event with relevant Forest Rangers and Station House Offices. Each elephant being used should have a fitness certificate from relevant authorities.

Once at the venue, the elephant[s] should be given a security circle with the help of local police and event volunteers. They should be well fed and watered, and wet gunny sacks should be placed under their feet to protect them from heat. The mahouts should not be intoxicated while at the event taking care of the elephant.

In addition to these, a 2007 directive from the Forest department in the state also lays out the following rules:

- A minimum standing space of 4m by 3m for each elephant. Between each elephant, there should be a distance of 1.5 metre measured belly to belly and 4 metres measured head to head or head to tail to avoid accidental body contact which could injure or scare the elephants.

- Firecrackers should not be burst within a 50 metre radius of where the elephant[s] stand.

- During night events, power outages can wreak fear so generators are a must.

- When transporting elephants, adequate sun and rain coverage should be provided and speed should average 40 km/hour with no sudden jerks or stops.

- Each festival location should have a sheltered space for elephants or temporary thatched sheds must be erected for this.

- Event organisers should appoint a volunteer to always be around the elephants so he or she can avoid people from teasing or frustrating the mammals.

- In festivals where more than 5 elephants are set to participate, event organisers should take up a public liability insurance policy.

- If an elephant that has acted out and been uncontrollable at an event, it should not be used for any other such events.

This elephant which ran amok in Thrissur last week killed a mahout and a motorcyclist and damaged several houses and vehicles. Image Credit: Picture courtesy: Anup K. Venu


All these rules and directives also lay out that all kinds of cruelty starting from using unsuitable and heavy chains or not feeding as required to physically hurting the elephant to do its owner’s or mahout’s bidding is illegal and punishable by law.

Several of these regulations have been amended slightly over the course of the years but these fundamental rules apply since 2003.

“The Indian elephant is said sometimes to weep….”

Anupa Kurian-Murshed, Senior Digital Content Planning Editor

Animal cruelty is psychopathy. There is no other way to describe it. Abuse is a sign of what psychologists call Zoosadism, because it is driven by the intent of torture, no matter how subliminal.

When the science of behavioural profiling began to emerge in the 1970s, in the US, they found animal cruelty to be a common psychopathic trait among criminals characterised by a distinct lack of remorse.

Remorse, guilt - are guiding factors in our actions – no matter the circumstance or need. It is what, supposedly, puts us higher on the evolution chain.

"If India truly has to be a democracy, then its animals, too, need to be ensured of their right to safety, dignity and choice, otherwise it is just thinly veiled psychopathy."


It’s been over 150 years since the first Indian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) was set up in 1861.

It’s been 60 years since India's first national animal welfare law, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (1960), which criminalizes cruelty to animals, was established.

But, looking at the recent cases of animal abuse emerging from India, makes you wonder if we are a society that has lost all capacity for remorse or guilt. We are so driven by our selfish needs that how we treat those who cannot speak for themselves has become irrelevant? And, truly, what is the point of these laws?

A wild elephant had its mouth blown off by eating a pineapple stuffed with crackers, left as a trap for wild boar in Kerala. Stop, for a second, and imagine yourself in a similar situation – the bloodied pain, the helplessness, the desperation. Can it be justified?

Dead elephant pineapple crackers Kerala
The carcass of a dead wild elephant is retrieved following injuries caused when locals fed the elephant a pineapple filled with firecrackers as it wandered into a village searching for food. Image Credit: AFP

A dog gets tied to a bike and dragged around in Delhi, till passersby react and the man runs away.

A freshwater dolphin gets attacked and cut up for entertainment in the North East.

All of this has happened within the past few weeks. Distinct cases of abuse that shocked many, but we, as a nation have been doing this for long, embedded within religious traditions, ancient monarchy and industry.

I remember, as a pre-teen seeing an old elephant being marched through the streets of Mumbai, begging for its mahout, with open sores near its ears from the constant brutality and legs covered in oozing lesions. People would stop, give money and the elephant had to touch its trunk end on their heads, because it was symbolic of a highly revered deity – Ganesh. But, nobody saw the pain the living form of the deity endured, as it moved slowly from one worshipper to the next. We see what we want to see.

Be it the Thrissur Pooram, probably the largest temple festival in Kerala, wherein nearly 50 or so elephants stand heavily adorned for hours in extreme humidity, among massive crowds and unbearably loud percussion sounds emanating from drums and cymbals – enough to make many collapse, but here they are the showcase. Do they have a choice?

I do not even want to venture down the path of the logging industry in the South, the hardship and abuse faced by elephants there has been chronicled so many times, that most seem to have become immune.

And therein lies the fundamental problem – animal rights is at a superficial level, there is reaction, never any true action to stop these centuries of untold violence and captivity. They live in a daily battlefield, enduring continued abuse.

If India truly has to be a democracy, then its animals, too, need to be ensured of their right to safety, dignity and choice, otherwise it is just thinly veiled psychopathy.