Andrew’s blog: Ben, Ramith (our translator) and myself took an overnight train to the Guruvayoor elephant residence where possibly the world’s largest collection of tuskers (male elephants) are housed. Here live 60 elephants, 56 of which are mature tuskers. The Chief Veterinary officer and a senior mahout gave us a tour of these captive elephants all of whom are used for ceremonial purposes, namely temple festivals. Their most famous tusker is 74 years of age and this year worked 170 days in total. In the months of November through to February, Hindu festivals are held regularly and elephants, especially tuskers, have a prominent role. The demands on them are enormous, and I will describe these demands later. You may recall that the death rate of mahouts in mahout-elephant interactions is high and when you add all of the ingredients with the life of a ceremonial elephant it is not hard to understand why. One of these ingredients is the tusker himself – tuskers account for more killings than female elephants. Male elephants, unlike most mammals actually come into season, for about 3 months every 2 years. This is called ‘musth’ and during musth, testosterone levels skyrocket, and I mean skyrocket. Elephant vets have told me that testosterone levels during musth escalate to between 20 and 60 times normal, transforming a docile elephant into a raging, constantly agitated aggressor. Their mahouts are especially targeted, for reasons, it is believed, of early punishments that are unpredictable and uncontrollable from the elephant point of view. So the mahouts keep their distance for the three months, yet other attendants are generally tolerated.
To make matters worse, the heat here can be relentless and unbearable. An elephant’s life here seems worse than for the forest elephants, where it is not only cooler, but they are taken to graze daily plus they get to bathe in the river, sometimes twice per day. There is no river here so the elephants are cooled by hosing. And of course these are isolated male elephants never able to satisfy their socialisation attachment needs or their sexual needs that are exacerbated by massive increases in testosterone. Castration is out of the question as the testes of male elephants are deep inside their body cavities, so add to this the surgical risk as well as the expense of sedating a 4 tonne animal, it is just not feasible.
I discussed with the vet about how optimal training confers predictability and controllability to the elephants and why punishment and poor timing does the opposite and leaves the animal frustrated and confused. I explained that for wild animals, this is even more important as the tolerances are less. Seeing the elephants here in this situation compared to the forest camps, I can’t help recognising how divorced this life is from their natural behaviours: these are wild animals: there is no such thing as a domesticated elephant, genetically speaking. But this sad spectacle of the temple elephant’s homelife would turn out to be dwarfed by what I was about to see in the tuslker’s day job at the temple itself.
After lunch, we took a taxi to Guruvayoor. Again it is a hot, dry and dusty day. We arrived at the temple precinct on the edge of a sea of people streaming toward the temple festivities. In the background we could see a row of 5 elephants, each one ornately decorated as the other. Flowing from atop each elephant’s head down its face to mouth level was a bright gold headpiece and anchored on top of its head a one metre high decorated shield. The elephant’s neck was encircled by a garland of orange and red. In the normal riding position was a mahout holding a 3 metre high coloured parasol, and behind him were two male dancers holding white feathery wands and large fans. At the elephant’s feet crouched the respective mahout, the long ankus ever ready.
But by far the greatest assault on the senses was the cacophony of sound. Immediately in front of the elephants, were perhaps 50 musicians. Symbols, horns and drums beat out a loud, relentless, repetitive yet strangely captivating tune that increased in tempo finally to a crazy fast climax then waned to a slow beat with just symbols and quiet drums, only to build up to a crescendo again and again. This went on for three hours solid while the elephants stood motionless, apparently habituated to this entire drama. The musicians also swayed and sometimes jumped to the deafening music, sweating in the sweltering heat. Immediately behind them, the giant crowd also leapt, danced and fisted the air to the beat. About 100 metres along the wide boulevard, another line of 7 elephants abreast had exactly the same surroundings of musicians and crowd.
Ramith, told me that when an elephant suddenly turns violent, and that this is not uncommon (or even unsurprising), it is utter chaos with hundreds of people scrambling for cover, up trees and behind buildings and food stalls. I was incredulous at the danger they put themselves in so close to the elephants who, I wondered, might view the whole ceremony as a relentless torment. The fact that so many of these festivals occur and relatively speaking so few people get killed must a tribute to the traditional training and rapport.
From my perspective, I see this a really testing the borderland between training and a wild animal’s natural aggression. Nevertheless after 3 hours I had almost habituated to the sound and spectacle, when the fireworks suddenly began. Ramith explained to me that with these fireworks, there are no visuals. Instead it is an audio-style fireworks, conveniently detonated less than 100 metres in front of the elephants. What I wasn’t prepared for was that the fireworks, like the music, were also designed to build to a crescendo. Only this time the build-up wasn’t as gradual. Both Ben and I were taking photos and videos close to the elephants when suddenly there was a series of incredibly loud bomb-blasts and both of us simultaneously spun and bolted a few steps. I even surprised myself because generally I’m not easy to startle: as a boy growing up on King Island my father would try to out do all other pyrotechnics by blowing up various objects with balloons filled with acetylene. But at this festival, it sounded far more catastrophic. At the same moment the elephant nearest to us who has probably heard it all before also convulsed a little sideways. I’ve worked with police horses around the world habituating them to bomb and gunshot but nothing compares to what these elephants have to habituate to.
It all seemed pointless, though I’m aware that culturally this is a bigoted viewpoint. Ramith tells me that in the northern states, the same spectacle and explosions happen, but minus the elephants. I think given the cultural imperative for the pomp, spectacle and sound effects counter-balanced by the poor elephant welfare and the death of humans, leaving the elephants out of the ceremony is a step in the right direction.
We headed back to our hotel, now with a much clearer picture of the greatest test of animal training yet a cultural spectacle that is increasingly frowned upon both in India and abroad. It is a stark reminder that every culture whose leisure and traditions collide with animal welfare principles will eventually have to reconcile these. I’m not talking animal rights here, but animal welfare. A welfare view holds that it’s ok to use animals so long as optimal welfare is maintained. Personally I’d like to see elephants only in their wild, free and natural state, however there isn’t enough habitat to liberate the 14,000 captive elephants to chance survival in the ever dwindling forests. So in the meantime, if we are going to use elephants in such activities as finding and arresting poachers (who slaughter unsustainable numbers of elephants, tigers, and rhinos) then we ought to train these elephants in the most humane way possible using the best of the tools of learning theory and mange them according to the best evidence of ethology and veterinary medicine. Their elephant is the ultimate vehicle for finding its nemesis, the poacher. It’s quiet, doesn’t break down, doesn’t get bogged, swims rivers, goes up banks steeper than a horse may and is more sure-footed, deters tigers but not other species and has a sense of smell many times greater than a bloodhound. The elephant can be trained to actually seek-out humans.
So now it is my time to leave India, and I am very pleased for the people who have donated funds to enable this project to succeed, and you can feel ever more justified in having done so. I’ve been asked to return to Kerala to check on progress and I’ll timetable this for 2014. So once again, my sincere thanks to all who have helped us get here to Kerala, in particular Christine Townend’s Working for Animals who stretch themselves to do as much as they can for The HELP Foundation. This Kerala project has been by every measure a huge success. Ben and I were discussing just how much our techniques have become increasingly effective not only in teaching elephants but also in teaching mahouts without offending their culture or existing knowledge.
To finish this epic I must apologise for the sporadic uploading of my blogs on our website and Facebook. Although I write daily and Ben collates and prepares the photos daily, we had very limited and in most cases no access to the internet, or even phone at times. So I close this in extending my thanks to my mate Ben, who once again worked tirelessly to get every possible shot including cultural and scenic shots. Our thanks also to Ramith for his excellent translation skills and his attention to detail.
His translation was of course in both directions and he never left us out of any conversation of relevance. My thanks also to The Wildlife Trust of India and The Kerala Forestry Department for their support and arrangements for this workshop. To Vivek Menon, Executive Director of WTI, my thanks for his confidence and support in our work. In response to his challenge that I mentioned in my report of Day 1, I think we have succeeded in making a crack in 5000 years of tradition. I hope that the cracks now get bigger and eventually shatter the parts of the traditional systems than need changing or improving. But more poignantly, I also hope that much of the tradition of how to train elephants has been enhanced without any detrimental effect on the great culture itself.
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-The HELP team.