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Sangita Iyer: The woman trying to save India’s tortured temple elephants

Sangita Iyer: In order to make elephants obey, handlers tie and beat them for 72 hours or until their spirits are broken. They are like zombies. Many are just living skeletons.

SWAMINATHAN NATARAJAN: Sangita Iyer is on a mission. As a child, the documentary maker, who was born in the Indian state of Kerala but now lives in Toronto, saw ceremonial elephants being paraded and thought they were beautiful. Later, she learned about the ordeal the animals are subjected to… She has made a documentary, Gods in Shackles, in an attempt to draw attention to the treatment of temple elephants she saw in India.

“They were so helpless and the chains were so heavy,” she said… “So many elephants had ghastly wounds on their hips, massive tumours and blood oozing out of their ankles, because chains had cut into their flesh and many of them were blind,” Iyer told the BBC. “It was absolutely heart-breaking for me to witness this”…

During a trip to India in 2013, she saw elephants for the first time without their ceremonial ornaments and clothes. “These animals were brutalised using vicious weapons like bullhooks, spiked chains and long polls with a poking spike – which is used to poke elephants in their joints to trigger severe pain,” she said…

In 2014, Iyer saw a captive cow elephant and was mesmerised by it, she said. “When I first saw Lakshmi, it was love at first sight.” “I put my hand beneath her neck and touched her chest. As soon as I did that, she put her trunk on my hand to smell me. They are so sensitive to smell”… A year later she was shocked when she met Lakshmi again. “I was devastated to see her eyes oozing out tears. She was taking her trunk tip and was rubbing herself and massaging herself,” Iyer said…

In order to make an elephant obey her mahout, handlers put the animals through a torturous training routine that takes place away from temples. “They tie and beat the elephants for 72 hours or until their spirits are broken and they obey whatever the mahouts (handlers) say,” Iyer said. “They are like zombies. Many elephants are just living skeletons”…

Ceremonial elephants are used in temples across India, but their presence is extensive in Kerala. The state is home to about a fifth of the country’s roughly 2,500 captive elephants. The animals are owned by temples as well as individuals. Guruvayur temple alone has more than 50 elephants. Ceremonial elephants can bring in lot of money to their owners. Some animals fetch more than $10,000 dollars per festival, Iyer said. The money is paid by the festival organisers, as well as local shop owners and landlords…

Experts say that restrictions imposed by temple authorities have prevented proper scientific studies of the physical and psychological condition of temple elephants. “A temple by itself can never be a good place to keep an elephant,” said Dr Raman Sukumar of the Indian Institute of Science, an expert on Asian elephants. “The elephant is a highly social animal and should be only kept in social groups. Elephants should never be kept solitarily in temples…

Last year, Kerala’s state government announced its intention to strengthen the rules governing captive elephants, but progress has been slow. Activists say even the existing rules are not properly implemented. The temple authorities are reluctant to change, according to Iyer. “Some are in deep denial,” she said. “It is easier to deny rather than accept we are wrong and say we are willing to right the wrong”.  SOURCE…

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