Freeing and Improving Conditions for India’s Captive Elephants


CUPA (Compassion Unlimited Plus Action) is at the forefront of the effort to expose the unacceptable living conditions of India’s estimated 3,500 to 4000 captive elephants and restore these majestic animals to dignified lives in the wild. One of India’s major animal welfare organizations, CUPA believes this transition from captivity to freedom can best be achieved by means of a national network of advanced rescue and rehabilitation centers.

Headquartered in Bangalore, CUPA has been working since 2005 on a comprehensive Captive Elephant Survey of India. Their survey has revealed a disturbing picture of the treatment of captive elephants in India. CUPA has identified unsatisfactory management regimes for the elephants in the private custody of individuals and institutions such as temples and circuses, and has published a number of progress reports on these disturbing housing and welfare conditions.

An obese temple elephant on a concrete floor in South India. Image via Help Animals India.

The problems, as identified by CUPA, which beset these gentle giants in captivity are many and varied:

Housing is deplorable. In the wild, elephants naturally roam for many miles every day. In contrast, India’s captive elephants typically are kept in extremely confined, species-inappropriate settings, such as car garages, temple rooms without ventilation, dirty sheds and other polluted, crowded and noisy surroundings. Floors are made of hard materials such as cement, granite and marble. Because of their massive weight, elephants can only stand comfortably – and then only for short periods – on soft, yielding surfaces, such as earth. Their anatomy, physiology and feeding habits are designed for a life of near constant motion, roaming, grazing and foraging over vast tracts of land for 20 or more hours a day. Housing them on hard floors causes chronic pain, severe foot damage and arthritis. In captivity, the elephants also lack access to waterholes or other water bodies. These, too, are essential for their quality of life.

Feed is inadequate and unsuitable. For example, many captive elephants are fed sweets and cooked rice, which are unnatural for elephants and have seriously deleterious effects on their health.

Zoo elephant in central India, without a natural body of water and always on a concrete floor. Image via Help Animals India.

Water is inadequate and sometimes contaminated. In cities and urban areas, the quantity of drinking water available for captive elephants is much less than the 200 to 250 liters per day these massive animals require. Too often the water is contaminated, since there is a chronic shortage of potable drinking water, even for people, in most urban areas of India. Often the elephants are hurriedly forced to try and slake their thirst from taps and pipes in public areas. Bathing and wallowing in water also are essential activities for elephants’ healthy skin, thermoregulation and emotional well-being. But this is impossible in urban landscapes without natural lakes or rivers.

Exercise is either too much or too little. Captive elephants spend most of their lives buffeted between prolonged periods of sedentary confinement when they are not “on the job” and overexertion under unnatural and unhealthful conditions when they are. When confined, they are tied up without exercise. In addition to frustrating their deep-seated instinct to roam, this leads to obesity, arthritis and other health problems. The elephants live like prisoners who are either penned up in solitary confinement or worked to the point of collapse in an old-fashioned chain gang.

Elephant tied with crude spiked foot belt in Bihar, India. Image via Help Animals India.

Abuse is the daily lot of India’s captive elephants. These great animals are exploited for degrading, sometimes abusive purposes, such as begging, performing unnatural acts such as kneeling and blessing devotees (this involves being forced to lift their trunks at least 300 times per day), marching in wedding processions, walking on hot, tarred roads, riding on cycles and playing football. While some of these uses may sound innocuous, typically they subject the elephant to overwork and exhaustion under extremely stressful and unnatural conditions, physical pain and injury, prolonged hunger and thirst, fear and even panic. Every year scores of overstressed elephants run amok at weddings, religious processions or other public festivities, seriously injuring or killing dozens of people. Apart from causing a great deal of discomfort and pain to the animals, very often these activities involve extremely harsh and painful training procedures, as discussed below.

Training is essential to control the elephants and make them obey commands. Unfortunately, elephant training has always emphasized punishment over reward, and this is worse than usual today due to a shortage of skilled mahouts (elephant trainers and keepers) in India. As a result, elephants are routinely subjected to brutal training regimes which include starvation, beating with sticks and ankush (elephant hooks that dig into the animals’ hides) and tying the elephants up by all four legs. In private captivity, there is a high turnover rate among mahouts, and the elephants must endure adjusting to a new trainer every time.

Commonly used “discipline” and “training” techniques for India’s captive elephants.Image via Help Animals India.

Social isolation is the norm for India’s captive elephants. Some are housed in isolation for their entire lives. For such social and intelligent herd animals, this is the most severe of deprivations, akin to a lifetime of solitary confinement for a human being.

In the course of conducting their Captive Elephant Survey, CUPA researchers learned that some private organizations and establishments were prepared to give up their badly cared for animals to their state forest departments. Unfortunately, this is not a viable option. Most of India’s forest departments lack the capacity to take on what they consider to be an “elephantine” responsibility. It is CUPA’s view that each state must, instead, make provisions for the establishment of dedicated rescue/care centers for the captive elephants in their territory. Until such centers become a reality, there is an urgent need to improve the level of care for the elephants that remain in private hands.

Free at Last: from captivity to the wild via rehabilitation centers

It is well known that elephants are super intelligent mammals who often rival humans in their intelligence and capacity for grief and other emotions, have complex family structure, possess proverbial memory, employ the occasional use of tools and have a very active lifestyle, and are deeply unhappy and unfulfilled when deprived of space, stimulation and community.

An elephant brought up in confinement for decades is helpless as a child in getting used to forest camp regimes, without the safety net of an interim rehabilitation center. Though their natural lives are in the forest environment, an elephant needs attention, protection and a soft release before being returned to the wilderness where they must interact with their wild counterparts, find the right foods and be able to socialize. All of these skills have been damaged in an infancy and childhood in captivity.

Since their lifespans are akin to humans’ and their stages of growth and maturity parallel a human life, the captive elephant is as lost as their human counterpart would be if he or she had been unschooled in the basic lessons of survival, socializing, communication and other skills essential for survival in human society.

An elephant named Menaka

Menaka was rescued from a small Hindu temple after repeated complaints from the public and reports by authorities, including CUPA. The Karnataka State Forest Department finally confiscated her and handed her over to the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (WRRC), a sister organization of CUPA dedicated to the welfare of wild animals. Taken from the abusive confines of the temple, Menaka took three years to settle into a routine that has been designed to be as natural and easy for her as possible.

Menaka now spends 16 hours every day in the Bannerghatta National Park. There she gets to socialize with her new friends – other elephants who, though captive too, are left in the park’s forest to graze and forage full-time. Occasionally Menaka even meets wild elephants in the park. At the rescue center, where she is brought indoors after her bath and scrub in a nearby body of water, Menaka spends the day chewing on green fodder and a snack of fruits and grains before she is returned to the forest at night.

Female temple elephant Menaka in a bamboo grove at acrescue center in Bangalore, Karnataka, India, sponsored by CUPA. Image via Help Animals India.

Menaka’s gradual adjustment to a nearly natural life has given CUPA the impetus to negotiate with the government for a rescue/care center for elephants in our state of Karnataka. At such a center, some elephants from the zoos could also be admitted for care and rehabilitation. CUPA hopes their vision soon translates into reality. It would serve as a demonstration project for all of India.

Featured image: the legs and trunk of a chained captive elephant in Kerala, India. Image credit Saurabh Chatterjee, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Help Animals India is a United States based, non-profit 501(c)(3) charity organization dedicated to supporting efficient and effective animal protection organizations in India and Nepal. Animals who are suffering in India have strong indigenous allies. The nation is blessed with many dedicated animal welfare organizations. Help Animals India seeks out the best of India's under-funded animal rights organizations to provide financial & practical assistance where it can make the most difference. Click to see author's profile.

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