Formerly captive elephants at the Wildlife SOS sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh. Image: Wildlife SOS

A home for captive elephants

In Asia, these grand animals are kept in cruel conditions to service both tourists and temples. But one Indian charity is giving them sanctuary
May 12, 2022

She stands in the shadow of a wall resting one foot against the other, taking the weight off. Shanti, whose name means peace, has just got back from a morning’s work after a five o’clock start; white gunge oozes from the front of one eye and her ears are threaded with rags. “When she does weddings,” says the man showing me round, “we put gold in those holes.”

Asian elephants evolved to live in forests, lush grass and around water. But much of Rajasthan is desert and climate collapse is making India’s hottest state even hotter. It is March, and an unseasonable 38C in the shade. Left to -themselves, elephants would avoid this place. But humans do not leave elephants to themselves.

Elephants were first caught and used in the Bronze Age in the Indus Valley. In Rajasthan, with the rise of Rajput kingdoms in early medieval times, kings appeared before their subjects on elephants whose tusks glittered with gold and silver and whose bodies shimmered in silk and velvet. Used for processions, festivals, fights, games and hunting, the beasts became emblems of the power of the Maharajas. After Indian independence in 1947, innovative elephant-owners here began offering rides up to a royal palace known as the Amer Fort. It’s a lucrative business and before Covid, 1.5m tourists visited every year. “Tourists feel like royalty when riding an elephant,” the vice-president of the Elephant Owners’ Association explained to the BBC.

There have been only four moments in African history (including Hannibal) when the continent’s elephants were tamed. Asian elephants are wild, too, but for 4,000 years many have also been worked. This is not to say they were or indeed are domesticated—which means changed and adapted by human selective breeding, like horses or dogs. Due to the high cost of their keep and slow gestation period (18 months), elephants were always caught wild and trained afterwards, though today some are born in captivity. They are mainly used now in entertainment, logging and tourism. But at this moment of climate crisis, with biodiversity and ecosystems crumbling, what does their doubleness, of captivity and wildness, say about our relationship with nature?

Indian forests are magical places. I feel at home in them, an illusion I blame on my early reading of The Jungle Book. When I first visited them for research on wild tigers, then later for a novel about king cobras, it was always the elephants I was afraid of. They are so silent, so emotional, can kill so swiftly. Most animals, including tigers and king cobras, try to get away from human beings. Elephants evolved to think everyone should get out of their way.

A world without elephants is a world I don’t want to live in, says a t-shirt for sale online, and the ivory-poaching crisis means that 20,000 wild elephants are killed in Africa each year. What threatens them even more, though, particularly in Asia, is the loss of forests. The conflict between hungry elephants and farmers protecting their crops is increasing. Poisoned, fire-bombed, shot at, electrocuted by re-routed power cables, wild elephants are becoming more anxious, suspicious and dangerous. In India, between 2018 and 2020, 1,401 people and 301 elephants died in human-elephant conflicts, including a 10-year-old girl trampled to death outside her village home, and a pregnant elephant in Kerala who ate a “bait bomb” made for killing wild boar. This was a pineapple, packed with firecrackers which exploded in her mouth. She took four days to die.

Everyone has to observe elephant behaviour from a safe distance. When Covid stopped travel, I acquired a library of books about elephants, did a virtual tour of an elephant sanctuary, attended Zoom lectures, studied videos online and became an Instagram follower of Thechikkottukavu Ramachandran, nicknamed Raman, the tallest elephant in captivity, owned by a temple in Kerala. One of his eyes has cataracts, the other was blinded when his mahout, or handler, hit him with a stick. Raman’s temper has soured and he has killed 13 people and three other elephants. He was banned seven times from festival parades, but the Kerala High Court lifted the latest ban in 2020 after an appeal by the temple that owns him. I watched videos of Raman with his mahouts, one walking alongside in a crisp white shirt, the other sitting behind his ears with an ankus. (I’ll come back to the ankus.) His tusks gleam, but he is loaded with more chains than a goth: double chains around a front leg, double chains around a back leg and looped between, double chains around his neck.

Controversy now rages in the west about the ethics of keeping elephants captive, and so nobody keeping elephants in Britain wants to talk to a writer. My brother lives in Pembrokeshire, near a Hindu temple that has two elephants. Though I watched online videos of them stumping through Welsh snow, I was not allowed to visit.

Meanwhile, in Asia, working elephants have gone hungry. When Covid stopped tourism, money for elephant food disappeared overnight. Elephants need to eat huge amounts: an adult needs 100 to 150kg of food a day, plus around 225 litres of water. In the absence of tourism, festivals or wedding processions, they no longer earn their keep. India has around 1,800 captive elephants, mainly privately owned. (Thailand has around 2,000 captive elephants.) The cost of keeping one is about £1,000 a month.

If we can’t save elephants, what can we save?

In September 2020, four of Rajasthan’s tourist elephants died. The Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations found they had been tied up for months with minimal food and water. In Thailand, camps where tourists rode and bathed with elephants, or watched them do tricks, were forced to close during the pandemic. Many animals were walked to their mahouts’ villages to forage in sparse forests. There were stories of chained elephants starving to death.

Now the world has opened up, I am able to visit Hathi Gaon, an “elephant village” outside Jaipur, where the elephants who take tourists up the steep cobbled paths to the Amer (or Amber) Fort are kept. The village has 110 female elephants (males are more aggressive and too risky) and vets on site. Elephants often get foot diseases—their feet evolved for the forest floor rather than scorching stone cobbles. The mahouts live here, where their children go to school. They are poor. They don’t own the elephants; both animals and human make money for an owner-employer, who does.

I gaze at concrete stables housing elephants who have just returned from the Amer Fort. They are still harnessed, carrying seats on their backs like iron bedsteads painted pink with the word “WELCOME.” I watch a new elephant stop beside another who immediately reaches her trunk out, its tip pointing towards the new elephant like the bottom of a J. Behavioural studies describe elephants caring about each other’s feelings and many scientists argue that elephants can feel
real empathy. I may be wildly misinterpreting, but that upturned trunk tip seems to say, Are you OK? The questioning stops, and I watch other elephants carting people up and down a cement avenue.

What are the mahouts holding, as they sit behind the elephant’s ears? Is that only a stick? Every single captive adult elephant, which any tourist has hugged, ridden or bathed with in Thailand, Sri Lanka or India, has been through a training process called phajan, the crush. The young elephant is tied with ropes and beaten non-stop for three weeks until its spirit is broken, and it responds to commands. Invisibly to outsiders, adult elephants are controlled by pain and fear: memory of the phajan, fear of the pain which the ankus, or bullhook, can deliver. Over thousands of years the ankus design has hardly changed: one sharp metal spike, one sharp curved hook behind. It penetrates, or just swipes at, the most vulnerable places: ear, anus, genitals.

Broken spirits: elephants from the Hathi Gaon “Elephant Village” carrying tourists up to the Amer Fort. Image: REY Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo Broken spirits: elephants from the Hathi Gaon “Elephant Village” carrying tourists up to the Amer Fort. Image: REY Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo

Broken spirits: elephants from the Hathi Gaon “Elephant Village” carrying tourists up to the Amer Fort. Image: REY Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo

Of course, genuine bonds of love do develop between mahouts and their elephants, especially if that elephant was orphaned by poachers and grew up cared for by humans. But a psychologist friend of mine who worked with mahouts in Assam said: “they drink to forget what they have to do to the elephant.” I ask if they use the ankus here. The man showing me round Hathi Gaon tells me they don’t, just a stick. How about chains? No, he says, only ropes.

But although Hathi Gaon was originally designed to care for elephant needs, it is now transparently commercial. On Tripadvisor, 73 per cent of visitors call it a rip-off. The village charges tourists £100 to ride elephants and paint them. The guide shows off his paints—orange, bright pink and luminous green. Painting elephants has been a thing since the Bronze Age. One of the earliest elephant figurines, from the Harappan culture of the Indus Valley from 2,500 BC, is a head with red and white stripes painted across its face.

Shanti, standing quietly nearby, is covered in folk art: a pink pastel circle round each eye, a lime-green lotus over each ear and another on her forehead, a pink lotus on each cheek, green tendrils round her knees, orange tulips down her trunk. I put my hand against an unpainted bit of her cheek. Her skin is soft chamois leather. I send my daughter a photo. “It looks so sad,” she replies.

Wildlife SOS, which runs a sanctuary in Mathura in Uttar Pradesh, couldn’t be more different. It is a charity begun in a Delhi garage by people determined to rescue distressed wildlife. They started with dancing bears and they also look after elephants who have suffered from tourism, begging or in temples. One elephant I see in the sanctuary is lame, her legs deformed by 45 years of taking tourists up to the Amer Fort. Another spent 70 years as the lone elephant in a Maharashtra temple. Wildlife SOS has helplines, so people can alert them to animals in trouble, and a hospital where each elephant is checked over before meeting others of its kind. I watch small groups walk about, splash, meditate and give themselves dust baths. We accompany some on an evening stroll through fields and see other groups lounging contentedly in each other’s company.

On a lawn in front of the office, nine sandstones stand like a red Stonehenge, remembering elephants who lived out their retired lives here. A board, entitled The Forgotten Past, displays rusty metal tools of constraint and control to show visitors the torture to which the rescued elephants were subjected for years. A long rough stick with a spike. Chains studded with spikes. And on top, like the one ring to rule them all, a rusty ankus.

These two homes for captive elephants in Hathi Gaon and Mathura speak to our own divided relations with our fellow creatures—capable of devising instruments of torture, but also of compassion and care. Most of the books on tigers and king cobras I have read were written by men. But many pioneering elephant studies are by women, and maybe the nature of elephants themselves, and how and why we identify with them, plays a part in this. People often say they love elephants. When I ask why, they point to emotional things: elephants mourn their dead, look after each other’s children, live in close-knit families. I don’t want to stereotype, but the appeal of solitary creatures like tigers and king cobras is—well, different. Elephants are social, empathic and focused on family. I suspect that an elephant’s need for others, its maternal nature, interests those who prioritise relationships, family-making and emotion. We don’t only value size and power.

That trunk tip turned up to greet a new arrival says it all. Are you OK? The elephant’s trunk is made for touching, caregiving, embracing and reaching out to others. In elephants—wild or captive—we see our own need for connectedness writ large. As Joyce Poole, a legendary African elephant researcher, once said: “if we can’t save elephants, what can we save?”