This letter is in response to this article written by Liz Jones published on Aug 15th 2015.
The article is factually and chronologically wrong, misguided and misinformed, and lacking in basic journalistic ethics. I wish I didn’t have to call this out, but such stories — more fiction than fact, intentionally sensationalised in some parts — actually harm rather than help, and do great injustice to elephant conservation and welfare efforts in India.
I write this on the basis of having personally interacted with Jones on her recent visit to India. Prem has pinned down some of the distorted facts in the article regarding temple elephants. Following on from that, here’s what really happened:
A few days after I published my elephant capture story, I got a mail from one Duncan McNair. He said he was a lawyer from the UK, and was really passionate about conservation of Asian elephants. He runs a charity called Save The Asian Elephants (STAE).
Duncan mentioned in his mail that he was coming down to India in a few weeks. Elephants in captivity and their management were his main concern, he said, and although he was visiting Kerala to look at elephants in the temple, he also wanted to visit some of the elephant camps in Karnataka. I shared information in a spirit of trust.
A few weeks later, McNair landed up in India — not alone, as he had told me initially, but with Liz Jones, a journalist/photographer. This was unexpected.
Still, I spent hours discussing the complex issues of elephant conflict, capture, and taming with them. McNair seemed to care; Ms Jones on the other hand seemed to me to be clueless, about India and about elephants. No amount of conversation — involving me, and others in the conservation movement I introduced them to — managed to dent their preconceptions or cause them to rethink the half-baked information they had already internalised.
Here are some facts regarding her “investigative trip” to elephant camps:
Liz Jones’ trip was funded by Duncan McNair, who runs a charity to support Asian elephants. Jones came here to write a story about elephant torture. I first met her in Bangalore, and at the time reiterated to her that in Karnataka at least, elephants are not tortured and are not exploited commercially.
She seemed however to have already made up her mind. Although she asked questions, she refused to accept the answers detailing what really happens here. The impression I had was that she had already constructed her story, and wanted evidence to back it up.
And that is what happened. She refers to “secret camps” — they are not secret at all, just regular camps for captured elephants. Such elephants, just translocated from the wild, are in a transitional phase and the intent is to disturb them as little as possible — therefore, such camps are not meant for the lay tourist. Therein lies the “secrecy” Jones makes so much of.
The sign she refers to, that says ‘does not allow public into some of the camps’, is not indicative of some super-secret operation but, as mentioned above, merely to prevent tourists from wandering about and irritating the elephants. Moreover, most of the elephants in these camps wander free of restraint, and since mahouts do not accompany them at all times, it is unsafe for the lay tourist who happens to encounter one of them.
“Children of the mahouts who live on site in huts start to throw rocks at him, and the giant, hobbled by chains, retreats, trembling.”
Mahouts and their children have an amazing family bond with the elephants they look after. I have personally witnessed children, as young as five years old, walk up to a giant tusker and accompany it into the forest. Their “throwing stones” and the reaction of the elephant is an exaggeration — one of many in the piece.
Jones describes the mahouts watching a video one of them had shot on his smartphone. Again, that is not true — the video they were watching was this one, shot by me and part of my narrative series. The mahouts were part of that operation, along with several elephants from that camp. They were excited to see the video, since it featured them and their elephants — hence the delight, and not because they were reveling in scenes of torture.
Ms Jones implies that the two elephants in the kraal were wrongly accused of killing people. Again, untrue. The entire story of conflict in Hassan has been documented — the victims, the reactions of the locals, the efforts of activists, forest department officials, the judiciary, it is all part of this narrative I have been working on.
What she saw, understood and interpreted about the kraal is completely wrong. A wild elephant, just captured, cannot be left to run free in the open. It needs a period of training, of getting used to the mahouts who will take care of it going forward, and that is the purpose of the kraal.
When she visited the camp, there was no torture, or even training, happening. The only thing she witnessed — I was there with her — was gentle handling of the elephants, where the mahouts were trying to get the elephants used to touch. They rubbed the elephant with a plastic bottle, then one of them sat on the elephant for a bit, and then they fed the elephants. This is what she saw, and this is all she saw — she did not see any elephant being beaten and starved, as she writes.
In fact, she was upset that she didn’t get to see the torture she had come in expectation of. At one point she asked me if I can “do anything” so she can get to see the torture — implying that she wanted torture-based training to happen so she could get an eyewitness report and photographs.
The elephants in camps in Karnataka are there because they were captured from conflict situations. None of them are captured for the purpose of trade, or entertainment. That used to happen in Kerala, but now there are very strict government regulations to manage that as well.
Referring to this photograph, she says “A baby elephant is beaten by a mahout using an ankush – a wooden stick with a steel hook foxed at one end – while he tries to eat his morning meal of rice grain, jaggery (unrefined sugar) and straw”. I checked with someone who was there when this photo was taken. The mahout tapped the elephant with the back of the stick to nudge it back, so that it would not eat up the food ahead of its meal time. The two mahouts you see in the photograph are making small balls of meal, to feed the waiting elephants.
It is in fact true that we have a long way to go in the management and welfare of captive elephants in India. But the situation can only be improved by engaging with the mahouts and the forest department, and by investing in positive-reinforcement training, in addition to solving some elephant conservation issues.
Even the forest department does not want these elephants in the camps, since it takes a lot of money and effort to manage them. They are there only because of conflict situations elsewhere, as in the case of Hassan which I have been documenting. Some of the more important debates regarding captive elephant management and temple elephants in Kerala have been addressed by Sreedhar V., a passionate wildlife biologist, here.
Basically, this article is a sensationalized view of the fate of the captive elephants, with lots of “observations” cooked up in the writer’s imagination. I cannot comment about the intention of the piece — it may be good, for all I know — but the primary responsibility of a good reporter, or even a concerned citizen or animal activist, is to tell the truth, plain and unvarnished. Distortions and untruths hurt the very cause such pieces are ostensibly meant to help.