Nature Without Borders

The No-Win War

In conflict, they say, there are no winners or losers; there are only survivors. The truth of that statement is brought home vividly as the captured elephants of Alur are broken, and tamed. A report

Kalyan Varma
Environmental Photojournalist

IT HAD the feel of a victory procession.

As the truck carrying the captured elephant passed through villages and towns en route to the training camp at Matthigodu, one of three forest camps in Karnataka that received the Alur captives (the others are Ranigate, and Dubare), people lined up to cheer.

They knew the story of the conflict in Hassan; they knew of the deaths of people in that conflict and had heard of the devastated lives and livelihoods. For them, the capture of Hassan’s elephants was victory in a war they had thought would never end.

We were following the second of the adult elephants captured at Alur a majestic bull with impressive tusks, who swayed on the flat-bed lorry that carried him to camp. He has been since named Srikanta, in honour of the late Maharaja of Mysore Srikantadatta Wodeyar. Trucks bearing three tame elephants – kumkis followed in his wake. Vehicles carrying mahouts, vets and other officials came next; our car brought up the rear.

The three-hour drive took us over five hours to complete. At many places, electric wires hanging low from their poles posed a hazard; the mahouts had to push these aside with long sticks in order to let the trucks pass. And when the caravan passed through the bigger towns, such as Kushalnagar, the press of people gathered to watch the captive slowed progress down even further.

A truck carries a male tusker though Periyapatna town.

The trucks eventually entered the Nagarhole National Park and stopped at Matthigodu elephant camp to offload Srikanta. Of the four kraals in this camp, three were already occupied. Srikanta was taken to the last one; in the kraal next to him was the Makhan, the tusk-less adult male, captured earlier.

At the camp, the three kumkis were pressed into service once more, this time in reverse. The captive was roped up, the ropes linking him to the kumkis who then dragged him out of the lorry and butted him into the kraal that had been readied for him.

kraal is an enclosure made of thick logs of teak wood, constructed in a cross-hatch pattern for additional strength. The room-sized kraal, with log walls on the four sides and an open top, is restricted in size, denying the wild one too much freedom of movement. A week or so into the process, additional logs are inserted to further reduce the the size of the kraal so that it just about fits the elephant. At this point, the captive cannot even turn around.

This is when the taming process begins, and the first step is to get the elephant used to the commands, and the touch, of its mahout. Since its movement is restricted, the mahout is able to climb onto its back via the open roof. Gradually, as the wild elephant becomes accustomed to captivity and to the presence of the mahout, the kraal is widened, permitting progressive amounts of freedom. Once the elephant has reconciled to captivity and learnt to obey its mahout, the walls are removed and the elephant moves through the surrounding forest, but always with a chain tied to its foot; the more excitable ones are even hobbled.

Once Srikanta had been dragged into his kraal, the restraining ropes were removed. Vets checked the captive’s vital signs and treated the wounds it had incurred during the process of capture, ranging from rope burns as he fought his restraints to the cuts inflicted by the tusks of the kumkis.

The injuries, particularly to the legs, are not a pretty sight. “The wounds are temporary,” Vasanta, the veteran mahout, said as we watched the vets at work. “They will heal. Of course, the elephant will suffer more wounds during the training process, but those will heal, too.”

It is in a sense mildly reassuring to know that no lasting physical damage has been inflicted, nor will be – but Vasanta’s words still do not make the actual sight of the injuries any easier to bear.


“Taming” is a catch-all word that encompasses the many laborious steps involved in breaking down the independent will of a wild, free-ranging animal and making it obedient to the commands of its mahouts.

The process varies across the country. It is most brutal in the northeastern parts of India (where it mirrors techniques in vogue in large parts of South East Asia). Here, the captive is tied to a tree, starved and beaten into submission. It is not a sight for the faint-hearted, but that is another story, for another day.

7 thoughts on “The No-Win War”

  1. Vijay Mohan Raj
    August 25, 2015

    Thanks Kalyan for bringing this out so well. I think conflict wherever it exists exacts a toll on all the stakeholders. The elephant problem of Hassan is not the first nor the last. What the Forest Dept is now continuously facing,is the legacy of these conflicts, not just more elephants in camps which drain our dwindling resources but also an increasing population with very less tolerance for conflict.
    What the next generation of foresters will face whenever there is an elephant conflict is “When they could do it in Hassan why not here?” So we now have a ‘Hassan model’ of conflict management.
    Thanks once again for putting this across a wide public domain.

  2. Premnath Kudva
    August 25, 2015

    Rightly titled, it is a no-win war 🙁

  3. Agastya A Hebbar
    August 25, 2015

    You have been very unbiased in your outlook, and your thoughts have also been articulated very well. Your points on “Kumki” and “Captive” elephant relationship is intriguing and leaves me pondering on how little we know of this magnificent creation of nature. I wish you all the best and earnestly look forward to reading more about your “Elephas Rendezvous”.

  4. vidya murugan
    August 25, 2015

    so beautifully written..

  5. Kalyan,
    Reading this lovely article evokes memories and emotion; I can see the effort put into this article and the outstanding result. Any conflict, as you correctly infer, has the stories of two sides and ineluctable pain. Your prose is as moving as it is analytical.

  6. I am quite awed in the way this piece of story has been written. It not only brings out the hard reality of the present situation of wildlife in India, but also depicts the silent anguish borne by this majestic creature living a life far from what it ought to. Thanks for bringing these stories to life.

  7. t madhava menon
    September 23, 2015

    capturing elephants and torturing them has been an age-old tradition throughout india. the Buddhist Jataka stories contain many examples. the elephant is intelligent, and trades liberty for life. this has been exploited by humans who are more crooked in their intelligence. the elephant has a sensitive skin. this has been exploited by humans to torture the elephants into submission. CO-EXISTENCE requires a degree of self abnegation by humans.