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.

In south India, the mahouts use kraals to contain the elephant while they work with them. During the initial stages, the objective is to weaken the elephant physically by rationing food and water to subsistence levels. The combined effects of the confinement and the physical weakening make the elephant less aggressive, more docile, more resigned.

As the wild one gets used to captivity the actual taming process begins, with the mahouts teaching him various basic commands, rewarding him with lumps of jaggery when he obeys and punishing him when he does not. At the most basic level, the captive is taught to lift its trunk on cue. The mahout signals with a tap on the head. If the captive raises its trunk and opens its mouth, he gets a treat. In this fashion, the elephant is gradually accustomed to progressive commands – lifting whichever leg the mahout indicates, and so on. In this fashion, the mahout-elephant relationship – one of dominance and dependence – is constructed.

The process is most refined in Tamil Nadu, where a form of positive-reinforcement training is in vogue. The mahouts here carry on inherited traditions of taming, as per which they spend copious amounts of time with the captives, using rewards most often and punishment only rarely. The elephants learn that obedience to commands brings immediate rewards; punishment is reserved for extreme cases of recalcitrance. Also, unlike in the rest of the country, the mahouts of Tamil Nadu do not use the ankush (bull hook), a wooden stick with a steel hook at one end, which is used elsewhere to control the elephant. (In passing, there is a Rajasthan High Court order banning their use, and resulting directives to forest departments across the country.)

In Karnataka, the process of taming falls somewhere between the less gruesome Tamil Nadu model and the extreme brutality of the northeast; reward and punishment are harnessed in equal measure.

It takes time to establish the bond between the mahout and the elephant entrusted to his care – anywhere from a month to upwards of eight months, depending on the personality of the individual elephant and the strength of his will and determination to resist, and probably also the temperament and experience of the mahout himself. Once the breaking down process is complete, the elephants obey the mahout’s orders in a manner reminiscent of how sub-adult wild elephants obey the dominant individual in the group.

Srikanta is out of the Kraal and is now being trained by a new mahout.

At the time of writing this, the basic bond between Srikanta and his mahout, Vishwa, has been forged; for further training however, Srikanta is now with a older, more experienced mahout it seems. The elephant responds to the mahout and as a result, has been freed from the kraal. He is a tall, strong tusker, and in due course, could well become a kumki and take his part in other capture operations. Is it primarily this experience, of having gone through the capture and taming process, that makes the kumki so empathetic to the wild elephant he helps capture?

Including Srikanta, 18 of the 22 elephants captured in Hassan were taken into captivity and have now been tamed. Three individuals were translocated (with one of them fitted with a radio-collar), while another female also fitted with a radio-collar was released in the same area in order to understand her herd and their movements better.

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The capture and taming of elephants dates back to antiquity. Seals from the Indus Valley civilization dating back to 2600 BC show evidence of tamed elephants; Plutarch in his histories writes that Alexander’s army refused to cross the Ganges and demanded that he turn back because, among other things, six thousand war elephants awaited the Greek army on the opposite bank. By the time of the Guptas, elephants had also acquired cultural significance; Chanakya’s Arthasastra devotes considerable space to plans for the management of forests containing elephants. Tame elephants were being used for hunting safaris by the Mughals and by Indian kings of the time; the British East India company pressed them into service for logging and other operations.

That said, no culture is carved in stone. We evolve as a society and with it, our attitudes to various things once taken for granted also evolve. Moreover, we now know, realize and recognize the elephants as sentient beings, much like humans, in terms of their society, family structures and bonds, and intelligence.

The most common question in the wake of my previous story on the capture of Alur’s elephants was “What happens to them now?” Ironically, that is the same question forest officials and conservationists in Karnataka have had to ask themselves.

Contrary to the perception in some quarters, these elephants were not captured in order to keep the commercial supply chain stocked; they were not captured to help meet the needs of temples and the tourist trade. The court mandated their capture in order to deal with a conflict situation, as detailed here.

The forest department thus had few options open. The most obvious was to release the captured elephants in some distant forest. This has in fact been done with one small herd from Alur an adult female, a calf and a juvenile male were released in the MM Hills forest region. Thanks to GPS tracking, we know that the collared female is currently wandering vast distances through the forest; its behavior indicates an inability to settle down, to be ‘at home’ in any part of the unfamiliar terrain. She continues to be tracked and monitored.

Releasing elephants in alien forests comes with its own problems. Elephants, particularly males, have a documented habit of coming back to what they consider their home. It happened in Hassan earlier; the same behavior has been documented in Sri Lanka and other parts of the world, where elephants released in alien forests have walked over 500 km to return to their ‘home’. Keep in mind that these elephants walk through unfamiliar territories, including villages and cities, to return to their original forest or home range, causing chaos all along the route.

Equally, the elephants in the Alur region are used to living in an agricultural landscape. The degradation of the surrounding forests changed their food habits over time; today they feed almost exclusively on sugarcane, banana, rice and other domestic crops. If relocated to another forest, they will merely walk to the edges of the forest and begin raiding the crops in those surrounding villages – again, a pattern that has played out before. In essence, then, all that will be accomplished by shifting the Alur elephants to another forest will be a transferal of the problem from one location to another.

Further, elephants have a possessive sense of territory. Throw strange elephants into a forest where elephant families are already established, and territorial fights are the inevitable result. An argument goes that the elephants can be moved to a different forest, and then fenced in. This was tried in Sri Lanka – elephants were captured from an agricultural landscape and fenced into a portion of forest. A large number of them died of starvation.

These are some of the conundrums the forest department had to consider when trying to decide the fate of the captives. Forest officials are clear that they don’t want to keep them, for very good reasons. They have no budgets, no manpower, to manage that many elephants and to care for them.

They have been approached by some temples and tourist sites seeking to buy these elephants, but there is a Supreme Court order in place prohibiting such sale. The dilemma therefore remains unsolved.

Department officials say some of the strongest of these elephants will remain in the forest camps, for use in managing other conflict situations. The final disposition of the others remains undecided at the time of writing.

A personal note

In course of my months-long reporting for this story, I have come to realize there are no easy answers.

I watched the capture of these elephants, and felt disturbed for days on end thereafter – but I also spent time with the families of those dead in Alur and witnessed the aftermath of elephant raids, and I can see why the court ordered their capture.

Since capture was inevitable and release in other forests was ruled out, they had to be tamed. I watched and documented that process, too, and it was equally traumatic to witness the will of a wonderful, wild animal being brutally and systematically broken down. The Srikanta I saw first was the proud bull who, despite being tranquilized, and roped to five kumkis, fought long and hard in the forest of Alur – a fight so majestic that when he fell, the crowds willed him back onto his feet. When I saw him last, that pride was gone; the light in his eyes had dimmed; the majesty of his wild self is now just a memory for the few who saw him then. 

But in the final analysis, he – a member of the herd that had caused so much of devastation and cost so many human lives — has survived. He is still alive – and somehow, to me, that matters.

Maybe the answer is a combination of solutions. Prior to the court ruling mandating the capture of the Alur elephants, a task force had come up with a forest management plan that broke it down into three regions, each with its own approaches: The forest region, where elephants should be allowed to roam free, the human regions, where elephants are deemed trespassers, and the in-between buffer regions, where man and elephant over time have to live side by side, sharing resources. The plan, while sensible, requires investment – for which the government and others need to step in.

Elsewhere, as we evolve as a society, we need to wean temples and tourist sites away from the practice of keeping domesticated elephants. Once the sources of demand are cut off, the supply chain (a lot of which is illegal today) will be snapped. And this means awareness, and mounting public pressure on courts and governments, none of which is likely to happen overnight.

This concludes my reporting on the Hassan conflict and the capture of the elephants. I’ll now move the lens away from Karnataka, and look at other parts of India where elephants and humans have more benevolent relationships, and report on the reasons. I’ll also be reporting from Kerala, where the various issues with temple elephants will be in focus. Thank you for coming along on the journey, and for the profuse feedback to the stories thus far.

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.