UPDATE: The Betrayal of India’s Elephants

UPDATE: The Betrayal of India’s Elephants

For 50 years India has had legislation in place to protect elephants from commercial exploitation in the form of a ban on trading and transporting elephants. That protection ended with a devastating vote by the Indian Parliament, which recently amended the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act with the Wildlife Protection Bill, allowing elephants to be “transported or traded for religious or any purpose.”

A betrayal of advocates

In India, activists who have dedicated much of their lives to ending the brutal treatment of Asian elephants were heartbroken by this news. In Defense of Animals has been fighting along with them to call attention to the plight of these endangered animals. This law passed despite elephants being given the highest protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Our alert was signed by thousands of In Defense of Animals supporters to urge the Indian Parliament to stop this bill from proceeding. But on December 8, 2022, all hopes were dashed and all concerns for the protection of elephants were dismissed.

Betrayal of a sacred tradition

Elephants are revered as India's national heritage animals. Since 300 B.C. killing a sacred elephant has been declared an odious crime. Where is this reverence when captive elephants are shackled so mahouts can inflict deep gashes on their legs with machetes, when boiling water is poured into their mouths, when they are beaten with bullhooks, forced to stand for hours on hot tarred streets, and subjected to the deafening roar of thousands of boisterous parade goers and the exploding fireworks that they set off that can blind and kill the elephants? Reverence for elephants has taken a back seat to the demand of brokers, religious temples, and private “owners” who put pressure on Parliament to protect their selfish desires to grow their elephant populations at the expense of the elephants themselves. This bill opens the door wide open for the capture of wild elephants to be used as indentured servants for life.

Not only that, but beaten and traumatized elephants rampage, causing injury and death. Keeping and parading elephants is touted as culturally critical, especially in the southern state of Kerala. But it's also financially profitable. Temple elephants are rented out for Rs 7 lakhs ($10,500) a day so the rupees start to quickly stack up. Ganesha, the elephant-headed god is one of the most loved and feared gods throughout India. It's believed that Ganesha's penchant is to place obstacles in the paths of those who need to be checked, so it’s too bad that those who are exploiting them for religious reasons don’t seem to notice the contradiction.

A path forward to protect India's treasured heritage

One temple has taken a step to protect India's sacred elephants. Nalapathenneeswaram Sree Mahadeva Temple in Cherthala has introduced life-like robotic elephants to take the place of live elephants in temple parades. This is a vital move towards progress for the nation's brutalized elephants. Let's hope more temples side-step Parliament's unfortunate decision to weaken protections for elephants, by also adopting this bold, innovative and humane action. And more robotic elephants are on their way!

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