The southern state of Kerala is home to the largest captive elephant population in India. But many question the way the animals are treated. The BBC's Soutik Biswas reports.
The elephants are paraded during festivals
(Photo: Kiran Janayugam)
"Where in the world is the elephant worst treated? The honest and straight answer is Kerala," says one of the state's best-known writers, Paul Zacharia.
Mr Zacharia is alluding to the plight of the state's 700 captive elephants, the largest "domesticated" elephant population in India.
These elephants are owned by some 250 people and a number of temples. They are mainly rented out during the more than 10,000 festivals every year for parades and processions.
The state's most venerated Hindu temple, Guruvayur, alone owns 66 captive elephants, aged from 14 to 70. They live on seven acres of land outside the temple, and are looked after by some 200 keepers or mahouts.
The elephants are also hired by political parties for campaign processions, and by companies for promoting their goods in trade fairs. At one temple festival, the animals are made to run a ritual one kilometre race every year.
Renting out elephants is big business in a society where owning the animal is a feudal status symbol - last year, one elephant fetched the Guruvayur temple nearly $5,000 for a single day's appearance at a festival in Palakkad district.
The animals have to endure long and noisy parades where fire crackers are set off, they must stand close to flames, travel long distances in ramshackle open vehicles and walk on tarred roads in the scorching sun for hours.
They also have to endure drunk, often brutal mahouts. One survey found that half of the keepers had a drinking problem.
The upshot is a unusual and rising man-animal conflict in crowded cities and towns where the elephants go to work.
"Not a day passes without the news of an elephant meeting its death in an accident or getting grievously injured or killing the mahout in sheer desperation or running amok because it simply has had enough," says Mr Zacharia.
Elephants have gone on the run at temple festivals and killed devotees in recent years.
Wildlife authorities say 18 people, mainly mahouts, have been killed by captive elephants in the past five years - 12 of them in the past two years alone.
'Not enough rest'
Kerala's Elephant Lovers' Association, a group which has been campaigning to have "performances" by captive elephants banned, says officials are under-reporting the problem.
According to figures compiled by the group from media reports and wildlife authorities, captive elephants have killed 212 people - the majority of them mahouts - in the past 12 years in Kerala.
The group also reckons more than 1,000 elephants have died "due to torture" during the same period.
There is no way to confirm these high numbers - inquiries with the wildlife department met with no response. Experts believe the truth is somewhere in between.
But all of them - apart from the elephant owners - agree that Kerala's captive elephants are the most overworked in the country.
"Some of the elephants are paraded at three or four places during the day for 12 or more hours. A lot of these festivals happen at night. The animals don't get enough rest, and misbehave mainly because of overwork," says senior wildlife officer KP Ouseph.
Wildlife authorities have warned that "fatal mishaps in public places at an alarming [rate have] become a threat to public life".
Two years ago, the Kerala high court acknowledged the need to enforce rules and regulations in the context of the "increased number of incidents of violence by and to elephants" in the state.
They include avoiding bursting crackers close to the animals, transporting them in covered vehicles and keeping them at a distance from the crowds of devotees.
But most experts say that these regulations are flouted with impunity.
Elephant owners like P Sashikumar say that the allegations about the overwork and torture of elephants are "vastly exaggerated".
Mr Sashikumar, who is a member of a group of 230 owners which lobbies the government to make the trade in elephants easier, says they keep and rent out their animals not for money, "but for love".
"Who says renting out elephants is a profitable business? You hardly recover your costs of maintaining an animal.
"It's more of a matter of prestige for us and a family tradition," he says, while readying one of his elephants for a temple festival.
The caparisoned elephants may be the flavour of Kerala's festival season - it runs from December to April - but their treatment is leaving the wildlife authorities and lovers deeply worried.
"Kerala has a reputation of being an elephant-loving society. Its a big lie," says Mr Zacharia.