Manu | Photo: Special Arrangement
The image of a 7-year-old injured elephant, Manu, kneeling on his rear legs, unable to stand, but still shackled in cruelly short chains at the Kottur Elephant Rehabilitation Center (KERC) in Kerala, is causing a global outcry. According to some of the social media posts, the baby elephant was brutalized by his handler (aka mahout), whereas the forest authorities claim, they’d been informed that Manu was struck by a flash of lightning. An investigation has been launched to determine the exact cause of his injuries, with a team of veterinarians mobilized to assess his condition and provide medical care to Manu.
In 2019, I remember feeling utterly devastated, watching the ruthless beating of Raja, a defenseless juvenile elephant. I immediately filed a complaint, and the Chief Wildlife Warden took urgent steps, asking the Trivandrum Wildlife Warden to visit the center the same day, and reprimanding the mahout. My team, including a footcare specialist, was assessing the elephants, in our efforts to provide positive reinforcement training for the handlers, and enrichment programs for the elephants at this camp.
It was during one of my earlier visits to KERC that I first met little Manu. He was a vulnerable orphan just few months old when he was abandoned by his herd. This traumatized elephant was rescued by the Kerala Forest Department and brought to the KERC. Under the loving care of a mahout named Ravi, a tribal man, Manu, and his friends Maya, Arjun and Poorna were allowed to roam freely in an open enclosure. Watching them play with each other was one of the few fond memories. But after Manu turned four years of age, he was handed over to another mahout, adding yet another layer to the trauma, only this time, after being separated from his human parent.
Manu’s plight has reignited the controversy surrounding neglect and brutality inflicted on Kerala’s captive elephants, and indeed the broader topic of captivity. In my observations, the handlers either don’t know how to express love, compassion or empathy towards one of the most empathetic animals, or they simply couldn’t be bothered. Gone are the days of mahoutry that used to be considered a respectful job, a tradition passed down from previous generations.
According to a study published on the popular Taylor-Francis research portal, ‘Family Traditions for Mahouts of Asian Elephants’, human-elephant relationship possibly began as far back as 5,000 years ago. “The lifelong job of mahouts historically had a long apprenticeship, and was passed from father to son… The semi-captivity of, and traditional, structured work activities with, Asian elephants may afford some possible improvements for their welfare and human—elephant conflicts.”
However, it’s an altogether different story today. Many mahouts (handlers) are inexperienced and treat these animals as cash cow, with caring for elephants as a job that earns a living. Other young mahouts take up the job to show off their machoistic power. In their drive to transport elephants between as many festivals as possible, so they can make more money, the mahouts hardly make the time to nurture a loving relationship with these gentle giants. There’s no such thing as “bonding” with the elephant.
The treatment of elephants is based on control, with fear being the dominant factor, which ultimately manifests as cruelty. It’s a known fact that Kerala mahouts use negative reinforcement methods, involving corporal punishment, brutality, and vicious weapons such as bull hooks and long poles, adding more layers to the past traumas.
Doctor Jessica Bell Rizzolo has studied wildlife crime and transspecies psychology. She says, “Humans and elephants share parts of the brain that are susceptible to trauma, that role of attachment in shaping the right brain and those connections between the right prefrontal cortex and the limbic system. And what it means basically is, that individual’s ability to regulate stress and emotion is compromised. So, you see what’s either called hypo arousal or the inability to respond adequately, which could manifest as depression, or severe agoraphobia, fear of being with other members of your own species. Or on the other hand you get hyper arousal, which means you have this hyper vigilance.”
The latter behaviour is on display when wild elephants charge without any provocation, or when captive elephants flinch despite the absence of danger, perceiving everyone and everything as dangerous. Stereotyped behaviours are also caused by trauma. For instance, festival elephants forcefully shackled beneath the scorching sun, deprived of food, and water, are often found rocking back and forth repeatedly, or biting their own trunk, sometimes attacking handlers, or running amok out of sheer desperation. These poor elephants are then subjected to even more brutality for his/her “bad behaviour”. But few handlers realize that these are manifestations of their mental and emotional suffering, which hardly receives any attention. Even veterinary care doesn’t involve mental and emotional wellbeing.
According to Dr. Rizzolo, such behaviours are symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, caused by years of abuse. PTSD ruins the animal’s ability to think. If the trauma persists, it can hinder brain development, as seen in almost all captive elephants. She says, there are three deeper issues that cause PTSD, “first would be the depravation of agency. So, if that elephant is unable to make basic decisions about his or her life, who to mate with, when to have social interactions with another elephant, how long to stay with the mother, that could really impact the right brain development.”
The second issue is, elephants have absolutely no freedom to tend to their most basic needs – not even scratch themselves when they feel itchy, or drink water when they are thirsty, or eat when they are hungry. The severely tightened shackles and other restrictions make it difficult to even take a few steps at their tethering site, critical to balancing their massive bodies. In fact, every movement of Kerala’s captive elephants is controlled. A long pole stuck behind the ear enforces the so-called ‘freeze’ position. If the elephant moves too much, the pole will fall and he’ll be punished.
Dr. Rizzolo argues that elephants are autonomous by nature, and they should be allowed to control their own lives. “Elephants possess agency. Do they have freedom of movement, do they have social freedom, do they have the ability to make basic decisions about when to move or eat or mate. And that is impaired when they are in a state of persistent and unpredictable violence.” Violence is also intolerable, pushing most captive elephants to give up, and surrender to a life of mere existence. “The trauma is such that the sense of self is impaired. That elephant doesn’t even have a sense of themself in relation to themselves, and in relation to other elephants in their herd,” explains Dr. Rizzolo.
The third way the trauma manifests is, when their social structure is fragmented. Elephants are highly social animals. Just like humans, wild elephants have their own culture and society in which they thrive. When a baby is born, there’s trumpeting and celebration of the arrival of the new born, with aunts and sisters and nieces and nephews gathering around the baby, much like the birthday rituals and parties for human babies. Elephants mourn the loss of their loved ones, just as we grieve the death of our relatives and friends. Videos of Asian and African elephants touching and feeling the skeletal remains have been surfacing in recent years.
Meanwhile, have you ever wondered why ‘elephants never forget’? To begin, their brain size is three times as large as human brain, with a highly evolved cerebral cortex – a region devoted to communication, language, spatial memory, and cognition. “Given the temporal lobe's relative size in the elephant, there is every reason to suspect that elephants may be capable of far more complex cognition than is currently understood or documented,” according to a report published in SLATE.com
Further more, it has been suggested that elephants might have learning and memory skills superior to ours. Their brain contains as many cortical neurons as human brain and larger pyramidal neurons than that of humans, thought to play a key role in cognitive functions. On top of all this, spindle cells, believed to be involved in social awareness and the ability to make quick decisions was thought to exist only in humans, great apes, and four dolphin species. However, they’ve been discovered in elephant brains too.
Given all the scientific evidence surrounding elephant cognition and the impact of captivity on their behaviors and overall welfare, Dr. Rizzolo recommends a new approach that would afford elephants the freedom to govern themselves, so their culture and society can flourish. “Self determination recognizes that animals, other than humans need social structure to flourish and to be full beings. When we prevent elephants and other social animals from expressing their social needs, from touching other animals of their species, we are really depriving them of self-determination.”
But the deeper question is, ‘should elephants ever be held captive?’
In the meantime, as people around the world anxiously await answers to the causes related to Manu’s condition, there may be reason for optimism. According to media reports, the KERC is receiving a huge facelift. The enhanced facility will be spread over 176 hectares of forestland with open enclosures, ready to accommodate up to 50 elephants, including the current residents. They can socialize and bond with each other, chain free, and potentially heal in a semi-wild environment. The rehab center was supposed to open in early 2023, however, the exact date for the grand opening has yet to be revealed.