Today’s quest for knowledge about elephants living in captive environments in Asia took me to an ashram. Two elephants live here: a mature male and adolescent female. Both were gifts from devotees.
The massive ornate buildings, expansive outdoor theater, manicured lawns and extensive landscaping suggested that this organization was experiencing good fortune. I felt sure the elephants must be benefiting from the organization’s success as well.
I was told the organization owns 200 acres. On our drive to the location where the elephants were kept we saw how developed the property was. On this day there were hundreds of devotees on grounds. The gift shop was well stocked and crowded. The lakeside was being utilized by many people. The place was spotless with many well dressed staff members walking around grounds, obviously engaged in a variety of duties.
When we drove up to the stable area I saw a large tusker in full musth. He was double chained by one front and one back leg. A fresh pile of corn stocks lay at his front feet and, due to his musth condition, a dark viscous fluid drained down the sides of his face. He was rocking from side to side while activities unrelated to him were conducted around him.
The young female who was around eight years old was lying perfectly still in a concrete bathing pool while the Phandis scrubbed her entire body with a plastic bristle brush. After thoroughly scrubbing the young elephant on one side he commanded her to rise halfway and to lie down on her opposite side. She responded obediently.
There was so much activity going on and people walking around the area that I wondered how the tusker was dealing with it. A group of men were constructing a shade roof over a concrete pad for the young female. The Phandis did not allow her to dust herself, which was difficult as she was kept on dirt. When the shade structure was completed both elephants would be living and sleeping on concrete.
It made me really nervous when two people approached the tusker. His musth condition was obvious. The first person reached his hand out. When the tusker did not respond, the visitor walked away. The second person took two more steps closer. She was attempting to get the elephant to touch her, or more accurately “bless her.” Luckily one of the staff yelled for the devotee to move away from the elephant. It was pretty good timing as the elephant did turn and look at this woman, who was within his reach. Fortunately no one got hurt but the environment this musth male is being kept in is dangerous for visitors and unhealthy for him.
Just about this time a squeaky clean elephant emerged from the bathing pool and was prepared for her afternoon duties. Her Phandis painstakingly, and with quite an artistic flare, drew flowering vines across her forehead and ear flaps and down the side of her face. Not once did this young elephant attempt to touch the chalk design being drawn on her. She was behaved, but skittish. When she was escorted a few hundred yards away to be outfitted with a neck-bell and name plate, getting her to move past a small plastic canopy proved difficult. The staff explained that “this elephant is afraid of everything.”
To my complete surprise an audience with the center’s founder was granted. Unfortunately, trying to have a serious conversation about the condition of his elephants and improvements needed for their welfare was hampered.
The bejeweled, expertly painted and full of devilish energy elephant that I had observed at the bathing pool was groping the master as he feed her apples. This young elephant seems to know clearly that in the presence of the master she would not be reprimanded for being pushy. She took full advantage.
It is not that I feel she should be well behaved but her proximity to a group of onlookers and willingness to wrap her trunk completely around this rather frail looking man made me cringe. The display escalated to the point that the elephant was pulling the master into her chest to get her apples. Smiling ear to ear, he resembled a limp rag doll; I had to turn away.
Yes, I was concerned for the master who obviously had no idea the danger of his position, but I also felt really bad for the elephant. One day when she becomes too pushy she will pay the price, so many elephants in captivity do. I only hope her circumstances change before an accident happens, sparing her and the master.
So the good news is that we met and spoke for a short time with the master. The organization has the land and money to implement improvements so that the elephants can live off chains, have access to tens of acres of wooded area and pasture and are free to bathe at will in the large natural lake on grounds.
The idea is to reverse the current way the elephants are being utilized. Instead of the elephants going onto facility grounds to bless the devotees, improvements will include building a fabulous place that meets the elephants’ needs and discontinuing the practice of the elephants walking on grounds.
Instead of the elephant placing her trunk on the devotees’ head for a blessing, the devotees will receive a blessing of another kind. They will be witness to the improvements their support of the ashram has meant for these two elephants living in captivity.
The master stated that he did not like seeing the tusker in chains. He stated that if recommendations can be provided they will be implemented. This organization has the support and funding to do whatever they need for these elephants. Plans are being discussed with the hopes that implementation will occur quickly.