Yesterday’s camp left me feeling conflicted. These elephants, denied a natural life, yet living within their home range country, seem to be the ultimate in contradictions.
Elephants represent so much in one being: wild animal, god, beast of burden and fellow earth resident. Coming to terms with the reality of their lives, the lives of all elephants in captivity worldwide, challenges me.
The Indian government has enacted laws to protect elephants against mistreatment. Regardless, elephants continue to be used for activities that can cause them physical injury. Their godly status does not protect them from servitude. The contradictions are so profound that I find it difficult to find peace with the realities of their existence.
The human population in this country has exploded. Politics and long-held traditional beliefs fuel the continuation of current elephant management. Long-held traditions could have serious implications for the life and future of one of this country’s most revered and endangered indigenous residents. The beauty of the land and animals stands in sharp contrast to the cruelty man is capable of.
Yesterday I chastised myself for not doing more when I observed a heavy-handed Phandis treating his elephant harshly. Remaining silent was not a possibility so I pointed out the cruelty to Dr. Sarma, asking if he could justify such treatment. He could not and immediately requested that the supervisor reprimand the Phandis. A problem existed: the Phandis was newly appointed by a high-ranking official. To criticize the Phandis would surely result in problems for the supervisor.
The cruelty ceased but, by being witness to it, I left the camp feeling in some way responsible. Dr. Sarma told me later that he spoke with the head warden to inform him of the Phandis’ actions and assured me action would be taken. So today I set out for our next health camp with a heavy heart. I could not get Phulmati’s resigned face out of my mind. Such a nurturing and good-natured elephant. Her plight haunted me.
Lost in thought, I was caught by surprise to see our first patient, Rupalim, grazing off the side of the highway. Young and beautiful, Rupalim is close to ten years old. She lost her mother when she was four and is the pride of her owner. After completing the road-side physical examination and inoculations, Phandis and Rupalim maneuvered across the busy highway and headed up the muddy hill toward home.
Many kilometers later we found Geeta, Manimala and Bijulee also waiting for us on the roadside, but in a rural area with little traffic. Fresh banana trees were piled in front of the girls, who munched contently. A small crowd of locals had already gathered. Once the veterinary team assembled their equipment and supplies, the crowd grew.
Initial visual examination by the vet team caused discussion in low whispers. I did not have to understand the language to get the gist that the vet team was concerned about something.
In my unofficial capacity as team photographer, I began taking photos of the overall condition of the elephants. I quickly saw what was causing the concern. Manimala had a significantly deep gash across her tail, which the Phandis claimed was caused by her rubbing on bamboo. I listened to the unbelievable claim and knew today was not the day to expect me to keep quiet in the face of injustice.
I zoomed my camera in close to get a photo of the gash across Manimala’s tail and found several other lesser cuts that crisscrossed down the length of her tail. The smaller ones were superficial and uniform, but proof that bamboo was not the cause of her injury. Dr. Sarma agreed as I pointed out my findings and I stated my opinion about the cause of the injury.
All attention was on Manimala who continued to tear apart the fibrous banana tree in long strips and place them in her mouth. She appeared unaware that the focus was on her. As I formulated how I would handle this delicate situation, because I definitely would not keep quiet, Dr. Sarma informed me that although the Phandis did not admit to causing the wound, he had been fired on the spot.
The breath I was holding expelled. I realized that Dr. Sarma was as angered as I about Manimala’s treatment. Without prompting he said, “Such a lovely and gentle elephant, how could anyone harm her?”
Cruelty to elephants is illegal in India. The Phandis could have been arrested and charged for the offense but not without firsthand evidence. The way to ensure that he could no longer hurt Manimala was to simply fire him. Unfortunately, nothing prevents him from getting another job caring for elephants.
Later, in the car we discussed the ignorant and cruel treatment by some of the Phandis. The entire team voiced sincere disdain for such treatment. A true solution for the problem of elephant cruelty is to elevate elephant management standards, educate the trainers working with elephants and enforce the law.
I may be half a world away from home but the problems and solutions for elephants in many captive situations are similar. Fixing the problem in one place can act as a prototype for solutions worldwide.
I slept better knowing that action was taken to protect Manimala. Hopefully the remaining Phandis learned that their jobs would also be in jeopardy if they treated their elephant in a cruel manner.
The two situations where I observed elephants being handled in a heavy-handed and cruel manner seems outside of the norm. By and large the forest elephants experience a high level of professional care and management. It seems that the elephants used for logging are the ones most often treated cruelly.