Elephants live out retirement in old-age home

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 May, 2008, 12:00am

In the temple courtyard, as Babu waits to be adorned with gold decorations and silver bells and have the Hindu deity hoisted onto his back, he suddenly relieves himself prodigiously. Children watching him giggle. Poor Babu, it has been a long day, standing in a truck travelling from a temple 80km away to come to a Cochin temple to perform. Babu is one of Kerala's 650 captive elephants who work in Hindu temples where their majestic presence is vital for the splendour of a ceremony.

Babu, 45, has been working for 36 years. Retirement is about five years away. His mahout (elephant keeper), Vinod Kumar, commands Babu, now that he is fully dressed with a pretty parasol on his back, to turn around and face the temple. 'He is a hard worker, patient and good-natured,' he says.

On retiring, Babu could find that his owner, who earns a living from hiring him out to temples, no longer wishes to pay for his hugely expensive upkeep - 400kg of fodder, the salaries of three mahouts and medical care. That's a total of HK$5,155 a month in a country where the average monthly salary is HK$760.

Like many temple elephants, he could be neglected, his old-age ailments left unattended, and put out to die, despite a lifetime of being a good hard worker. But now help is at hand if such a melancholy fate should befall loyal workers like Babu.

India's first old-age home for elephants opens next month inside a tranquil forest at Kottur, outside the Kerala state capital Trivandrum, where retired elephants can spend their twilight years in dignity.

There they will be fed, watered, bathed, massaged with large massive pumice stones and coconut husks to keep their blood circulation healthy, given Ayurvedic tonics to keep their bodies toned, and allowed to roam in 200 hectares of woods.

'We want them to enjoy their last years after being such good workers. They'll get special treats like big slabs of rice, jaggery and honey, and vets will be on hand,' V. S. Verghese, chief wildlife warden with the Kerala government, says.

Each of the about 30 elephants who will be taken in the first batch will have its own enclosure as well as the run of the woodlands.

Mr Verghese describes the home as 'like a wildlife sanctuary', with plenty of trees, reeds and bamboo where the elephants can forage. The surrounding countryside is made up of mostly rubber plantations and eucalyptus forests.

The home will also be open - for a small fee to owners - for elephants who are still working but could do with a month's holiday to rejuvenate themselves.

Elephants are an integral part of Kerala culture. The state has more than 650 captive tuskers, the highest number of any Indian state. No religious procession is complete without one or several elephants to provide glamour and solemnity.

In recent years, though, the mania for elephants has surged to new levels. Posters announcing the arrival of a particular elephant in town - as though they are rock stars - dot the streets of Cochin, a picturesque port city on the west coast of Kerala that has hundreds of temple elephants.

Some particularly charismatic tuskers have fan clubs. The pulchritude of pachyderms is judged in beauty contests. 'Now even churches and mosques have taken to parading elephants around. People are mad about elephants,' Jose Louies, senior programme officer with the Wildlife Trust of India, says.

A handful work in logging, but as cranes have taken over, the vast majority of elephants are used in temples. Their work is gruelling. During ceremonies, they often stand in the scorching heat for hours on end and walk long distances from one temple to another.

Physical exhaustion is accompanied by the mental strain caused by the massive and unruly crowds trying to touch them, not to mention the din of exploding crackers and fireworks.

'The mental and physical strain on them is horrific. They end up nervous wrecks,' Vivek Menon, executive director of the Wildlife Trust of India, says.

Last month, a stressed-out tusker at Koodalmanikyam Temple at Irinjalakkuda, maddened by the crowds and noise and incensed by someone trying to grab his tusk - the embodiment of his virility and honour - went berserk. He trampled and gored three worshippers to death.

Similar incidents happen every year, but that has not stopped anyone from craving an elephant as a symbol of social prestige. Mr Menon quotes a famous Kerala saying: 'If you have an enemy, give him an elephant' because it will bankrupt him.

Understandably, elephant owners are aristocrats. 'A man can have 10 Mercedes and no one cares, but if he has an elephant, people want to know who he is,' says Chenoy Balakrishnan, 58, a traditional elephant owner in Cochin who regards Chandrashekhar, 55, and Srinivasan, 42, as respected members of his family.

Mr Balakrishnan adores them. When the two elephants are not working and he is not taking care of his business - he hires out colourful elephant decorations to temples - he goes to visit them at a pretty clearing in a forest outside Cochin where they are kept.

The hour-long drive winds through Kerala's famously lush landscape - all swaying coconut palms, rubber plantations and pineapples. Here, surrounded by banana, papaya and jackfruit trees and red hibiscus, Chandrashekhar and Srinivasan munch palm fronds after having just frolicked in the river.

Mr Balakrishnan is not likely to send his 'boys' to the Kottur retirement home ('I wouldn't dream of sending my elderly father away, so why would I send them?') because he loves them as 'royal' creatures and can afford to maintain them even when they become too old to work. As a genuine elephant lover, Mr Balakrishnan has seen old traditions die out. In the old days, he says, even a mahout, out of respect for the nobility of his animal, would approach him only after formally asking his permission.

'These days, that reverence is missing. They are majestic creatures, but crowds are not even aware that they are insulting him when they touch his tusk. It's like pushing the turban off a man's head,' he says.

As an elephant adviser to the temples in Cochin, Mr Balakrishnan tells them to ensure that their animals work only an eight-hour day with breaks in between and avoid the searing midday sun. Some respect these guidelines; others do not.

Mr Menon says: 'Some owners are callous. They let their elephants die painful deaths, unwilling to spend money on them once they are too old or weak or ill to work. I know cases of elephants being fed urea [fertiliser] by their owners.'

The three deaths caused by an angry temple elephant have triggered a debate in Kerala over the wisdom of using the animals in temple festivals. The tradition is so old and deep-rooted that it is unlikely to disappear.

But when the old-age home opens, at least it will provide a safety valve for those who are fed up and grumpy with being overworked.

'We want to save them from the cruelties not just of old age but of their owners who show old elephants no gratitude for a lifetime's labour,' Mr Verghese says.