The Plight of Elephants

by Luke, in India
15th June, 2009

The last 72 hours of the trip were immense. To briefly recap, whilst the TV crew headed back to check the footage, I did another rumenotomy on a cow and removed a staggering 20kg of plastic/money/nails which is incredible. Then Nigel and I headed off to town to get some elephant food for the following day. This was the start of an epic journey and involved an incredibly sad start to the movement of a suspected TB infected elephant.

A few dazzling stats I’ve picked up recently; India’s human population apparently accounts for a third of the world’s TB cases, a quarter of Asian elephants are in captivity and India has over 3,500 of the poor animals mostly located in temples. There is a suspected high incidence of TB amongst the captive elephant population and this is a huge risk for the people that go to worship the elephants and who receive a blessing – particularly if you are immunosuppressed. This blessing comprises a hearty pat on the head from a probing trunk and heavy inhalation of elephant breath – thus the transmission of TB.

When temple elephants get old they aren’t as useful to the temples as they can’t keep up with the work. As they are sacred the temples are in a fix because they can’t get rid of them. If they have suspected TB they can’t be kept at the temples. The animal we were involved with had been moved to a horrible pen for five months and Nigel was championing its movement to a better enclosure. Our visit was the impetus to do this as it generated good PR for the forest department but it didn’t go quite to plan.

The elephant in question had apparently killed three people but the media circus and brutality of the mahouts was something else. The forest vet in charge of proceedings was beyond useless and it was incredibly upsetting. At one point they tried to stop us filming and we refused – I didn’t fancy their chances of trying to get the camera off Adam anyway and I think they knew it. By getting totally in the way I think we did curb a bit of the brutality and I had a very ineffectual altercation with one vicious mahout who was sent away shortly afterwards by the senior mahout but it was grim. They didn’t have a ramp to load her and once they had stabbed sharp metal hooks into her mouth and jabbed her ears repeatedly as well as beaten her endlessly for about three hours, they drafted in 2 male elephants to shove her onto the lorry. Thankfully she wasn’t hurt and she did go on but we were all speechless and felt so helpless to help her. Very sad.

The actual overnight journey went well – 300km or so and we unloaded her easily – she was good as gold. Very tired at the end of it though! Her new home looked lovely so at least there was a happy ending and she’ll be much better away from her previous captors that’s for sure.

To round off 48hours on 1 hours sleep, I treated a sick temple elephant that had some abscesses and a bad foot and then we started the drive back to Bangalore. Thankfully I managed the closing lines with only about ten takes (!) and then we set off. Tyre burst on the way back so the driver and I changed that while Marc had some crisps and then the headlights wouldn’t work which was borderline the most terrifying drive of my life.

We made it to the airport, all of us exhausted, 3am check in and then back. Amazing trip, great people and challenging cases – I hope the rest are like this.

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