National

Elephant renting is now jumbo business

K. P. M. Basheer Kochi | Updated on July 24, 2013 Published on July 24, 2013

Mighty appetite: An array of elephants being fed before going for festival work. — K.K. Najeeb

In big demand during temple festivals, a tusker can fetch rents up to Rs 1.5 lakh/day



“I’ve an Elephant BA,” claims the illiterate but vainglorious elephant mahout, played brilliantly by the late Cochin Haneefa, in the Malayalam film  Narendran Makan Jayakaanthan Vaka.

The lazy mahout complains to his master that the elephant has gotten “bored” as its only job is to stay tethered to a tree in the front yard of the owner’s house.

But gone are the days when elephants and mahouts idled away their time serving as showpieces of the village landlord’s wealth and family prestige. Now, they are put to real hard work and forced to earn millions of rupees each year for the owner. There is no ‘Elephant BA’ course on offer yet and no educated person would join the dwindling ranks of mahouts, but elephant-renting business is flourishing as temples try to outdo each other’s festival by displaying an array of caparisoned elephants.

ELEPHANT ECONOMICS

“Keeping elephants and renting them out for ‘festival work’ is big-buck business now,” says Manoj Ayyappan of Muvattupuzha, who has been a mahout for a quarter century. “An average tusker of fine features can fetch a rent of between Rs 50,000 and Rs 80,000 a day.” But there are those with extra height, long trunk and large tusks that command up to Rs 1.5 lakh a day, Manoj notes.

“A good-quality tusker gets rented out for around 120 days a year,” points out M.A. Haridas, whose family firm M. A. Parameswaran & Co owns 14 elephants. “The rent can be as low as Rs 20,000 a day — it all depends on the season, the animal’s features, and the nature and hours of work.” His family has been into the business for three decades and his brother Parameswaran is now vice-president of the Kerala Elephant Owners’ Federation.

“Elephant-keeping is a high-risk, high-cost business,” said Haridas. “But since the demand is growing and the number of animals is falling after the ban on trading, it is profitable too.” About 90 per cent of his business comes from temple festivals; the rest from weddings, opening ceremonies of textile and jewellery shops, and from churches/mosques.

Until five years ago, the price of an average tusker was around Rs 25 lakh. Now it is around Rs 1 crore — of course, the sale and purchase are illegal as the elephant is now a heritage animal. The cost of feed — palm fond is the staple — can cost around Rs 600 a day. (While on hire for festival work, the temple committee takes care of the feed and picks up the mahout’s food bill). Each elephant has at least two mahouts. Most Keralites nurse Aanakkambam (craze for elephants). They flock to places where there are  aanachoorum chendayum (scent of elephants and beats of drums). Both are aplenty at temple festivals.

“‘More elephants and larger elephants than other temples’ — this seems to be the motto of each committee,” says the elephant rights activist and secretary of Heritage Animals Task Force, Thrissur. “Some temples display even 60-70 elephants, spending crores of rupees. This is despite the law restricting the number to three within the temple compound.”  

The beasts are made to stand hours on end carrying the image of the deity. “The heat, the heavy strain, people’s taunts and mahouts’ torture often make them turn violent,” Venkatachalam said.

So far this year, 10 persons, including five mahouts, were either trampled or gored to death. Twenty-three elephants too were reported dead, of various reasons.    

Each committee, in order to glorify its administrative tenure, wants the tallest and the best beasts. “Finding the ‘perfect’ beast for several temples at the same time is a tough task,” notes an elephant-rental broker who wants to remain anonymous. “This jacks up the rent and increases the owners’ greed.” There were a couple of ‘perfect’ tuskers that commanded Rs 1.5-2 lakh a single day.

Once the land of elephants, Kerala now has only around 500 captive elephants left — of these, 62 are under the Guruvayur temple’s care. The ban on trapping in jungle, tapering of timber logging and high rate of death caused the fall.

Until 2010, elephants had been bought from Bihar, Assam and UP, but the ban on sale and purchase has choked the supply.

C.K. George, State secretary of the Elephant Workers Union, notes that there are hardly 2000 mahouts now. The high risk, poor remuneration and bad social reputation scare youngsters away from this skilled job, though the union could ensure a minimum salary during the lean months, insurance cover, bonus and some skills training.

Torture by mahouts is a major concern of Elephant Lovers’ Clubs. Manoj Ayyappan, however, blames owners’ greed for the torture. “The daily travel from temple to temple on lorries, long hours of standing motionless and deprivation of sleep and feed turn the elephants violent. To control them, the mahouts are sometimes forced to use extreme punishment.”

Kerala’s folklore is rife with stories of deep bonding between elephants and their mahouts. But commercial pressure has loosened that bond.

basheer.kpm@thehindu.co.in

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Published on July 24, 2013
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