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Letter to Prime Minister Modi calling for an end to the torture of India’s temple elephants – Apr 2018

Letter to Prime Minister Modi calling for an end to the torture of India’s temple elephants – Apr 2018

In April 2018 we held a protest at the Indian High Commission to highlight the plight of India’s temple elephants. The event attracted much attention and was covered by The Independent in a major exposé on the issue and our campaign, as well as by Indian and Keralan media:

British campaigners call on Indian PM Modi to end torture of captive elephants The Independent

Chained, beaten, whipped and exploited like slaves: The hidden horrors meted out to India’s temple elephants The Independent

There was a quick response in two articles in The New Indian Express defending the treatment of the elephants and voicing worries that the protests might affect Kerala’s tourist industry – UK protest against elephant torture may affect tourism prospects in Kerala and Kerala Tourism Department to silence detractors with movies on elephant care and festivals.


18 April 2018

Dear Prime Minister Modi,

We write to you today to seek your help in putting an end to the unlawful violence and cruelty practised towards India’s temple elephants. As you may know, Indian NGOs and conservationists have been pursuing this cause in many campaigns and petitions to the courts, and our aim with this letter is to add voices of international support for their work and to strengthen the call for change.

Asian elephants are an endangered species, listed on CITES Appendix 1, which calls for countries with wild elephant populations to do all they can to protect them and ensure their survival. But, although the practice is illegal, elephants continue to be taken from the wild for use in temples, and once they are captive they are subjected to the worst forms of abuse and deprivation for their entire lives. Although elephants have been revered in India’s culture and religion for millennia, today these last giants of the Earth are treated as no more than commodities, to be used and exploited for financial gain until they wear out. They live in the worst imaginable conditions, chained on the spot and unable to move or lie down, and suffer illness, mutilation and disease without mercy or respite (and are given no veterinary care or relief from pain). The elephants’ owners, the temple boards, corrupt officials and criminal rackets all have a stake in the lucrative elephant business. Yet nothing can explain or justify the severity of the cruelty inflicted on them.

‘Where in the world is the elephant worst treated? The honest and straight answer is Kerala,’ said Kerala-born author Paul Zacharia in 2010 – and Kerala still bears this damning reputation. With over 420 captive elephants, the most of any state, Kerala is ground zero for elephant torture. The word ‘torture’ is not used lightly: methods used by mahouts include beating the shackled animal over and over; inflicting pain with bull-hooks, whips, sticks, fire and other instruments of torture; maiming the animals, including blinding them and tearing their ears, tails and other body parts; starving the elephants and depriving them of basic needs; forcing them to endure excruciating pain when being paraded, and many more abuses. The male elephants in particular are subjected to the most ferocious and violent beatings during Ketti Azhikkal, when drunken mahouts beat the chained elephant for 48 to 72 hours straight. Male elephants are forced to undergo this every year when they emerge from musth.

All of these practices are forbidden by law. India has two excellent laws for animals, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960 (which forbids ‘Beating, Kicking, Over-riding, Over-driving, Over-loading, Torturing, Causing unnecessary pain or suffering to any animals’) and the Wildlife Protection Act 1972. Additionally, Kerala and Tamil Nadu have Captive Elephant Management Rules, and there are multiple government orders, notifications, and court orders that grant relief to the elephants. These are among the best animal welfare laws in the world, but lack enforcement.

Prime Minister, if these existing laws were to be enforced by government, police and the courts, the brutal practices would come to an end. That is the most critical first step. An overhaul of the existing mahout training programme would ensure that mahouts are trained only in methods of positive reinforcement, a chain-free environment, and other humane reforms. Re-education and retraining for mahouts would bring with it opportunities for advancement in new ways of managing elephants. Some mahouts themselves have expressed unhappiness with the current methods of cruelty, and would welcome change wholeheartedly.

While we urge you to consider immediate measures to enforce the laws and stop the cruel abuse of these elephants, the end goal is to see the use of elephants in temples phased out altogether. In this day and age, when we have gained so much knowledge about the intelligence, emotional capacity, and social bonds of these majestic creatures, and when we know how endangered they are, we believe that all countries have a duty to protect them, treat them humanely, and give them sanctuary.
Two temples in Kerala have shown the way forward and banned the use of elephants in rituals, saying they would use wooden Jeevathas instead to carry the idols. Hopefully their example will be followed by other temples.

It is notable that in making its decision to ban the use of elephants, the devaswom of Nalpathenneeswaram Sree Mahadeva temple cited reasons of public safety – an acknowledgement of the rise in human fatalities caused by the use of elephants in public places. Hundreds of mahouts have been killed or injured by temple elephants who have run amok. Wildlife authorities have warned that fatal accidents of this kind are increasing and have become a growing threat to public life.

Elephant deaths are sharply on the rise too. In Kerala alone, 57 elephants have died in just 26 months, and the rate has escalated this year: as of end-March, 11 elephants have died. The cause of death of many of these elephants was found to be blocked intestines, caused by the unsuitable diet they are fed, and they would have been in extreme pain for weeks or months before they died. They suffer from many other illnesses, due to the lack of proper care, their chained immobility, and the constant beatings inflicted on them. For each unnatural death, a government enquiry should be held by law, but not a single arrest or punishment of the owner has ever happened. Proper ownership documents, required by law, are rare for Kerala’s elephants. Owners and mahouts flout the rules and protocols with impunity – and with elephant deaths rising, it seems that the treatment of them is only getting worse.

Finally, but crucially for India’s future, how will the abuse of temple and other captive elephants impact on tourism? India has one of the world’s fastest growing tourism sectors, with a projected annual growth rate of 6.8% over the next decade to reach 10% of GDP by 2027. No other country can match the richness of culture and diversity of experience that India has to offer, and this will increase greatly as ecotourism and rural tourism continue to be developed. The trends are clear: more and more, visitors seeking wildlife experiences are making ethical choices and rejecting those that cause suffering to the animals. Visitors want to see elephants in a natural setting, where the animals can roam freely and are treated humanely, rather than ride on their backs or watch them perform under duress. In Thailand we are seeing pioneering changes in this direction, with former elephant trekking camps successfully converting to a saddle-free, chain-free model of tourism – hooks, saddles and shackles are being consigned to history forever.

In this wide sweep of change, India is positioned to take a global lead in ethical wildlife tourism. This is the time to overhaul the whole system of using live elephants in temples and to build a new, secure, and humane future for all of India’s captive elephants. From small camps where elephants can roam freely, to safari explorations of India’s rich natural world and species, new models of ethical elephant tourism are the way of the future. But as long as the current system of cruelty is allowed to continue, the more it will negatively impact India’s tourism and tarnish India’s reputation and image in the world. Indian citizens from all walks of life, from conservationists to spiritual leaders to Bollywood stars, are calling for change, as are more and more voices in the international community.

We now appeal to you directly, Prime Minister, in the hope that you will judge this matter with wisdom and compassion, and will see it not only as a terrible injustice and evil that needs correcting, but as an affront to your great nation and the international respect and admiration it merits.


Maria Mossman
Action for Elephants UK

And the undersigned

Erika Abrams
President, Animal Aid Unlimited

Amala Akkineni
Actress, Animal Welfare Activist
Nari Shakti Puraskar Award recipient

Jane Alexandra and Louise Ravula
Co-Founders, Two Million Tusks UK

Rosemary Alles
Co-founder, Global March for Elephants and Rhinos (GMFER)

Director of Sales and Marketing, Namaste Tour Pvt Ltd

Virginia Bell
President, Catholics for Animals

Akeeramon Kalidas Bhattathirippad
Hindu Tantric Scholar & Priest

Scott Blais
Co-founder, Global Sanctuary for Elephants

Karen Botha
CEO, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

Carol Buckley
Founder, Elephant Aid International

Nicky Campbell
Radio/TV presenter and journalist

Jilly Cooper

Jan Creamer
President, Animal Defenders International

Brian da Cal
Country Director, Four Paws UK

Lakshmi Devi
Executive Director, Abhaya, Thiruvananthapuram

Rob Faber
President, Friends of the Elephants – Vrienden van de Olifant

Toni Frohoff, Ph.D.
Elephant Scientist, In Defense of Animals

Ruth Ganesh
Trustee and former CEO, Elephant Family

Suparna Ganguly
Founder & Trustee, Compassion Unlimited Plus (CUPA)
Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center (WRRC)

Nari Shakti Puraskar Award recipient

Jane Goodall, PhD, DBE
Founder – the Jane Goodall Institute & UN Messenger of Peace

Ranjini Haridas
Trustee, Humanity for Animals Cochin, Kerala

Advocate Hariraj M.R.
Trustee, Voice for Asian Elephants Trust, Kochi, Kerala

Heike Henderson-Altenstein
Co-founder, Future for Elephants e.V.

Chitra Iyer
Founder-Trustee, SEW (Society for Elephant Welfare), Kerala

Sangita Iyer
Founding Executive Director of Voice for Asian Elephants Society,

Nari Shakti Puraskar Award recipient

Stanley Johnson
Author and Co-Chairman, Environmentalists for Europe
Board Member, Save The Asian Elephants

Brigitte Uttar Kornetzky
Ambassador for Captive Elephants, FIAPO, India
President and Founder Elefanten in Not/Elephants in Need-Charity
Director, ‘Where the Elephant Sleeps’

Dilip D. Khatau
Chairman, The Corbett Foundation

Alan Knight OBE
Chief Executive, International Animal Rescue

Laurene K. Knowles
Founder, President Elemotion Foundation

Dr. Nanditha Krishna
Writer, environmentalist and historian; author, ‘Sacred Animals of India’

Dr. S. Chinny Krishna
Former Vice Chairman, Animal Welfare Board of India

Janani Krishnamurthy
Hon. Animal Welfare Officer
Co-Founder Kodaikanal Society for Protection and Care for Animals (KSPCA)
Member of Palani Hills Conservation Council

Rajeev N Kurup
Honorary Animal Welfare Officer/Secretary SEW, Kerala.

Joanna Lumley

Dr. A.K. Malhotra
Founder and Trustee, SAI (Save Animals Initiative) Sanctuary Trust

Ravi Manian (Elephant Advocate)
IT Business Analyst, 20th Century Fox, Australia

Niall McCann and Mark Hiley
Co-founders, National Park Rescue, Zimbabwe

Virginia McKenna
Founder, Born Free Foundation

Duncan McNair
CEO, Save The Asian Elephants (STAE)

Varda Mehrotra
Director, Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO)

Timeri N Murari
Writer, playwright, filmmaker and animal activist

Ganesh Nayak
Founder & Chairman, Animals Matter To Me (AMTM)

Edward Norton
Filmmaker and UN Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity

Michael Palin CBE FRGS

Martin Polden, OBE
Co-vice president, Environmental Law Foundation

Ian Redmond OBE
Independent Wildlife Biologist; co-founder of Elefriends campaign (1989); Ambassador
for the UNEP Convention on Migratory Species

Dan Richardson
Actor and conservationist

Jill Robinson MBE
Founder, Animals Asia

Ridhi Sahni
Program Analyst, United Nations Women

Dr. Nandita Shah
Founder, Director & Trustee, SHARAN
Nari Shakti Puraskar Award recipient

Nitin, Arun and Milan Shah
Co-founders, Pepe Jeans

William Shatner

Talvin Singh, OBE
Music Composer

Sadhwi Sondhi
President, Red Paws Rescue

Smt. Sugathakumari
Poet, author & environmentalist
Padma Shree Award recipient

Anneka Svenska
Wildlife presenter and conservationist

Yvette Taylor
Executive Director, Lawrence Anthony Earth Organization

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta
Journalist, author, publisher and film-maker based in India

Will Travers OBE
President, Born Free Foundation

Sir William Mark Tully KBE
Journalist, Former Bureau Chief of the BBC, New Delhi

Mrs. Janki Vasant
Founder, Samvedana

V.K. Venkitachalam
Secretary, Heritage Animal Task Force

Eileen Weintraub
Founding Director, Help Animals India

Belinda Wright, OBE
Executive Director, Wildlife Protection Society of India

UK Members of Parliament

Sir David Amess (Con)
Southend West

Clive Betts (Lab(
Sheffield South East

Roberta Blackman-Woods (Lab)
City of Durham

Alan Brown (SNP)
Kilmarnock and Loudoun

Nick Brown (Lab)
Newcastle upon Tyne East

Lisa Cameron I(SNP)
East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow

Alistair Carmichael (LibDem)
Orkney and Shetland

Sarah Champion (Lab)

Vernon Coaker (Lab)

Anneliese Dodds (Lab Co-op)
Oxford East

Jim Fitzpatrick (Lab)
Poplar and Limehouse

Zac Goldsmith (con)
Richmond Park and Kingston North

David Hanson (Lab)

Sue Hayman (Lab)

Kelvin Hopkins (Ind)
Luton North

Sandy Martin (Lab)

Kerry McCarthy (Lab)
Bristol East

Grahame Morris (Lab)

John Penrose (Con)

Tommy Sheppard (SNP)
Edinburgh East

Chris Williamson (Lab)
Derby North

UK House of Lords

Lord Desai

Lord Navnit Dholakia PC, OBE, DL

Baroness Jones of Moulescoomb

Lord Judd

Baroness Lister of Burtersett

The Rt Revd Dr Alan Smith
Bishop of St Albans

Lord Stoddart of Swindon