The Price of Celebrity

celebrity ele

Earlier this  year, I made a post about Asian elephants and issues concerning the quality of life they have in captivity.  Now, The New York Times Magazine has published a great article, entitled “The Hard Life of Celebrity Elephants.”

The author, Rollo Romig, is a freelance writer in India with first hand exposure to the popularity of elephants as temple and festival adornments.  While elephants in captivity can be seen throughout India, the State of Kerala hosts the preponderance of celebrations that employ elephants as part of the traditional rituals practiced.  I had a chance to observe this first hand at the Thirunakkara Festival in Kottayam in March 2012.  This particular festival lasts for ten days, featuring three elephants on the first day and climaxing with 20 festooned elephants on the final nights (photo above).

India has many laws protecting elephants and as the following passage from the articles points out, the number of elephants in captivity is slowly diminishing:

“The demand for elephants is skyrocketing just as the supply is plummeting. In 1982, India banned the capture of wild elephants except to protect the animal or its human neighbors, and it has been illegal to import captive elephants from other states since 2007. Despite their history in domestic situations, there’s no such thing as a domesticated elephant. Nearly every captive elephant in India was captured from the wild, and in Kerala, captive breeding is almost unheard-of, mostly because Keralites overwhelmingly prefer their elephants to be male (since they have tusks), which considerably shrinks their mating pool. When the Forest Department finished microchipping Kerala’s captive elephants in 2008, it said there were more than 700. Now the department estimates that there are fewer than 600, pressed into service at an ever-growing number of festivals.”

Certain elephants have fan clubs and followings but celebrity does not equate to quality living.  Life as an adorned festival performer is unnatural, as is being solitary and unable to roam freely.  One wonders what will happen should the number of existing temple/festival elephants dwindle substantially below the demand for them.  Let’s hope their role in festivals can be phased out so that the remaining wild elephants are not quietly drafted into service.