Twelve-year-old female elephant Prerona might soon be returning home to Assam, if all goes well, and as announced by the Tamil Nadu forest department. In a first, the southern state has decided to send back a captive jumbo to her native state after the lease period of the elephant expired in April 2017. Known by the name Deivanai in Tamil Nadu, the elephant attracted attention for killing her mahout in May this year. She is also believed to have attacked other caretakers since she was brought to the state in 2014.
Replying to an RTI query filed by animal rights activist Antony Clement Rubin on June 9, 2020, the Madurai forest division stated that Deivanai was shifted in June from the Sri Subramania Swamy temple in Madurai to the Elephant Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (ERRC) at MR Palayam, Trichy because of her “bad temper under captivity”. Sources told News 18 that seven elephants have been brought to Tamil Nadu on lease, and among the seven female elephants currently housed at the state-run ERRC facility, Jayanthi and Deivanai hail from Assam.
“I hope this stops the trade and ends the illegal capture of elephants,” said 35-year-old Rubin while welcoming the decision by Tamil Nadu government.
Meanwhile, the Chief Wildlife Warden and Additional PCCF in Assam, MK Yadav said the process of shifting the elephant can be initiated only when “relevant documents” are sent by Tamil Nadu requesting for its transport.
“As of now, the Tamil Nadu forest department has not got in touch with us. I have heard about it, but the Chief Wildlife Warden is yet to write to us. For all such cases, one state needs to get clearance from the other state,” explained Yadav.
Prerona was born in Assam on May 3, 2008 and was given on lease to Tamil Nadu for three years by one Lila Bora of Golaghat district, a ‘middleman’ said to be involved in the illegal elephant trade since many years. The young elephant was to be used in festivals and the RTI query admitted that “her ownership certificate was issued by the Assam government and that the Tamil Nadu Forest Department had issued a certificate of permission to possess the elephant”.
Deepak Nambiar, founder of the Elephas Maximus Indicus Trust (EMIT) who has worked extensively on Deivanai’s case said she has had a history of unpredictable behaviour. On May 24, S Kalidasan, a 32-year-old mahout working on a contractual basis for the temple authorities was trampled to death by Deivanai (Prerona) when he was trying to bathe her. Kalidasan left behind his wife and a four-year-old son. According to reports, the elephant attacked another caretaker on July 17 after she was shifted to the ERRC besides injuring two other mahouts as she changed hands.
“She had attacked Kalidasan thrice before. While he was bathing her that day, she hit him on the chest. Deivanai is otherwise a healthy and sane elephant, but some elephants do not like certain men coming closer to them. They are not comfortable with the energy generated, and in the same way, some male elephants do not like their female partners to be touched by anybody else,” said Nambiar, who was also critical of the functioning of various District Captive Elephants Monitoring Committees in the state.
“Since 2016, the Tamil Nadu Captive Elephants Committee members have visited the captive elephants only twice till December 2019. There must be at least 22 elephants from Assam here,” he added.
Expressing concern on the dwindling population of Asian elephants, Honorary Wildlife Warden Kaushik Baruah said that all elephants that were transported from Assam for non-conservation purposes should return to the state after completion of the lease period.
“The situation in Tamil Nadu is, however, slightly better than in Kerala. Most of the temple elephants in Tamil Nadu are females unlike Kerala where the preference is for tuskers,” added Baruah.
Earlier in November 2019, an RTI query by Rubin revealed that a 33-year old female elephant from Assam called Joymala alias Jeyalayatha was brought to Tamil Nadu on a temporary lease around 2008 and illegally held captive at a temple in Srivilliputhur without any valid documents. Joymala has since never been sent back. Her owner was traced as one Girin Moran of Assam’s Tinsukia district.
In response to the same RTI, it also came to light that Assam has the highest number of captive elephants, of which some are with the forest department, while the rest are in private custody. Of the 2,675 captive elephants across the country, as many as 905 are in Assam -- 335 elephants are in possession of private individuals in the state who either have no ownership certificate or their documents are under process. Reports also stated that 61 elephants leased to other States by the Assam government since 2008 have not been traced.