Campaigners for elephant welfare are lobbying the Indian prime minister during his trip to Britain as they expose “arguably the worst case of animal cruelty in the world”.
Activists say elephants rented out by religious temples for regular festivals are exploited “like slaves” and subjected to “horrific torture” that includes being beaten, whipped, shackled with chains and malnourished.
Backed by a host of celebrities, MPs and peers, activists today staged a protest outside the country’s high commission in London, and have written to prime minister Narendra Modi to plead with him to change the systems allowing the cruelty to continue unchecked.
Mr Modi, who is visiting Britain for the Commonwealth leaders’ meeting, received a letter saying the state of Kerala – which has a higher number of the captive elephants than any other state – is “ground zero for elephant torture”.
Signed by celebrities including primatologist Jane Goodall, actress Joanna Lumley and former MEP and environmentalist Stanley Johnson, the letter said: “The word ‘torture’ is not used lightly: methods used by mahouts include beating the shackled animal over and over; inflicting pain with bullhooks, whips, sticks, fire and other instruments of torture.”
It warned the abuse of captive elephants would hit India’s thriving tourism industry as more visitors made ethical choices.
The lobbyists claim that corruption and a system of insurance payouts means owners have big financial incentives to let the endangered animals suffer and die.
For festival days the elephants are painted and given colourful headdresses to be paraded in front of vast, noisy crowds, often with fireworks going off.
But photographs show that behind the scenes, temple elephants are tied to the spot by ropes or chains that eat into their skin and cause raw, bleeding wounds to the flesh of their legs.
During “training” or while being decorated they are hit with metal rods or bullhooks – sharp tools – and forced by fear of punishment to hold their heads high.
Most have been taken from their families in the wild, shackled to prevent them running free and beaten “to break their spirits” and make them afraid of people.
Fifty-eight festival elephants have died in the state in two years – and deaths are on the rise.
Vets say the biggest cause of death is the poor diet they are given, which causes dehydration and blocks their intestines.
When the six-month festival season begins in December, the elephants are forced to walk for miles in searing heat on hot tar roads, and some are carted from one festival to another – in some cases hundreds of miles.
The southern coastal state of Kerala has about 500 festival elephants out of some 3,500-4,000 across India. Action for Elephants UK condemns the state, and has branded their illegal treatment “arguably the worst case of animal cruelty in the world”.
Protesters outside the high commission claimed the “barbarity” was “India’s shame” and received hoots of support from passing drivers.
Maria Mossman, founder of Action for Elephants UK, said: “We hope this protest will help to push forward public awareness of India’s forgotten, abused elephants and will rally efforts to pressure the Indian government to stop the cruelty, as the first step in ending the use of elephants in temples.
“We hope tourists and visitors to India will make ethical choices and will shun all forms of elephant tourism that use elephants in any unnatural way, whether in festivals or for trekking or rides or any other purpose.
“Tourism is very important to India, and visitors can influence government policy through their spending and buying choices. They can also boycott travel agencies that promote unethical elephant tourism.
“The suffering that temple elephants endure is unimaginable.
“India has very good laws in place but all of these are ignored daily, and the abusers go unpunished.
“Not only are elephants intelligent and sentient beings, they are an endangered species. It is the duty not only of India to enforce the laws to protect them, but of the world to hear their cries of suffering and respond to end the brutality against them.
“By not doing so we are failing these magnificent creatures. India, we implore you to enforce your laws and bring an end to the terrible crimes against captive elephants.”
The Independent has contacted the Indian government for comment but has not yet received a response.