The Mail Online report was written by a journalist/photographer, Liz Jones, who accompanied Duncan McNair, a London lawyer who founded the non-government organisation Save The Asian Elephants (STAE), on his trip to India. Duncan and Liz were also accompanied by Kalyan Varma, a wildlife photographer, filmmaker, naturalist and explorer specializing in environmental issues in India.
On 15th August, Liz Jone’s full fledged report on elephants mentioned some extreme and inhuman ways of how elephants are tortured in India.
After reading Liz’s report, Kalyan Varma wrote an open letter to Daily Mail and Liz Jones, accusing them of fabricating the entire story about the elephant torture in Kerala. According to him, the article is factually and chronologically wrong, misguided and misinformed, and lacking in basic journalistic ethics.
This is how his letter contradicted Liz’s report.
They seem like statues, or stuffed exhibits in a museum – 57 of them, studded around a patch of scrubby forest.
She seemed to have already made up her mind. Although she asked questions, she refused to accept the answers detailing what really happens here. The impression I had was that she had already constructed her story, and wanted evidence to back it up.
When I met Nandan and Devi (elephants), and the two prisoners at the camp in Karnataka, I looked them in the eye. I saw shock, and incomprehension at what they had done to deserve decades of torture. We had to release the 57 elephants in that temple, and close down the secretive ‘training’ camps: there are 12 in all.
She refers to “secret camps” — they are not secret at all, just regular camps for captured elephants. Such elephants, just translocated from the wild, are in a transitional phase and the intent is to disturb them as little as possible — therefore, such camps are not meant for the lay tourist. Therein lies the “secrecy” Jones makes so much of.
I have to see what happens to the elephants for myself. I travel with Duncan McNair to Karnataka, the adjoining state to Kerala. We drive deep into the forest. With us is a conservationist, who cannot be named for fear of reprisals. We stop at a gate with an ominous sign: ‘No members of the public allowed.’ I soon find out why.
The sign she refers to, that says ‘does not allow public into some of the camps’, is not indicative of some super-secret operation but, as mentioned above, merely to prevent tourists from wandering about and irritating the elephants. Moreover, most of the elephants in these camps wander free of restraint, and since mahouts do not accompany them at all times, it is unsafe for the lay tourist who happens to encounter one of them.
Children of the mahouts who live on site in huts start to throw rocks at him, and the giant, hobbled by chains, retreats, trembling.
Mahouts and their children have an amazing family bond with the elephants they look after. I have personally witnessed children, as young as five years old, walk up to a giant tusker and accompany it into the forest. Their “throwing stones” and the reaction of the elephant is an exaggeration — one of many in the piece.
The mahouts, tribal people who have been living and working with elephants for generations, gather around me. One has a video on his smartphone (they all have smartphones; the government pays their salaries). They howl with laughter as the video shows a wild elephant being captured by dozens of men – using elephants to corner it. This elephant is due here the next day. I go to see his fate, walking past elephants, all chained, many with only one eye (blinding is common).
Jones describes the mahouts watching a video one of them had shot on his smartphone. Again, that is not true — the video they were watching was this one, shot by me and part of my narrative series. The mahouts were part of that operation, along with several elephants from that camp. They were excited to see the video, since it featured them and their elephants — hence the delight, and not because they were reveling in scenes of torture.
Pajan means that, having been isolated, confined, starved, dehydrated and kept awake by noise, each morning and evening the elephant is beaten with poles, for up to an hour. For six months.
When she visited the camp, there was no torture, or even training, happening. The only thing she witnessed — I was there with her — was gentle handling of the elephants, where the mahouts were trying to get the elephants used to touch. They rubbed the elephant with a plastic bottle, then one of them sat on the elephant for a bit, and then they fed the elephants. This is what she saw, and this is all she saw — she did not see any elephant being beaten and starved, as she writes.
The training of elephants before that time used positive techniques. The mahouts loved their animals. Now it is very different. I have seen elephants tortured to death. They want to make the maximum money in the shortest time.
In fact, she was upset that she didn’t get to see the torture she had come in expectation of. At one point she asked me if I can “do anything” so she can get to see the torture — implying that she wanted torture-based training to happen so she could get an eyewitness report and photographs.
Liz’s Report (on the above photograph):
A baby elephant is beaten by a mahout using an ankush – a wooden stick with a steel hook foxed at one end – while he tries to eat his morning meal of rice grain, jaggery (unrefined sugar) and straw.
I checked with someone who was there when this photo was taken. The mahout tapped the elephant with the back of the stick to nudge it back, so that it would not eat up the food ahead of its meal time. The two mahouts you see in the photograph are making small balls of meal, to feed the waiting elephants.
According to Kalyan, the article is a sensationalized view of the fate of the captive elephants, with lots of “observations” cooked up in the writer’s imagination. He specifies that he cannot comment about the intention of the piece, but the primary responsibility of a good reporter, or even a concerned citizen or animal activist, is to tell the truth, plain and unvarnished.
You can, and should read the whole letter here.