India During World War II

In 2010, India's wild elephant population was estimated to be about 26,000. In addition there are about 3,600 domesticated elephants. India’s wild elephant population is spread across 18 states but 85 percent are found in the northeast and the south. About half of India's wild elephants are found in Assam and the northeast. Assam alone is home to about 5,000 elephants. There are also large numbers of domesticated elephants there. They have traditionally been used to pull logs out of the forest and load them on trucks.

In the old days elephants were used in fighting battles and valued by maharajahs as symbols of their wealth and power. They were also used for transportation. On his visit to India, Mark Twain said, he “could easily learn to prefer an elephant to any other vehicle.” "The art of “abhyanga”, a musky rubdown of female elephants to increase their sexual attractiveness is still practiced.

India is home to a quarter to a third of Asia's elephants, which is amazing when you consider there are over 1 billion people in the country. Ganesh, the elephant headed son of omnipotent Siva, is the most called upon of all Hindu Gods. He is the one that takes care of the trials and tribulation of everyday life.←

The number of elephants in India dropped from around 100,000 in 1900 to 19,000 in 1989. The decrease was mainly the result of poaching and loss of habitat. Elephants were declared and endangered species in 1977 and their capture was banned in 1981. The number of elephants in India increased from 19,000 in 1989 to 25,000 in 1993.

Elephants rarely breed in captivity. Wild herds are the prime source of domesticated elephants. In India many come from the Mikir Hills in Assam.


Ganesh is the Hindu elephant-headed god of prosperity, wisdom, success, intelligence and good luck. Very popular, particularly in Bombay and southern and western India, he is known as the creator and remover of obstacles, bestower of happiness and the eliminator of sorrow. Hindus pray and make offerings to him before beginning a journey, buying a house, starting a performance or launching a business venture. Even other gods pay tribute to him before they engage in any kind of activity so he can remove obstacles.

Ganesh is the son of Shiva and Parvati. Believed to have evolved from a fertility god, he is often depicted with a huge pot belly, slightly dwarfish, sitting like a Buddha or riding on a five -headed cobra or a rat. He has two or four arms. In one hand he carries rice balls, or sweetmeats (he is fond of eating and especially loves sweets). In another he holds broken pieces of his tusks, with which it said he inscribed the Mahabharata as the sages dictated it to him. Sometimes his trunk rests in a bowl that he hold in one of his hands. Sometimes he carries a trident to indicate his link to Shiva. Other times he carries a noose or an elephant goad. Ganesh’s association with rats comes from the ability of rats to gnaw through anything and remove obstacles.

Ganesh is often the god that people pray for help with their everyday problems. National Geographic nature photographer Frans Lanting wrote that in India: “Statues of Ganesha re everywhere — on car dashboards and in homes. Because of their connections to Ganesh, some people even treat wild elephants that raid their crops with respect. Farmers have even prostrated themselves before a rouge elephant instead of running it off.”

Stories About Ganesh

20120501-Ganesh_mimarjanam.jpgThe are several stories explaining how Ganesh obtained his elephant head. According to one he attempted to block Shiva from entering a room where Parvati was bathing. Shiva was angered by this and chopped off Ganesh’s human head. After Parvati made a fuss, Shiva replaced the head with the head of the next animal he saw, which happened to be an elephant.

A popular Ganesh story that Indian parents like to tell their children goes: Ganesh and his brother were challenged to a foot race three times around the world by their mother. Ganesh’s brother took off around the world with lightning speed but Ganesh won by simply circling his parents three times, saying "you are my world."

In September 1995, there were reports of Ganesh drinking milk in Calcutta and Jersey City within hours of each other. Not long after that there reports of Virgin Mary statutes drinking milk in Cheshire, England and Kuala Lumpur.

Catching Wild Elephants in Assam

In Assam two mahouts ride on a “koonkie”, or trained elephant. On rides on the neck with a lasso to capture wild elephants. the other stands on the elephants rump prodding it on with jabs from a metal spear. The mahouts hope to lasso a young elephant separated from its herd. But this easier said than done. Females carefully guard their young and large male tuskers, capable of tearing apart a trained elephant charge any intruders.

Describing the capture of young 13-year-old male elephant Paul Watson wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “With two of his “mahouts” riding trained elephants to block the flanks, Rabba pursued his quarry on the back of an elephant he caught 30 years ago..They chased the younger male for about an hour. When the tired animal stopped to eat, Rabbha quickly roped him.”

“His team of three elephant dragged him about three miles. They bound his legs and neck with heavy ropes of sisal fiber and lashed him to three eucalyptus trees, They ropes were wrapped six times around each hind leg and tied back to a 45-degree angle, forcing most of the trapped elephant’s enormous weight forward. Day and night, he is always off balance.”

Elephant Round-up in Mysore

One of the last great elephant round-ups was held in the Begur State Forest near the town of Mysore in southern India in 1969. To capture the elephants, a mob of several thousands of beaters making noise with whistles, bugles, shotguns, bamboo clappers and shouts and a group of 35 domesticated elephants known as “kumkies” surrounded a herd of 66 elephants and drove it into an 11-acre stockade made with 8000 twenty-foot-long teak logs and bamboo fencing. [Source: Harry Miller, National Geographic, March 1969]

The wild elephants were surrounded in a forest and gentle as possible directed towards the stockade by the beaters, mahouts and kumkies. Fires were light along the river to keep them from escaping in that direction and great care was taken not panic the animals into a stampedes. A large tusker guarded a position next to stockade that was the most likely escape route. A kumkries and mahouts were like horse and cowboys rounding up strays and returning them to the herd.

The stockade was built with teaks logs that were sunk in four-foot-deep holes dug with out incredibly long-handled shovels. Pumps were put in a nearby the river and showers were set up in the stockade to keep the elephants cool and damp and to prevent them from wilting in the sun. At the opening of the stockade was hinged wooden drop gate, supported by two 27-foot-high teak logs, that dropped when the animals were inside.

Stands for set up around the stockade for spectators who paid as much as $66 a piece for their seats. In addition to the beaters, watchmen and support people were hired. A total of a 1,500 people paid 40 cents a day and given food for the duration of the round-up.

Getting the Elephants into the Stockade in Mysore

The most difficult part of the round up occurred when the herd of wild elephants approached the stockade. Sensing there was a trap the herd stood outside the gate for 15 minutes. One of the female elephants charged the kumkies to protect her calf, but in the end she and others gave up their stand entered the stockade. When they were all inside a rope hold the gate open was slashed with a knife and crashed shut.

The captured elephants were later enticed into the roping stockade with sugar cane where they were elephants assistants ran underneath the wild elephants and slipped ropes around their hind legs so the animals could be tied to a tree. Kumkies pushed against the wild elephants to keep the wild elephants distracted so they wouldn't fatally kick the assistants who were paid a salary of $20 a month. And a crowd watched as some men lassoed the wild elephants around their neck and others scrambled onto kumkries like rodeo clowns escaping from a bull. It took 10 days to secure all 86 elephants to a tree.

Mahouts were assigned to each wild elephant. For the younger mahouts it was their first elephant. They stayed with elephants around the clock eating and sleeping with the elephants, dressing the wounds from the ropes. Punishment for bad behavior was meted out with a stick and good behavior was rewarded with chunks of sugar cane. After being broken and trained In 1969 38 of the elephants were auctioned off for $22,093.

Working Elephants in India

in Jaipur

Today there are a few thousand working elephants left. They live mostly in wildlife parks, temples or urban colonies for working animals. About 40 percent of the domesticated elephants in India are employed in the logging industry. Others are used in tourism, religious ceremonies, circuses and begging. A domesticated elephant is worth about $4,000. If necessary they can be transported from place to place in trucks or trailers pulled by trucks.

Many working elephants in India make a living leading processions at festivals and carrying the bride and groom at weddings and working at an occasional government ceremony. Their lives have their ups and downs. One moment they are the center of attention, painted in bright colors and showed with flower pedals. The next they are chained to a railing. [Source: Pamela Constable, Washington Post, May 5, 2000]

The elephants earn about $120 to $170 per job for festivals and weddings. This is weighed against the costs of maintaining, transporting and feeding the animals. Each animal consumes about 100 pounds of hay a day. For energy on tough day they are given jaggery (cane molasses) for energy. In Assam, elephant employed in logging and transportation earned about $900 a month and cost between $175 to $259 a month to maintain.

Owners of working elephants ride them through traffic, bath them in local rivers and sleep next to them. They give their animals affection nicknames and the treat their ailments with "homemade concoctions handed down through generations." The elephants are often quite affectionate towards their owners and handlers, hugging them with their trucks when they come near. Sometime kumkie females will mate with wild tuskers. One mahout helper who went looking for a female that had wandered off was trampled to death by a wild male.

One owner told the Washington Post, "It was my forefathers who were really fond of elephants. They worked with them on royal estates, they went to war on them, they loved them. For me, it is a business. I like being part of a family tradition, but I do it because I am not educated to do anything else.”

Urban Elephants and Unemployed Elephants in India

There were 23 working elephants left in New Delhi as of the early 2000s. Most of them lived with the their owners along the Yamana river in the shantytown of Guatampuri, where camels, water buffaloes and prized white horses are kept.

To get to jobs in Delhi the elephants often make their way through honking cars and reckless scooter rickshaw drivers on busy downtown streets. To get to jobs further away they are packed in the back of trucks and often have to endure long, grueling rides on bumpy roads standing up. They can not sleep during the long rides because they need familiar surroundings to relax.

Describing the difficulty of getting a young elephant into a cargo truck, Pamela Constable wrote in the Washington Post, "With a bellow she backed out, dragging six men with here. Prodding and cajoling, they pushed her back in. The frightened youngster bellowed again and burst from the truck. This time the men chained all of her feet and inched here forward, hitting and jabbing until she was tied inside. At the same time, they laughed and called her nicknames. After the ordeal was over, a mahout rubbed her trunk and kissed her."

In Assam, elephants and their owners were hit hard by a 1996 ban on illegal felling of trees. Elephants that earned $900 a month were lucky to make that much a year. Their primary jobs after the ban has been clearing bush at tea plantation and uprooting trees. Elephant owners have pleaded with the government to come up with works schemes for their animals. In response local government officials have been trying to generate an interest in elephant trekking. Elephant owners would like to work as forest guards patrolling for illegal logging and poaching.

In August, 1997, northeastern India, elephants, carrying signs in their trunks, went on strike to protest the logging ban that put them of work. The ban was part if effort to combat deforestation. In Assam, owner are struggling to provide and food and upkeep for their animals. If an elephants get injured it is not uncommon for the animal to die from infection because its owner can not afford the necessary medical care.

Making Elephant Dung Paper in India

elephant poop

Reporting from Jaipur, India, Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Vijender Shekhawat's big break came while visiting a shrine near the Amber Fort in Jaipur, as he glanced down at the pile of elephant dung he had just failed to avoid. A struggling maker of handmade paper, he noticed that the texture of the plant-eating animal's manure was a lot like wood pulp. Eureka! he thought. Pachyderm poop paper. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, March 03, 2011]

His principal buyer was skeptical. "This is too strange," Mahima Mehra, head of papermaker Papeterie Co., recalls thinking. "It's bizarre." But Shekhawat persevered despite early failures. At 100 percent dung, the paper didn't hold together. At 50 percent dung and 50 percent cotton, it was too brittle. After many months, he settled on a 75 percent dung-25 percent cotton mix and he was on his way. (Don't worry; the dung is washed first.) Mehra also warmed to the idea after researching it and finding that it was made in Thailand, Sri Lanka and South Africa, among other places.

To counter cynics, they referenced Ganesha, an elephant-headed Hindu god, arguing that there was no harm in recycling divine waste. "Religion runs everything in this country," Mehra said. "Suddenly, scores of people wanted to work with the stuff."

Shekhawat's next challenge was securing enough droppings. Sure, 4-ton behemoths produce hundreds of pounds of excrement a day. But the giants aren't exactly on every corner, no matter what the Incredible India campaigns suggest. Fortunately, tourist-friendly Jaipur, the capital of the northwestern state of Rajasthan, is a magnet for elephants and their mahouts, or caretakers, keen to overcharge foreigners for a ride. Shekhawat initially collected the dung wherever he could find it, but soon the wily mahouts realized that their once-worthless waste now held value. Paying them became prohibitive. So Shekhawat altered course. He provided the elephants' food, pleasing the mahouts. The beasts ate better, pleasing the elephants. And higher-quality dung emerged, pleasing Shekhawat. "Before, keepers skulked around dumping it at night," Shekhawat said. "Now they're delighted."

His partner, the New Delhi-based Mehra, initially entrusted the marketing to a German company, which featured the paper at a trade show. That flopped. Being, well, German, she figures, they approached things a bit too seriously. "You can't be stodgy, you gotta have some fun with this stuff," she said. "We decided to market it ourselves." "Made from the finest elephant dung in India," the earthy packaging boasts for Haathi Chaap, or "elephant print," brand products. "It's unique," said Tanvi Sharma, 26, buying an elephant-poo board game. "Then again, I just paid $8 for animal [dung]."

Reactions have exceeded expectations, Mehra said. "A few say 'eek' and refuse to touch it," she said. "But most laugh and, almost without thinking, smell it." (There's no discernable smell.) "Once we explain how it's made, they quite like the idea." Although business is going well, Shekhawat hasn't had it easy. In the beginning, he spent a lot of time knocking on doors, trying unsuccessfully to sell handmade cotton paper. Just as hopelessness set in, he met Mehra. The quality wouldn't cut it, she said, but she lent him bus fare, gave him some samples and promised deals if he picked up his game. A few weeks later, he returned with paper that was higher quality than her samples.

Shekhawat, who believes he was India's first elephant dung papermaker when he launched the venture eight years ago, uses 3,300 pounds of droppings a week. The dung is first washed, then boiled with baking soda and salt to reduce the smell, beaten to a pulp, forced through a sieve and flattened into sheets. Drying takes a day to, during rainy season, a week. At one point, Shekhawat fed the elephants turmeric hoping to create yellow paper. That failed. Now he adds organic dyes late in the process, including beet juice for red paper, dried pomegranate skins for gray and the castor oil plant for green. He now produces 2,000 2-by-3-foot sheets a week, which sell as far afield as the United States and Europe. "Call it God or good luck, a lot fell into place and I feel blessed," he said. "Before, they thought I was a bit of a fool. Now they think I'm a genius."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2012

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