Although my recent elephant safari was entirely unsuccessful, I was able to spend a morning with several Asian Elephants at the Elephant Junction sanctuary in Kumily.
Throughout the three hour visit I vacillated through a range of emotions. A quiet grief for the confinement and captivity of these intelligent and sensitive creatures gave way to both exhilaration at being in such close quarters with them and optimism for the gentleness with which they were treated by their mahouts, all before feeling my heart spin back again towards remorse.
By all indications the elephants were well treated and looked after. Verbal commands alone were being used to instruct them, and this even applied to the completely unruly 11 month old infant Kanan, who required all the will his mahout could muster just to stop him from eating the thatched shed within a trunk's reach of his enclosure.
The enclosures themselves were immaculately clean. Dung was cleared out regularly, and all of them were layered with thick blankets of maize stalks and palm fronds, which acted as both bedding and a continuous source of food for the elephants' ceaseless appetites.
Some elephants were quite constrained, but in fairness this varied according the manageability of the individual. Some were kept on short chains, particularly the mother of Kanan who could be understandably intolerant of human contact with her infant, but others were left completely free and stood calmly among the visitors and staff. Most importantly, all harnesses are removed each day at 5pm after the tourist hours are through.
However, despite the quality of this particular sanctuary others fail miserably in looking after the needs of their inhabitants. Small pens, lack of contact with the natural world and abusive mahouts are all common. That greater context left me concerned for the future of the species.
The population of wild Asian elephants stands at just 30,000 with about half of those in India. Meanwhile, it's much publicized African cousin boasts a population in excess of 600,000. Meanwhile, while the African Elephants compete for land and resources with about 900,000,000 people across the world's third largest continent, India's 15,000 remaining elephants face the inconceivable population pressure of more than a billion people.
This is the mathematical fact of wildlife conservation in the world's second most populous nation, and until environmentalists address the overwhelming human need of a billion individuals within their calls for conservation, the Asian elephant, tiger and a host of less prominent species won't last the upcoming decades.
I don't have an answer for this one, other than to say that it's my gut belief that there must be a place for elephants in their wild habitats along side our own, for the simple reason that we both come out of, and depend on, the natural world for our survival.
Ultimately, our mutual survival will depend on the preservation of the same natural environment.