Akila the elephant is one of India’s biggest celebrities. She spends her days in the Jambukeswarer temple where she performs her daily duties of leading temple processions around the city, gathering water for sacred ceremonies, and dressing in the appropriate outfits for said ceremonies. Elephants who are in captivity in India are often used in spiritual ceremonies, as many aspects of Indian culture and spirituality praise the elephant as a holy being.
Because of this Akila has definitely gained a major following, and supposedly takes up to one hundred selfies with fans a day. However, even famous elephants deserve a break, and luckily for Akila, once a year many different elephant sanctuaries throughout India bring their elephants to a “rejuvenation camp” where they can take some time off.
About 2,500 of the 29,000 elephants in India are kept in captivity. India is widely known as one of the original places that would tame the massive mammals for human use, mainly in religious contexts. However, 17 years ago animal rights activists protested the unfair and abusive treatment of elephants by their handlers as a means of “taming” them. As a result, the government now requires that all elephants held in captivity must go away to one of these “rejuvenation camps” for several weeks of rest and relaxation.
These camps also allow all captive elephants to interact with one another, and with six-acres of forest land to explore, they have plenty of room and time to do so. The camps are a part of the governments “animal welfare initiatives” and have become a sort of seasonal tradition for elephants and their caretakers. Like a parent sending their child to sleep-away camp every summer, temple caretakers load their elephants into a designated truck and bring them to one of the many camps throughout the southern part of India every year. Each camp costs approximately $200,000 to run, at least the one that Akila goes to does.
Every elephant is required to have their designated caretaker with them for the duration of their time at the rejuvenation camp. Akila has been accompanied by her temple caretaker, Arjun, every year since 2012 when she first began attending the camps. Once there, Arjun and all the other caretakers play a very important role in ensuring that their elephant counterparts have a fun and relaxing time. This role includes, bathing, feeding Akila a very specific food mix, going for long walks, and receiving tutoring from vets on elephant diet and exercise, according to reports.
While all of this does sound like that of a spa getaway for elephants, the camps and temple taming practices in general are rooted in years of controversy. Reports state that most of the camps have at least eight watchtowers and one mile of electric fencing surrounding the property. Additionally, the elephants spend a majority of the six weeks that they’re there chained up.
“Elephants belong in jungles, not temples. A six-week ‘rejuvenation camp’ is like being let out on parole while being sentenced for life imprisonment. Even at these camps, the animals are kept in chains and often in unhygienic conditions. If you must continue with the tradition, temple elephants should be kept in the camps for most of the year – in much better conditions – and taken to the temples only during festivals,” argues Sunish Subramanian, of the Plant and Animals Welfare Society in Mumbai.
The camps themselves have also become flooded by tourists who like to gawk and glare at the elephants like a sort of glorified zoo. An Indian farmers union attempted to petition a court to relocate the camps to a more secluded and open location; claiming that the tight corridors and overwhelming amount of people and animals can cause the elephants to do into distress, which is dangerous for everyone. The union has claimed that 16 people have died at these camps due to an increase in stress within the animals that leads to aggressive behavior.
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.