On 15 August, 2015, India's independence day, Daily Mail published a story about elephants in South India. The story, written by Liz Jones, reported on how elephants were tortured.
Jones, who was travelling with Duncan McNair, a London lawyer and founder of non-government organisation Save The Asian Elephants (STAE) in January, and Dr Nameer, a professor and Head of the Centre for Wildlife Studies in Kerala, reported on elephants being chained, severely beaten, having their legs broken, being temporarily blinded and left unable to move. The story was accompanied by pictures of these activities.
Horror stories like the following were scattered throughout the article:
‘How long has he been chained like this?’ I ask Prof Nameer. ‘He has been chained in that spot, never released even for an hour, for 20 years,’ he replies.
We reach the next elephant a few yards away. This is Padmanabhan, who has been at the temple for 35 years. A hind leg hangs at a terrible angle; he wobbles on three legs, all chained.
Prof Nameer tells me his leg was broken deliberately 15 years ago to subdue him. Research fellow Harish Sudhakar tells me later that this elephant too has not moved from his spot in 20 years.
She also reported on secret jungle camps where elephants were beaten into submission. "Of all the animal abuse stories I have covered in the past 30 years, this is by far the worst," Jones writes towards the end of her gut-wrenching article.
The story as it would turn out, was not entirely true.
On 18 August, The Peepli Project, in an open letter to Daily Mail, claimed the article by Jones to be "factually and chronologically wrong, misguided and misinformed, and lacking in basic journalistic ethics".
The open letter was accompanied by another article, dissecting the Daily Mail piece and rebutting its major points.
The author, starts by quoting one part of the article:
At the entrance to the temple is Devi. She has been chained to this spot for 35 years. As a female, she is never taken to festivals, so has never, ever moved. Not one inch. Prof Nameer has asked the temple leaders (politicians, businessmen) to allow the animals to be walked for one hour a day; they refused.
And subsequently slams it with:
Guruvayur temple has two entrances. The main entrance faces east; the only other gate opens to the west. At neither of these two entrances is an elephant – of whatever sex – chained. Ever. For any length of time, let alone for decades at a stretch.
The article, which can be read in its entirety here, goes on to point out just how misleading and erroneous the article is.
"I have many problems with this piece – beginning with the fictions, the distortions and the exaggerations... all of them are examples of journalism so shockingly inept that they can be disproved given a functioning internet connection and a few minutes of time," writes the author.
Jones is also slammed for her 'overt racism' in the article.
In the open letter, the author, who personally met Jones, writes how she had already made up her mind about the conditions and the torture suffered by the elephants before visiting various locations mentioned in the Daily Mail article and crafted her story to fit the bias. "In fact, she was upset that she didn’t get to see the torture she had come in expectation of," mentions the letter.
The letter however admits that just because the situation isn't quite as dire as Jones portrays, it's still far from perfect, "It is in fact true that we have a long way to go in the management and welfare of captive elephants in India. But the situation can only be improved by engaging with the mahouts and the forest department, and by investing in positive-reinforcement training, in addition to solving some elephant conservation issues."
Perhaps it's time India begins to accord the elephant the sort of attention that the tiger has been receiving.
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Updated Date: Aug 22, 2015 09:00:06 IST