So far, this month is shaping up to be an important month for elephants. On the 6th October the UK Government announced plans for a total ban on ivory sale, including pieces pre-dating 1947 — and in the days that followed, Action for Elephants UK led a powerful visual protest outside parliament to urge them to enforce the proposed ban.
Under the newly proposed ban the sale and export of almost all ivory items would be illegal in the UK, with ‘some exemptions’ for musical instruments and items of cultural importance, according to the government.
Although a similar ban was proposed in 2015; earlier this year, changes were announced to exclude antique ivory produced before 1947. To ensure this doesn’t happen again, animal rights campaigners staged a demonstration last weekend to urge Environment Secretary Michael Gove, to maintain his promise of a consultation to end the trade of ivory of all ages.
The striking silent protest saw hundreds of campaigners standing silently in London’s Parliament Square, wearing the same shirts and black arm bands for all the elephants and rhinos that have lost their lives to poaching and the ivory and horn trades.
The event was also attended by Save The Asian Elephant (STAE)’s CEO Duncan McNair, Born Free Foundation’s Will Travers, Angels for the Innocent Ambassador Dan Richardson and Director of powerful new documentary ‘Gods in Shackles’ Sangita Iyer – all of whom addressed the crowds, alongside Action for elephants UK – who organised the protest.
After the demo, the speakers delivered a letter to 10 Downing Street representing over 200 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and MPs concerned for elephant preservation.
The Prime Minister was also addressed in a separate covering letter to express thanks for DEFRAs latest announcement on the ban, and to reiterate the need to enforce it.
“[The covering letter] says we will be working to ensure no watering down of a ban by those pressing for exemptions, such as the antiques trade, and also asking the UK government to take further steps to end the global Ivory trade that has decimated the elephants,” STAE’s Duncan McNair (pictured above) explained to me the morning of the protest.
“And to ensure it can stand at the head of nations at the 2018 conference on the illegal wildlife trade.”
He added “STAE welcomes the good news of a consultation on a UK ban on the ivory trade, but must emphasise that we wish to make sure all goes on track through the consultation to a ban, but moreover that government and all of us must exert influence here but abroad too to ensure all the other desperate dangers that threaten Asian elephants – torture, elephant tourism, destruction of their habitat, etc. – are finally addressed.”
“Our government has enormous influence still and should exert it before it’s too late, and should honour the 2015 manifesto pledge to help India to protect its Asian elephants, reaffirmed in David Cameron‘s Joint Statement with PM Modi at the London Summit in December 2015.”
Also concerned with the plight of the endangered Asian elephants (whose biggest threat is not ivory poaching, but the tourist industry, human-elephant conflict, forced contact with man and urban development – something I have written about previously) is campaigner Dan Richardson (pictured at the protest above).
Dan hosted the European premiere screening of feature-length documentary film Gods in Shackles at the Royal Geographical Society on the evening the protest, joined by filmmaker Sangita Iyer, who was born and raised in Kerala, southern India.
Gods in Shackles is an exposé revealing the dark side of Kerala’s glamorous cultural festivals that exploit temple elephants for profit under the guise of culture and religion.
Temples benefit the most financially from captive elephants in India, and the film showed harrowing scenes of elephants in temples chained so tightly that the injuries from their shackles have wounds on top of wounds – and one elephant was shown to be tethered so forcefully, that he couldn’t even put his foot on the ground.
As Dan stated after the screening; “I believe Gods in Shackles is the turning point”
Gods in Shackles offers hope to the thousands of endangered captive and wild elephants in India by exposing the abhorrent torture they suffer – one particularly gut-wrenching scene from the film showed painful and primitive ‘medical care’ given to one female elephant as her eye was pulled open and popped out by a mahout (elephant keeper) to administer eye drops to an injury consistent with a bull hook to the eye.
By highlighting their suffering, Sangita hopes to inspire key stake holders and policy makers to enhance the living conditions of India’s heritage animal.
Although I had some awareness of the ways that festival elephants are exploited, there were several points in the film that I’d never even heard of before – such as male festival elephants being chemically castrated to stop the production of musth hormones, which can make them a danger to the public and themselves.
From 2012 – 2015, 75 people and 167 elephants were killed during the festival season due to elephants breaking from their mahouts’ command.
I was also surprised to hear of ‘celebrity’ elephants, revered in the temple and festival circuits, which evoke a fierce culture of rivalry. One ‘celebrity elephant’ had razor blades hidden in its food after being targeted over the demise of another elephant.
As someone who grew up in Kerala (which is home to 500-600 captive elephants alone), Sangita explained during an audience question and answer series that she sees her role in making and promoting this film as ‘bridging the cultural gap’.
She wants to empower people with resources to make a change to this situation.
Interestingly, one of the locals in Kerala interviewed in the documentary compared India’s deep cultural connection to elephant festivals with that of slavery in the United States; “The US felt that slavery was part of their culture and it took a war under Abraham Lincoln to end it,” the interviewee says to camera. “Indians feel that this [treatment of elephants] is part of their culture too. It’s not.”
When asked whether children in India are being educated about how elephants are treated, Sangita explained that the state government is going to screen Gods in Shackles through the state channel into every single school in Kerala! Which sounds like an amazing achievement in ‘bridging the cultural gap’.
As Will Travers passionately explained; “Just look at Blackfish; we can change the world through film.”
Also screened at the Royal Geographical Society that evening was the short film ‘Grey Future’, which looks at a future world in which elephants and rhinos have been declared extinct. This powerful piece can be viewed below:
The film’s Writer / Producer Carla Fraser was on hand at the panel talk to advocate the powerful of film, and encourage others to share their conservation messages through this medium.
Find out more about Gods in Shackles, and how you can support campaigns to educate the suffering by visiting godsinshackles.com