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India's elephant culture and the brutality that fuels it

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"That is how you train an elephant, with beatings."

wild elephants (wikimedia)
wild elephants (wikimedia)

In the Indian state of Kerala, elephants are more than just animals — they're bona fide celebrities. As Rollo Romig writes this week in a piece for the New York Times Magazine, privately-owned pachyderms play a prominent role during Kerala's festival season — when the most prized animals are bejeweled and put on display — and some have even garnered cult followings among enthusiasts. But behind all the gold, glitz, and centuries of tradition lies a more sordid backstory. Demand for elephants is surging in Kerala, and populations are dwindling. And despite the efforts of environmentalists and animal welfare advocates, many elephants continue to face a life of torture and brutality once taken into captivity.

"Although Kerala's captive elephants are controlled using force, their primary hardship isn't the beatings," Roming writes. "It’s how little their lives resemble what they were before they were captured."