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When terror strikes – Baba’s story (1)

mars 25, 2013

Baba is a female Asian elephant born in the wild in India, presently appearing with the Cirkus Merano in Norway. The exact year of birth is difficult to establish. A 2008 survey of elephants in European circuses estimated it to be 1970. This is the first part of her story, recounting how she was captured in the wild and probably was brutally broken down physically and mentally to accept the dominance by humans.


Baba according to a 2012 newspaper article based on information from the Cirkus Merano, was one of many elephants who were left alone. Her mother had been killed by poachers. This version have not been further documented or detailed. Professor Jacob V. Cheeran, a leading on elephant capture living in Kerala, India, says to «The World of Baba» that female Asian elephants are normally not hunted, since they don’t have a tusk. If a baby elephant (calf) is left alone, the herd will normally take it care of it. Other female elephants will raise the calf as their own.

The other possibility is that Baba was captured by a method traditionally used for elephant capture in India, where she was born. If she was born in the northeastern part of country would be «Mela Shikar», also known as «lassoing» or «noosing», says professor Jacob V. Cheeran, a leading expert on elephant capture. In southern India where he lives, elephants have been captured after falling into a pit. Elephants imported to Europe in the 1970s came from the northeastern state of Assam. The picture above is from the web site of George Munro, one of the companies possibly importing Baba. The picture shows a young elephant led to an elephant in Assam by tame elephants after capture. See more pictures.


The «Mela Shikar» method of capture involves hunting down the victim in a herd of wild elephants photo: Creative Commons/ Ekabhishek). An elephant herd may consist of up to ten or more animals and they are all females who stay with the herd all life. Only males stray out on their own when they are about 14 years and there can be three generations in a herd. Baba did not only enjoy the company of her mother, but sisters, cousins, aunts and grand mother. Then one day as they are grazing peacefully in a field or walking in the forest, terror strikes out of the blue:

» There will be three persons on the back of the tame elephant», explains professor Cheeran: «One will sit on the neck and will drive the elephant into the herd to disturb and cause panic and drive herd mates to all sides. Then he will try to isolate the selected elephant and the second person who will be standing on the elephant will try to throw the noose. The third person will try put the noose over the head. The poor animal will try to remove the noose using the trunk and at that moment a jerk of the noose will make it fall over the trunk and get it into neck. Then there is fast race along with the noosed one, till it is exhausted. If you follow it you will have scratches all over your body and feel a burning sensation after the event. Mostly sub -adults are caught by this method».


The horrors of elephant capture were documented by the Indian film maker Mike Pandey. While making the award-winning documentary «Vanishing Giants» (2004) about Asian elphants he witnessed the capture of a male elephant who searching for food together with its herd had strayed into contact with villagers. The elephant, brutally beaten, died after 18 days. The same had happened with 18 elephants in one year and was written off as accepted mortality during capture. Pandey published a news film about the shocking event which made the headlines in India and internationally. The Indian government immediately banned elephant capture and announced new rules. Now «Mela Shikar» and all other traditional methods are replaced by drug immobilisation.

As for Baba, having been brought to an elephant camp she probably underwent the brutal process of «breakdown» before she was exported to Germany. «She should have been broken before sending her abroad», says professor Jacob V. Cheeran. Baba was one year old or so when she was captured. An elephant that age weighs close to one ton and is already very strong. It cannot be controlled except by breaking it down physically and mentally to accept the dominance by humans.


«A breakdown means that the elephant is tied to a tree or similar, with ropes that bind its legs diagonally. The ropes are tied so tight that it causes extraordinary pressure on the joints, and thus pain. At the same time it is denied food and a fire is lit close to the elephant so that it can not sleep. The future coach then offers the elephant food and drink to show dominance and control. After a few hours or days, it is led by the coach with two other trained elephants to its new training ground».

This description of the «breakdown» is found in a report from the scientific advisory committee of the Norwegian Food Safety Authority. The agency in 2009 proposed a ban on the use of elephants in circuses in Norway with particular reference to the breaking process (the ban has later been cancelled). The committe wrote that most circus elephants today probably have been wild or their parents have been so, so that they are not domesticated. The elephants therefore with high probability have undergone «breakdown». The method according to the Food Safety Authority is unacceptable from an animal welfare point of view.

For a review of methods of elephant capture and «breakdown» see «History and biology of traditional elphant management» by Fred Kurt. Read also the 1927 articvle «Elephant catching in Assam», appearing in Asian Elephant Specialist Group newsletter in 1992.


What are the long-term effects on the mind of Baba and other elephants of trauma in early life ? Joyce Poole, research director of the Ambroseli Trust for Elephants writes in «The Capture and Training of Elephants»: «The capture of a calf and its removal from a family has an immensely psychological impact on the calf. The trauma it experiences through the breaking of close bonds leaves a permanent mark on its consciousness».

«Post traumatic syndrom (PTS) can happen», says professor Jacob V. Cheeran. This psycological suffering is a severe anxiety disorder, more commonly called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It can develop after exposure to an event like the threat of death to oneself or to someone else and sexual or physical abuse and is usually associated with humans. In 2005, however, the American psychologist Gay Bradshaw discovered that wild elephants in Africa attacking villages showed signs of PTSD. The disorder manifests in flashbacks to the trauma and nightmares and can result in sudden aggression.

«But by this time it should be over although elephants are blessed with long memory», says professor Cheeran. «One of the greatest things about elephants are their capacity of adaptability», he adds. Cheeran thinks that Baba by now, at the age of over 40 years, has left the social trauma and the horror of capture in her early life behind. He also thinks that the life with her female owner and trainer Adriana Folco Althoff will meet the behavioural and to some extent physiological needs of both».

So is the life in circus really the best life she can hope for ? Is she content under the circumstances – or is she frustrated, bored and sad like Dr. Marion E. Garaï told «The World of Baba» after seeing videos showing Baba’s stereotypic behaviour, the continuous swaying from side to side with her body and head ? What else has Baba experienced, after she came to Germany and was trained to be a circus elephant ?

Text: Inge Sellevåg

From → About Baba

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