Torture, abuse, separation: Story of domesticating elephants
They also have emotions. They writhe in frustration when we tie them up. We also need to beat them up often, which is why we keep the mothers away. If they're around, they might get enraged and start attacking people.
People of greater Sylhet and Chittagong Hill Tracts regions are familiar with domesticated elephants being used to pull trees down the hills, in circuses and at various social events.
But behind these seemingly innocuous actions lies a history of torture and abuse, as the elephants are cruelly trained into submission from a very young age.
Experts condemn this method of training and are calling for its end, but the forest department does not seem to have any plan regarding the issue.
According to the Department of Wildlife Management and Nature Conservation, there are 45 domesticated elephants in Sylhet division, who are trained across four to five spots. Locally, this training is known as "Hadani".
Locals said it begins by tying up baby elephants, away from their mothers. They are then subjected to various brutal methods of training, as well as physical abuse.
This correspondent spoke to Joynal Mia, an elephant trainer based in Kuchaitol area in Moulvibazar's Juri upazila.
"We have a seven-member training team, led by myself and head coach Akbar Ali. After separating the babies from the mother elephants, we tie them up with a rope from all sides," he elaborated the process.
"We then tie them to wooden logs buried in the ground. We keep them like this for two hours, feeding them sweets mixed with straw. We then pull the logs up and drag the elephants around the field," he said, rather nonchalantly.
"This method has been used since the time of our forefathers. Without this, the wild elephants cannot be tamed," he added.
Trainer Akbar Ali used to be a "mahout". He joined as a trainer around 20-25 years ago. "We have trained them since childhood, otherwise taming them becomes impossible later on," he told this correspondent.
"They also have emotions. They writhe in frustration when we tie them up. We also need to beat them up often, which is why we keep the mothers away. If they're around, they might get enraged and start attacking people," he said quite nonchalantly.
This training lasts for two months, after which circus acts and tree pulling is taught, Akbar said.
Asked about the brutality of the method, Akbar said they have an ointment made from tree leaves, which is applied to the elephants when they're wounded.
Locals told this correspondent that forest department officials sometimes come to inspect the training grounds. During these visits, the cruelty is kept to a minimum. But it restarts once the inspection is over.
Contacted, Rezaul Karim Chowdhury, divisional forest officer, said the owners have licenses, which allows them to train the elephants. But he said this should not abet their torture during training.
"They should be more aware of this," he said, adding that there are gentler methods of training even in neighbouring Sri Lanka and Thailand.
He also assured of taking steps in this regard.
Wildlife expert Prof Monirul H Khan of Jahangirnagar University's zoology department said this is how elephants have been trained for ages, but it's out of date now. "There are policies on elephant training in other countries, but nothing like that exists here. It's quite ridiculous, to be honest," he said.