Fighting for India’s gentle giants
Growing up in India, Sangita Iyer marvelled at elephants that marched in Kerala’s cultural and religious parades.
But it wasn’t until she returned for a visit to her home state two years ago that the Master of Arts in Environmental Education and Communication alumna learned the truth.
Elephants, revered in India as symbols of wisdom and power, are rented out during more than 10,000 festivals every year for processions and religious events in the southern state of Kerala. Many elephants are chained at the feet and forced to stand in the sun and heat for hours.
“When I was a child we were mesmerized and awed by these magnificent gentle giants and we didn’t understand their pain and suffering they have to endure to entertain humans,” Iyer says.
“It was really gut-wrenching for me to witness a blind elephant being forced to parade through the festival, surrounded by thousands of people. The heat was scorching. It was so unnatural for them. One of the elephants was badly injured by the chains around his ankles. His wounds were deep.”
Iyer says that of more than 3,000 captive elephants in India, about 700 of them are in Kerala, with temples and private owners renting many of the animals. The environmental journalist and documentary filmmaker, who co-founded the non-profit environmental advocacy group Bermuda Environmental Alliance (BEA), has now decided to dedicate her time to exposing the elephants’ plight.
“Behind the glitz and glamour, these elephants are being tortured. Owners say they’re being used for cultural and religious reasons, but really they’re making money from it,” Iyer says.
This week, Iyer started a crowdfunding campaign to raise $70,000 to make a documentary film about Kerala’s captive elephants in the hope of having them banned from religious and cultural festivities. Iyer plans to recruit a videographer, editor and post-production staff with money raised from the crowdfunding campaign.
Media executives such as Discovery Channel Canada president and general manager Paul Lewis and nonfiction author and journalist Richard Louv have endorsed the film project, called For the Love of Elephants. Conservationists in India have welcomed the project too, including Dr. Jacobs Cheeran, veterinarian and head of Wildlife Sciences at Kerala Agricultural University.
Iyer won Royal Roads’ 2013 Founder's Award for Leadership, Sustainability, and Personal Development for her master’s thesis documentary Connecting the Dots: Television News Media and Climate Change. The film also picked up an excellence award at the International Film Festival for Environment, Health and Culture in Indonesia.
She says studying at Royal Roads taught her to approach controversial issues sensitively.
“What I learned through my master’s program is we have to engage with stakeholders. Even if we don’t agree we can understand where they’re coming from,” Iyer says. “We can work against them or engage them in creating solutions and make them part of the process.”
Royal Roads Associate Professor Rick Kool says Iyer was a remarkable and enthusiastic student.
"I have always been so impressed and moved by Sangita's commitment to use her many skills as a communicator in support of a range of social and environmental issues, as she works to reveal conditions and situations that many of us might never be aware of," Kool says. "I am proud to have a person of Sangita's calibre and abilities as a graduate of the MAEEC program."