When she was barely beyond toddling around her native south India, Sangita Iyer already showed the tendencies of an investigative journalist. It was normal for her grandmother to take her to “an amazing temple where elephants were used in rituals of all kinds,” she said; it was less normal for the 3-year-old to ask tough questions about those elephants and not accept distractions for answers.
“Grandma, how come this elephant has shackles on his legs?” she recalls asking. It made no sense, she said, because in Hindu culture elephants are “the purest and most sentient of all living beings.” They’re the living embodiment of Lord Ganesha, a wise and loving Hindu deity. How could Hindus claim to honor and worship elephants while imprisoning them?
Her grandmother responded by buying her shiny ankle bracelets to serve as her own version of elephant shackles. If that was supposed to be cute, it made even less sense to the little girl — already a thinker. Years later, she said, her dying grandmother reminded her about the episode and about Iyer’s “early and deep connection with elephants. Her words hit me like a dagger,” Iyer said in a phone interview with The Columbian. “I have felt a deeply spiritual, soulful bond with elephants ever since my childhood.”
Now an adult wildlife journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Toronto, Canada, Iyer will visit Vancouver on Sunday to host a screening of her 2016 film, “Gods in Shackles,” at WareHouse ’23. She’s on a global mission to raise awareness of the plight of Asian elephants in India — especially male (bull) elephants, which are shackled, marched around, starved and beaten during southern India’s religious ritual season (December through May). Thanks to heat, continued abuse and exhaustion, their wounds fester instead of healing, and they die protracted deaths, she said. Twenty-three Asian elephants died in captivity in India between January and August of this year, Iyer said.
Because bulls are the ones used in tourism-driven rituals, she said, and because bull elephants are also targeted by poachers for their tusks, there is an alarming gender disparity in the already endangered Asian elephant population. According to Iyer, there are about 27,000 Asian elephants in India today, and 1,000 are male. That’s a serious, perhaps existential, imbalance for the elephants themselves, as well as for people around the world.
If You Go
• What: Benefit screening of “Gods in Shackles,” hosted by filmmaker Sangita Iyer. Benefits the Voice for Asian Elephant Society.
• When: 4 p.m. Sunday.
• Where: WareHouse ’23, 100 Columbia St., Vancouver.
• Tickets: $50. Discounts available for teachers and students, and VIP packages available including souvenirs and a private 3 p.m. meet-and-greet with the filmmaker. With any level of ticket purchase you may bring a guest.
We all share the same environment and breathe the same air, Iyer said. “Elephants are the gardeners of the Earth,” she said. “Their only job is to eat and poop. It’s a massive job” as the elephants roam forests for many hours per day, consuming hundreds of pounds of food and redistributing berry and tree seeds in their dung. In this way, Iyer said, they replant forests and even fight climate change.
Iyer and her crew got advance permission to film the religious festivals in question, but sometimes were blocked once it was clear what they were up to. In some cases, she said, the cameras had to go undercover. The film has generated controversy since it was released, she said, with some government and temple officials denying what’s apparent to the viewer’s eye.
In an emotional telephone interview, Iyer — an award-winning TV reporter and anchor — said the movement to protect Asian elephants is picking up speed. Images of elephant abuse from her film are now part of a case before the Supreme Court of India, which is considering banning the use of elephants in cultural and religious rituals, she said.
“It is amazing how things are spiraling,” Iyer said. This year the court has been cracking down on elephant exploitation and cruelty, directing local authorities to shut down hotels and resorts built along “elephant corridors” and remove harmful spikes from elephant-deterring barriers and structures, and even — just a few days ago — calling for a census of all elephants in captivity.
Jane Goodall, the renowned anthropologist, animal welfare activist and friend of the apes, has glowingly endorsed the film, saying: “I feel sickened and terribly saddened that elephants are treated in this way in the name of religion…. ‘Gods in Shackles’ must be shown widely, and it deserves to win many awards. It must have been harrowing to make, and I congratulate Sangita Iyer and her team for their compassion and dedication.”
Sunday’s benefit screening is the Washington premiere of “Gods and Shackles,” and the beneficiary is a related Iyer project, the Voice for Asian Elephants Society (vfaes.org). She also means to start a youth cultural-exchange program that could send 10 American students to India for 10 days of immersion in India’s forests and elephant habitats. That’s still a baby idea, she said, with a possible launch set for next spring.
“We want to dissolve the separation between America and Asia,” she said. “We want to connect the dots and help youth understand.”