Conservationist Advocates for Asian Elephants in Her Hometown

Sangita Iyer fights for the animals that are chained to perform for profit.

Sangita Iyer with elephant
Sangita Iyer with an Asian elephant.

Sangita Iyer

Sangita Iyer is passionate about advocating for the Asian elephants in her childhood hometown of Kerala, India. There, more than 700 of the captive animals are chained and kept to perform for tourists and profit.

Iyer, a biologist, journalist, and filmmaker, is also the founder of Voice for Asian Elephants Society, a nonprofit that works to protect the elephants and their habitats, while also making sure that the people living near the forest habitats have what they need in order to coexist peacefully with the animals.

Asian elephants are classified as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. There are only 40,000 to 50,000 Asian elephants left in the wild and it’s estimated that more than 60% of them are found in India, according to the IUCN.

Iyer produced a documentary “Gods in Shackles,” which won 13 international film festival awards, about Asian elephants and recently wrote the book “Gods in Shackles: What Elephants Can Teach Us About Empathy, Resilience, and Freedom.”

She talked to Treehugger about her connection with Asian elephants, where her love of wildlife began, and what she still hopes to accomplish. The interview has been slightly edited for length.

Treehugger: Where did your love of nature and wildlife start?

Sangita Iyer: Even as early as 5-years-old I found great solace in being surrounded by Mother Nature and Her precious creations. After relocating to a bustling city like Bombay from a calm village in Kerala, I found a safe hideout beneath a mango tree in a nearby farm. When tensions ran high in the family, and emotions became sharp and intense I would run to the mango tree and literally throw myself into its open arms, sobbing and sharing my childhood suffering. During those times the sweet melodies of buzzing bees, and chirping birds soothed my soul. I felt welcomed and safe, as the creatures of the earth made me feel like a member of their own family. And so, it was only natural that I couldn’t stand to see my family suffer. 

To this day I vividly remember how a helpless sparrow was struggling to pull itself out of a public toilet after falling off from its nest on the ceiling crevices. Without a moment’s hesitation I stuck my hand into the filthy toilet, so the tiny creature could climb up. I then took him out and placed him on a wall and it was a big relief to watch him shrug off the poo on his feathers and fly away, soaring towards the skies. But of course, I faced the wrath of those lined up to use the toilet. And when I returned home my Brahmin parents forced me to bathe in turmeric water to “cleanse” myself. But the little sparrow had taught me to shrug off the nastiness. 

In the ensuing years, I became a keen observer and would speak out against anyone hurting any living being. Watching the trees cut down made me cry, because they provide shelter to birds like my little sparrow. When my parents tossed salt over earthworms to prevent them from creeping on our verandah, it was painful to witness how they crumbled to death. Looking back at these events I feel, I was being prepared to be a voice for Mother Nature.

You’re a biologist, filmmaker, journalist, and National Geographic Explorer. How did these interests lead to one another?

My parents signed me up to pursue B.Sc., because they wanted their daughter to be a doctor. But not surprisingly, I was drawn to botany and ecology. Although this shift in career disappointed my parents, I knew it was the right decision for me. As an undergrad, I worked as a biology teacher, teaching grades 1, 2 and 3 in Bombay. I also traveled to Kenya, where I taught biology to grades 10, 11 and 12. However, during my encounters with their parents and my own friends, I realized that there was a significant lack of even basic knowledge pertaining to the living earth. Research and science were not being disseminated to the general public in a manner that would resonate or inspire them to take action. I knew I needed to do so much more. 

When I moved to Toronto, Canada in 1989, I returned to university to pursue broadcast journalism, so I could use the media pulpit to disseminate knowledge on the environment and wildlife. However, after spending a decade in the industry, it became clear to me that sensationalism and political controversies seemed more relevant to the media than informing and educating the public about the consequences of reckless use of natural resources and the catastrophic impacts of climate change, pollution, and loss of habitats/ biodiversity, among other things. Here again was time for change, and it was a natural and seamless transition into documentary filmmaking, which then brought me to the doorsteps of National Geographic Society. In 2019 I was honoured to receive the storytelling award and wear the proud badge of National Geographic Explorer. But these titles/ accolades are just that. I use them as a pulpit to be a voice for the voiceless animals and the natural world. 

Sangita Iyer with Asian elephant

Sangita Iyer

When did you first feel a connection to Asian elephants? What drew you to the animals and their plight?

Elephants have been part of my life since my birth. My grandparents used to take me to this amazing temple in Palakkad, Kerala, where I was born and raised. And I fell in love with a majestic bull elephant whose companionship I cherish to this day. In fact, my grandparents used to leave me with his handlers until the temple rituals and worship services were done. But my special bond with this magnificent animal would rupture after my family moved to Bombay, although the precious memories remain etched in my mind. 

When I became a teenager, my grandma told me that as a 3-year-old I asked her why that bull elephant had chains on his legs and I did not. So, my smart grandma went and bought me silver anklets. But the 3-year-old wouldn’t be satisfied. Apparently, she asked why were the front two legs shackled and he wasn’t allowed to move freely, yet my feet weren’t chained together, and I could walk freely. My grandma teared up saying that she was completely dumbfounded by my keen observations at such a tender age. Looking back, I think my destiny had been carved out at three years of age.

What was the impetus behind “Gods in Shackles,” your documentary?

In 2013 my love for elephants would be rekindled, as childhood memories flooded back during my travel to Bombay for my father’s first death anniversary. I’d arrived a few days ahead of the ceremonies, which allowed me some time to travel to my home state of Kerala. One thing led to the next and I ended up visiting temples along with a conservationist friend of mine. I couldn’t believe what my eyes were seeing. As a videographer I always carry a camera with me, and I began to film fervently.

Every single elephant I witnessed was shackled like a prisoner, forced to parade beneath the scorching sun, deprived of food, water and rest. Every single one of them had ghastly wounds on their hips and ankles—blood and pus oozing out of their bodies, tears flowing down their face. I was utterly devastated to witness the pathetic plight of my soul animals. But on the other hand, this was an opportunity to shed light on the atrocities against these supremely intelligent and gentle animals. I knew I had to do something for them. 

I returned to Canada with 25 hours of footage and a heavy heart. I began to explore ways to expose the dark truth behind all the glitz and glamour and use my media background to produce "Gods in Shackles." Little did I know when I embarked on this mission that my film would be nominated at the United Nations General Assembly on the inaugural World Wildlife Day and garner over a dozen international film festival awards, including two best documentary film awards. I followed my heart and did what I needed to do. I wasn’t even thinking of receiving rewards, but they showed up anyway. 

The paradoxes in India are stark. People are so blinded by misguided cultural myths that they are unable to see what’s visible in plain sight—the brutality, neglect and utter disregard for elephants. These animals are worshipped as the embodiment of Lord Ganesh, a Hindu God with elephant face, but defiled at the same time. They don’t even stop to think that God would also suffer when God’s creations suffer. The cognitive dissonance was all too obvious. There were so many deeper revelations that have been chronicled in my book. Suffice it to say that the production of "Gods in Shackles" film and my book are miracles in their own right.

What was the experience like, creating the documentary? What do you hope viewers take away from it?

Emotionally, I was rinsed like a cloth, but it helped me evolve spiritually. I knew I had to expose the dark truth. I would never ever turn away from these animals after reconnecting with [them a] couple of decades later. Yet, I didn’t know how. I had no idea where the money would come from. I had never done anything of this magnitude. But then, my job was simply to carry out the mission that was placed on my path, rather than worry about the “hows” or “whens” or “what ifs.” I was forced to surrender to the unfoldment. Soon enough, synchronicities began to unfold, with people, circumstances, resources and of course elephants being placed on my path.

Every shackled elephant I encountered mirrored back my own shackled mind that was clinging to my childhood suffering. I realized that remaining enslaved to my past was a choice that I was making and I could choose the exact opposite. These divine beings taught me to release my own emotional shackles by being patient, loving and tender towards myself, so I can then muster the strength to spill these gifts into other people’s lives, and help them heal too. My journey into the making of "Gods in Shackles," not only produced a tangible outcome, but more importantly, it transformed my life, and made me a better person.

During the production of my film "Gods in Shackles," my life was threatened many times for calling out the cruel cultural practices [of a] patriarchal culture and its quest for material wealth and power that are disintegrating human societies. I have been cyberbullied for speaking out against the cultural practices that inflict suffering on God’s creations. The elephant entertainment industry just like the fossil fuel industry is comprised of deniers, who will continue to justify their actions, by twisting the meaning of the sacred religious tenets. They are unconscionable and aggressive narcissists who are corrupt. But despite the grave threats I continue to face, I’m determined to fight the good fight until my last breath. 

Here’s one of my favorite excerpts from the book: “By exposing the suffering of elephants, my most sincere intention is to help humanity become aware of its manmade cultural shackles. These shackles inflict pain and suffering on our planet’s second-largest mammal, one of the most conscious and compassionate animals on earth—the Asian elephants. This species is being pushed to the brink of extinction due to human activities driven by greed, selfishness, and cultural myths.”

Looking back at your experiences (so far) in your new memoir, what are you most proud of and what do you still hope to accomplish?

More than the awards and accolades, I am most proud of embracing values and worldviews that reflect inclusivity, (bio)diversity, and equality for humans and elephants alike. During the production of my film, "Gods in Shackles," I met so many genuine conservationists in India with whom I bonded deeply and knew that more tangible solutions had to be implemented on the ground. And in order to empower the native people to protect their heritage animal, I created an organization. Voice for Asian Elephants Society envisions saving the endangered Asian elephants by creating sustainable human communities. Through my encounters with villagers, I learned that when we care for the local people who encounter elephants daily, and by providing basic necessities, they will be inspired to support our collective mission to protect elephants.

We’ve launched several projects in India as of 2019 and despite the challenges posed by COVID, our team on the ground is making significant progress. In West Bengal, where we’ve launched four projects since last year, elephant deaths have declined substantially—from 21 in 2020, there were around 11 elephant deaths in 2021 ... The loss of every single one of them is colossal. But the progress we are making in West Bengal gives us hope, and we plan to expand our reach in several other states. 

On a personal level, "Gods in Shackles" catapulted the creation of a 26-part short documentary series, Asian Elephants 101, of which nine films world premiered on multiple National Geographic Channels, which was made possible with the support of Nat Geo Society’s storytelling award. The award also garnered me the National Geographic Explorer’s status that I am so proud of. The great thing about these accolades is that they offer me a powerful pulpit to share my knowledge. People are likely to listen to a Nat Geo Explorer and perhaps implement some of the suggestions.

Since embarking on my journey to protect the elephants of India as of 2013, I have learned so much from these divine beings. Yet, I know that there’s still so much more for me to learn and teach, grow and evolve, give and take, and continue to bring out the best in people, so we can collectively create a kinder and more compassionate world. I am not ashamed to admit that I am still a work in progress. I am proud to acknowledge my frailties, knowing that I am doing my best not to repeat the same mistakes. By embracing the human and the divine in me I am able to be gentler and kinder with myself and others.

View Article Sources
  1. IUCN Red List, "Asian Elephant."

  2. WWF, "Elephants."