Research shows that isolation, confinement and increased workload causes stress in elephants, which manifests itself in various physiological problems. Photo by Shantanu Kalambi.

Response in times of pandemic

Conservationists and activists say that an average middle-aged healthy elephant needs 100-150 kgs of food per day, consisting of grass/foliage, hay, banana stock, ragi, rice, gingelly oil, vegetables, pulses and fruits, along with 5000 gallons of water. Captive elephants are heavily dependent on human intervention for their well-being, especially their mahouts, who play an active role in their positive reinforcement. The ones that are medically unfit require regular veterinary assistance. On average, the bare minimum cost for providing nutrition, medical needs and logistic support for one captive elephant amounts to approximately a lakh of rupees (Rs. 100,000) per month.

In response to the current pandemic crisis, Singh explained that each elephant handler in Jaipur was given Rs. 600 per day for the food and upkeep of the elephant, by the Rajasthan forest department. “This is too less an amount,” said Singh. “One needs at least Rs. 2000-3000 per day for an elephant.”

In Kerala, the state government released Rs. five crore (Rs. 50 million) for animal welfare, which includes the 479 privately owned captive elephants in the state. In Karnataka, the high court passed an order (paragraph 35; document available with Mongabay-India) on April 9 asking the state’s forest department to ensure the upkeep of the state’s privately owned elephants.

In Tamil Nadu, activist Antony Rubin sent a letter to the forest department, requesting them to allocate appropriate funds, food and veterinary attention to the state’s captive elephants, as well as to the mahouts. The confidential letter is available with Mongabay-India.

A privately-owned elephant walks the street in Puducherry. Experts suggest a long-term policy change in the management of captive elephants. Photo by Ramesh.
A privately-owned elephant walks the street in Puducherry. Experts suggest a long-term policy change in the management of captive elephants. Photo by Ramesh.

Need of the hour

While a long term policy change is the need of the hour, experts offer a variety of views for handling the gentle giants in captivity.

The CSIR-CCMB study on captive elephant stress recommends “minimizing participation in religious activities, processions” and creating opportunities “for elephants to interact with other elephants in the facility.”

“We need an urgent policy change to completely ban the ownership of elephants in private hands,” said Ganguly. “Whether it is owned by an individual or an institution, this needs to be stopped by law.”

She further added, “There are many captive elephants that are currently in good condition, and many in a bad condition. There needs to be formed a neutral committee, that consists of experts in the field, that can make a detailed report on the kind of housing and facility these elephants need.

“Designated care facilities and rescue centres run in a public-private collaborative partnership would be the best model to run such centers with free flow of funds, veterinary expertise and management support,” she said.

“The forest department should take over the care for these elephants,” says Rubin. “Many of them will not be fit to go to the regular forest camps, so there must be a special space arranged for them. They should reach out to non-profits and private individuals to help facilitate these arrangements,” he said.

Vijayakrishnan seeks a cautious approach. “A step-by-step approach is needed,” he said.

“The first step has to be ensuring that there is zero influx of of captive elephants. No more elephants brought in captivity,” he said. “The second needs to be taking stock of the existing demography of elephants.”

“There are close to 500 privately owned captive elephants in Kerala alone. The forest department does not have the resources to cater to all of them. So you have to find a working model that can work for the existing population. A blanket ban on private ownership of existing elephants may not be the best idea, but reducing workload and stress, regulating commercialisation, training mahouts, and arresting influx of the captive elephants to the states definitely is,” he said.

“It is never right to capture an elephant from the wild,” said Rubin. “But for those that are already captured, they deserve to be treated well till their last breath.”

“This pandemic has opened a Pandora’s box,” said Ganguly. “We have an opportunity to change things for them in the long-run, and we must make an effort for it. It is time to bring about a change to a problem that has been neglected for decades,” she said.

 

Banner image: An elephant at a tourism centre in Goa. Photo by Supriya Vohra.

Article published by Sandhya Sekar
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