World Elephant Day: Elephants in Kerala
Today is world elephant day and there are few places elephants are loved as much as Kerala where it is the state animal. There are two types of elephants in Kerala – wild and “domesticated” usually as temple elephants.
According to a recent census Kerala has about 7000 wild elephants (and as many as 100 tigers). The number of wild elephants has now remained relatively stable for about 10 years and although the number varies with each census, experts believe that this relates to methodology and not underlying changes to the elephant population. In the original census conducted in 2005, the estimated number of wild elephants was around 5000, so the new census data should give rise to some cautious optimism about the fate of the wild elephant.
The challenge for policymakers is how to sustain the elephant population and stabilise it as they neither want the number to go down or indeed go up. If the number of wild elephants increases there is the potential for the elephants to increase their range to come into greater conflict with local inhabitants as happens so frequently in Africa. At the moment the wild elephants are mainly corrugated in the wildlife sanctuaries in the hills in the jungles and forests and remain relatively removed from human population centres. Those locations are not going to experience population pressures from humans and will remain wildlife centuries.
A greater issue for people in Kerala is the fate of the captive elephants. According to the wildlife Department the number of captive elephants in Kerala stands at 700, however according to NGOs the real figure is closer to 320 due to poor conditions and overwork. According to those NGOs nearly 100 captive elephants die each year due to a combination of either cruelty or overwork. The charities claim that the elephants are largely underfed and are made to walk long distances on tarred roads even though Kerala has changed the law regarding the transport of elephants, and any elephants must stand for long periods on hard surfaces. As many captive elephants are used in festivals, in some of the more ornate festivals they may carry as much as to time is on their back. Furthermore, the elephants are poorly looked after by their Mahouts and given the wrong medication for illnesses with the result that many are either partially or fully blind. The sexual behaviour of captive elephants changes as well and veterinary doctors claim that the strategy of training elephants when they are in musth is wrong and Leeds to the elephants growing violent.
There is an economic side to this as well: it is remarkable that no elephant has been born in captivity in the last three decades simply the cause the owners do not want to lose the use of pregnant females. The law obliges the owner to hand over any baby elephants to the wildlife Department which means that they get no value from the pregnancy.
The diet of captive elephants is also wrong. Too many are fed palm leaves which have small thorns which can cause injuries in the mouth and also stomach ulcers. It suits the owners to under feed the elephants as it makes them more passive; for example a wild elephant will normally drink between 200 to 250 L of water every day but captive elephants in Kerala often get as little as 50 L. Veterinary surgeons confirmed that most captive elephants who were autopsied had ulcers in the stomach.
Although the situation is and sounds bleak, we can feel some optimism as local NGOs lobby the central government and High Court for changes in the law governing the care and ownership of elephants. However, before we get carried away, we should remember that this is India and that it is common practice for ministers and local governments to flout the law for example one recent State Forest Minister also owned a number of elephants and he brought many amendments to existing laws to reduce the impact. If you can do anything to help, then the most important action you can take is to communicate to people the plight of captive elephants and to ensure that people do not think that their treatment and care in captivity is in any way sufficient.