Thiruvananthapuram: Elephants in India may be considered an embodiment of Lord Ganesh, but the status of captive jumbos in Kerala is anything but divine. Experts say the lack of proper medical care as well as money-minded owners pose a serious threat to the magnificent beasts.
According to 70-year-old veterinarian Jacob Cheeran, of the 14,000 elephants in captivity in the world, around 26 percent are in India.
Cheeran, who on two occasions was a member of the steering committee of the central government`s Project Elephant initiative, said that captive elephants in Kerala number some 900 and have become mulch cows for their owners, who lend them to temples and churches for religious functions.
"The average daily income from renting elephants ranges from Rs.3,000 to Rs.10,000. The sad part is that the peak festival season happens in the colder months, when the elephants are in musth. But elephants hardly get rest and recuperation during the mush period because it means loss of income for both the owner and mahouts," Cheeran said.
Elephant owners earlier used to get a fairly good income from renting out tuskers for pulling trees and logs.
But after the introduction of machines, religious processions are now their chief source of income.
Another major problem is the lack of veterinarians qualified in handling elephants.
"The hard fact is that it is not remunerative for vets any more, because the time a vet spends on an elephant is enough to treat a dozen pet dogs, and hence the loss of income. So, only a real passionate elephant lover will go for treating an elephant," said Cheeran, who has authored several books on elephants.
A glimmer of hope is that now an elephant owner -- film star-turned politician K.B. Ganesh Kumar -- is the forest minister and has jurisdiction over the tuskers.
He has already committed that he will set up an exclusive hospital for elephants in the state, probably in Thrissur.
Speaking to IANS, 46-year-old Jayagopal, a businessman based in Thrissur and also vice-president of the Elephant Owners Federation, said things may be a lot better in the near future.
"Now all elephants have a registration certificate, which has the name of the owner and other details. We will now ask the government to see that more elephant clinics are set up in Kerala," said Jayagopal, who has a 50-year-old elephant which has been with him for the past 30 years.
Alcoholism among mahouts is another grave problem, said Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) legislator Babu M. Palissery, who is also president of the Kerala State Elephant Workers Union, a body of around 300 mahouts.
"We have now begun a very serious awareness campaign by conducting camps for mahouts to make them realise their duties and responsibilities. Mahouts have realised that a good portion of their wages is spent on liquor and they have shown the ability that they can cut down substantially on drinks," said Palissery.
Mahouts earn a monthly salary starting from Rs.4,000, besides a daily allowance of Rs.1,250 that they get when the animals are taken for temple processions.