Ill-trained mahouts add to stress levels leading to attacks on public

In what could lead to a more humane management of captive elephants, a study has shown that deploying them for processions and other public functions frequently, can increase their stress levels several fold and affect their reproductive cycles.

In the study “Non-invasive assessment of the reproductive status and stress in captive Asian elephants in three south Indian zoos,” scientists from the LaCONES facility of the CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology here investigated the reproductive and stress physiology of four male and eight female elephants in Mysore, Hyderabad and Tirupati zoos for 10 to 27 months.

Using a non-invasive hormone analysis method, the scientists found that barring one female elephant, the others had normal reproductive cycles. The one with the irregular cycle was used for processions and religious activities often and had significantly high stress levels (two to 10 fold) during such activities.

“For the first time, we have demonstrated that frequently elevated stress levels affect the normal reproductive cycle [of elephants],” says G. Umapathy, the lead author of the study, which was published by Elsevier recently. Despite the high stress levels, the elephant never behaved aggressively even during processions and other pubic functions. The animals with better care management also had lower stress levels than others.

Dr. Umapathy says India has only a few thousand captive elephants now. Captive breeding has very often failed, and if the trend continues, the country will have no captive elephants in 10 to 20 years. Citing an example, he says Kerala had nearly 2,000 of them a few years ago, but only 800 now.

Ill-trained mahouts

The study notes that captive animals constitute 22-30 per cent of the number of Asian elephants, an endangered species, and are an indispensable part of the workforce of the forest departments. While the traditional knowledge and skills of mahouts come in handy for their management, over the years, the quality of mahouts has declined. Poor pay and lack of welfare measures do not attract the best to the field, impinging on elephant management.

With more and more unskilled mahouts in the field, elephants come under physiological and psychological stress, making them violent. Kerala recorded 274 cases of attacks on humans by captive elephants between 1989 and 2003, mostly due to physical abuse and mismanagement of the animals and stress.

CCMB Director Ch. Mohan Rao says the results of the study will be useful in captive-breeding programmes of wild animals and help train those animals for domestic purposes. The study recommends periodic health screening, keeping males and females together in large enclosures during the day and not using females of reproductive age for processions and festivals.

Dr. Umapathy, an expert in conservation biology, feels the study can help the government formulate new guidelines and a policy for managing and maintaining elephants in captivity across India.

More In: National | News