A majority of captive elephants in south India suffer from various foot ailments which can lead to crippling the gentle giants and severely hampering their day-to-day activities, finds a sample study.
Scientists working with temple elephants reported that foot problems constitute the single most important ailment among the pachyderms. More than half of them which were studied found to be suffering from some form of foot ailment in their lifetime.
The pilot study conducted between April 2008 and February 2010 by K. S. Subramanian, T.G. Prabhakar and M. G. Jayathangaraj from Madras Veternary College examined captive elephants in Tamil Nadu and at the Guruvayur Devaswom in Kerala.
They found that over 50 per cent of these jumbos endure one or more foot problems and require regular filing, polishing and application of medicated oils to maintain their feet.
"Captive elephants kept at various temples in the State showed one or more foot ailments such as cracked and split nails, excess cuticular growth above and in between the nails, hardened footpad, excess footpad growth, abrasion of foot sole, foot rot, abscesses in the nail, cuticle and footpad, arthritis, analysis of joints and degenerative joint disease," says the report.
A total of 182 captive elephants from Arignar Anna Zoological Park (7), Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (23), Anamalai Tiger Reserve (19), Temples of Tamil Nadu (53), Guruvayur Devaswom (66) and Bandipur Tiger Reserve, Karnataka (14) were examined for the presence of foot ailments.
The study found various predisposing factors such as absence of regular foot care and management, unhygienic and unsanitary tethering conditions, minor foot lesions or foreign body, negligence of lesions at the early stage, incomplete treatment and unscientific approach" making the problem big.
The study observed and recorded details regarding husbandry practises like housing, flooring, details of enclosure and tethering site, use of leg chains, foot care practises carried out if any, general hygiene and sanitation
Out of seven elephants maintained at Arignar Anna Zoological Park, Vandalur, three were found to be affected with minor foot ailments and one having major foot ailment.
Out of 23 camp elephants examined at different camp sites of Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, minor foot ailments were revealed in 15 camp elephants and one elephant had nail abscess, according to the study.
Of 19 camp elephants examined at different camp sites of Anamalai Tiger Reserve, 12 were found to be suffering with one or more of minor foot while one had major foot ailment.
Out of 53 elephants (maintained in different temples of Tamil Nadu) examined, 48 temple elephants had one or more of minor foot ailments while 23 showed one or more of major foot ailments.
Similarly, out of 66 elephants maintained at Guruvayur Devaswom eight were found to be affected with major foot ailments.
The researchers say that the "study can be carried out throughout the country involving larger numbers of captive elephants in different regions in order to understand the regional incidences of foot ailments and their microbial etiology."
Since unlike their wild counterparts, captive elephants do not have access to natural vegetation which contains necessary trace minerals and vitamins that promote foot health, the study calls for better awareness on the foot care and management among their caretakers.
The study notes that captive elephants traditionally being maintained in temples, the foot problems can cause serious economic loss in terms of productivity and utility of the animal.
In fact, if not handled adequately and timely, the ailments may eventually lead to a painful death in due course, says the research project.
"The aim of the project is to prepare a database about the common foot problems encountered in captive Asian elephants and to analyse the predisposing factors leading to them. It also aims to identify the bacterial organisms in the foot lesions and to suggest appropriate treatment measures," say researchers.