As another festival season nears, the decline in the number of domesticated elephants in the State may increase the pressure on the available stock.
Around 65 elephants, including hugely popular ones, died in the State after the COVID-19 outbreak, laying more stress on the remaining ones and raising concerns over their over-exploitation. According to the statistics compiled by the Heritage Animal Task Force (HATF), an NGO that works for the welfare of animals, after the 2018 enumeration, which put the number of captive elephants at 521, as many as 88 elephants died.
The website maintained by the Kerala Forest department, however, recorded the death of only 66 elephants after the census. But the officials maintained that it would take some time for the authorities to complete the process of updating the deaths. With the gap between demand and supply widening, it exerts more pressure on the existing jumbos.
The festival industry says that though 433 elephants are available technically, the actual number of elephants which can be used for parades will be much lower as the list has over 100 females and Makhana elephants. Further, several elephants will not get the fitness certificate due to various reasons, including injury, musth, and bans issued by the authorities for various reasons. It means around half of the available stock will have to shoulder the bulk of the workload during the peak season, said N. Jayachandran, a former member of the Kerala State Animal Welfare Board.
A 2019 order issued by the Forest department as part of preventing illegal transfer of captive elephants pointed out that more than 50 elephants had died during the preceding one-and-a-half years, most of them before attaining their normal life span. Analysis of records of the dead elephants had shown that most of them were either illegally transferred or leased out. Some of these animals were over-exploited and tortured by leased holders for maximum profit.
Though conditional nod was given last year for restarting festivals across the State in line with the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, the State was likely to witness the real festival frenzy in the coming season and it would be a gruelling season awaiting the jumbos, said V.K. Venkitachalam, secretary, HATF.
Elephants are allegedly given some tablets to delay or advance the musth period so as to avoid a situation wherein an elephant might lose a festival season due to musth. The State has around 3,330 registered festivals, but the actual number could be much higher.