Majestic, but alas!

March 11 was a ‘Black Day’ for elephant lovers in the State. Hundreds of people poured into a piece of land right in the middle of Thrissur city where the body of Thiruvambadi Sivasundar, the majestic beauty who stole the hearts of thousands of people during temple festivals, was kept for public viewing.

Many wept, hugging and kissing the jumbo’s tusk. People used to come for Thrissur Pooram just to have a glimpse of the elegant posture the legendary elephant struck as he stood amidst a sea of humanity. It was hard for them to believe that Sivasundar would not be there to carry the Thiruvambadi deity’s idol for this year’s Thrissur Pooram, on April 25.

Sivasundar, who used to carry the Thiruvambadi deity’s idol for the last 15 years, died after fighting impaction for 67 days. A massive hard ball of dung was found in the intestine of the 46-year-old elephant during post-mortem. It was clogged up in the intestine.

On the same day, another elephant, Kannamath Devadathan, was found dead in the compound where he was tethered in Kollam district. He was only 28. After five days, on March 16, yet another jumbo, 55-year-old Mangalamkunnu Krishnan Kutty, collapsed and died in Palakkad. Kodumon Deepu, a 52-year-old elephant, that was allegedly blind, died near Konni elephant camp on February 27. He too suffered from impaction. The reason for the death of 56-year-old Vayalassery Kesavan was also severe constipation.

February, 2018, was a cruel month for elephants in the State as six captive elephants died during the month. The other elephants that breathed their last in February were 52-year-old Chandrika in Kumily, 22-year-old Neyyattinkara Kannan in Thiruvananthapuram, 48-year-old Cheliparambil Vinayakan in Mupliyam and 17-year-old Kunnamkulam Sivan in Kunnamkulam.

Triggering alarm

The fast dwindling population of captive elephants has triggered a scary alarm across the State. According to available statistics, 58 elephants died in just 26 months in Kerala. Twenty-six died in 2016, 20 in 2017 and nine elephants have already succumbed till March 16 this year.

According to experts, impaction (Erandakettu in local parlance ) is the main cause of death among captive elephants.

Of the 59 elephants that died during 2016-18, more than 70% of deaths were due to Erandakettu. The population of captive elephants has declined drastically from 750 to nearly 400 in the last three decades. Erandakettu is the main reason, says T.P. Sethumadhavan, former Director of Entrepreneurship of the Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (KVASU).

“The erratic management and feeding practices coupled with severe stress are the main villains. Impaction is a multi-factorial disease manifestation wherein the animal cannot pass dung for 2-3 months together, which sometimes even causes rupture of intestine, dehydration and death,” he said.

Elephants are slow eaters, which require a lot of roughages like palm leaves. In many cases, mahouts feed palm leaves in bulk along with the central hard portion. Scarcity of palm leaves forces them to feed coconut leaves too. Hard portion of these roughages can obstruct the eight-meter-long intestinal tract of elephants. Climatic variation coupled with summer heat and stress of work will aggravate the situation, points out Dr. Sethumadhavan.

Manilal Valliyatte, CEO of PETA India and former co-opted member of Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), also agrees with the above observation. “Captive elephants are not provided with balanced diet. Elephants eat a lot of variety leaves, grass, roots, wood bark, berries and fruits in the wild. But in captivity, its diet is a human choice. There are many myths and beliefs involved in it. We decide that elephant likes palm leaves, jaggery and coconut. Of course, wild elephants eat sugarcane, but not in the concentrated form as jaggery. We perceive that what we like will be the favourite food of elephants too,” Dr. Manilal says.

Biological make-up

The biological make-up of an elephant is such that the stomach merely stores the food. The process of digestion takes place in the intestine. But when the food is so fibrous, it cannot pass through the narrow passages of the intestine. So the stomach gets clogged up and infected, ultimately resulting in death, explains Sangita Iyer, founder and president of the Voice for Asian Elephants Society.

“Elephants also need a daily intake of 150-200 litres of water, necessary to soften the food. But in captivity and during the festivals, they are deprived of water in order to prevent them from urinating or excreting in the temple precincts. This leads to acute dehydration in elephants,” says Ms. Iyer, who had produced and directed Gods in Shackles, a widely acclaimed and touching documentary on the plight of captive elephants.

Due to fear of frequent ‘musth’ incidence, mahouts restrict water intake of elephants, though experts say there is no scientific base for such assumptions. Interestingly, incidence of impaction is comparatively less in wild elephants and occurs only when there is scarcity of water or chronic parasitism. Wild elephants walk at least 18-20 km a day while grazing. But captive elephants have no physical activity. Exercise is necessary, not only to digest the food, but also to balance their massive bodies.

“Impaction is comparatively rare in elephants in zoological parks, especially in the US, European countries, Canada, etc., where elephants are fed with hay, which is easily digestible and may not cause obstruction to the intestine. During my recent visit to the Disney Animal World at Orlando in the US, veterinarians and zookeepers told me that impaction is not at all prevalent in these elephants,” said Dr. Sethumadhavan, who is also visiting scientist at Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Though impaction is common among captive elephants, unfortunately not much research has been done in this area here. “In order to control the loss of elephants due to impaction, interventions in feeding and management practices have to be done in accordance with captive elephant management rules applicable in the State. In the long run, scientists need to think of reducing the use of coarse fibre and incorporating green fodder and roughages so as to reduce the digestive disturbances. Research work in this area is comparatively scarce and needs to be augmented. Rather than concentrating more on treatment and musth control, veterinarians must work towards assuring sustainable feeding and management protocols among captive elephants,” said Dr. Sethumadhavan.

Lack of proper care, brutal torture and flouting of elephant management rules lead to the sad plight of captive elephants. “Kerala Captive Elephant Management and Maintenance Rules and Project Elephant guidelines do exist as norms for the management of the elephants. However, the owners and the mahouts of elephants flout these laws with impunity and get away without any punishment, as there are several loopholes here. The protocols, especially in relation to fodder and exercise need to be completely revised after consultations with local and international veterinarians,” says Ms. Iyer, who is also honorary Animal Welfare Officer of the AWBI.

If urgent measures are not taken to form a proper treatment protocol for impaction, it may wipe out the entire captive elephants from the State within the coming two decades, fear the animal lovers.

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Printable version | May 1, 2021 11:59:32 PM |

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