Very good piece.
Worship of fauna and flora is a well-documented practice in India. Ganesha, the Hindu god of wisdom, is pictured as having an elephant's head. It is not surprising that temples have an inseparable association with elephants and the wealthy ones very often own a few of these animals.
With elephant numbers declining alarmingly in the wild, this centuries-old practice could save at least a few of these animals. However, there is a very unpleasant aspect to this picture: temple elephants suffer much physical abuse and are not even properly fed. A fully-grown adult needs at least 150 kilogrammes (kg) of food every day. But temple elephants receive less than 100 kg per day. The Asian elephant has a choice of upto 400 plant species when it forages in the wild. The temple elephant, on the contrary, receives only 4 species of fodder and practically can never forage naturally.
Such monotony impairs elephant health. The food items received by the animals, when they go out to beg, does compensate for the inadequacies of temple-diet -- to an extent. But clearly much needs to be done to improve matters.
Besides, adequate drainage and enough floor space to allow minimal soiling of food is also an imperative. The room must have a water trough that can provide for an adult elephant's daily requirement of 240 litres of water. But most temples do not care for these norms. In some cases, the elephants are just tethered to a pillar inside the temple or outside its premises.
Moreover, elephants require good care during their musth period. But temple managements rarely have any concern for the reproductive health of these creatures: most often, the animals are not allowed to mate. This denial makes controlling temple elephants very difficult during the musth period. Recently, a few elephants ran amok in a Kerala temple and killed their mahouts .
However, one cannot apportion all blame on mahouts or the temple authorities, for they are unaware of the captive management programmes. Also, captive management is not their aim. The government and conservationists are to be blamed: huge amounts of money are spent to conserve the elephants in the wild, while temple elephants beg on the streets. In fact, even animal lovers and conservationists are seen offering food to the pachyderm, while it is on its way to begging.
Varadarajan Gokula is a lecturer in the department of zoology, National College, Tiruchirapally, Tamil Nadu